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Rolfe Neill oversaw The Observer as Charlotte became a major city — and helped guide its transformation

 Rolfe Neill in front of the Charlotte Observer building
Making Modern Charlotte
PBS Charlotte
Rolfe Neill in front of the former Charlotte Observer building, before its demolition.

Rolfe Neill led The Charlotte Observer as publisher during what was arguably the paper’s golden age, from 1975 to 1997. He died last week at 90.

Here’s what he said about his life philosophy during an event in 2017: “If you want to worship something really worthwhile: truth. That’s all I want on my tombstone. ‘He worshiped the truth.’”

The Observer won two public service Pulitzers under Neill, for its coverage of the PTL televangelism scandal and stories about brown lung, a devastating disease that struck textile workers. Mark Ethridge, who is on WFAE’s board, worked with Neill as The Observer’s managing editor. He joins us now to talk about the publisher’s legacy.

Marshall Terry: So, Mark, the decades we're talking about here were a time when Charlotte was smaller, but the paper was larger. So set the stage for us: What was it like working at The Observer when Neill was publisher, and what was the paper's place in the community?

Mark Ethridge: Rolfe oversaw the transition, really, of Charlotte and helped lead the transition of Charlotte from, what you might think of as, a big Rock Hill to a more manageable-sized Atlanta. The paper not only helped that growth happen, but benefited from it. It was a transformational time into, what do we say, a world-class major league city with professional sports teams and skyscrapers and lots and lots of people.

Terry: What stories really stand out, for you, from his time as publisher?

Ethridge: I was there really from the 1970s until almost the 1990s, and that was the era of growth, and that was the era of a lot of great investigative journalism. One of his talents was hiring great people, and one of the people that he hired was an editor named Rich Oppel.

Rich had a long career in public-service journalism, and his very first story that he wanted to do was about tobacco. Somebody explained to Rich that Charlotte really wasn't part of North Carolina's tobacco country, but he didn't care because he viewed The Observer as a statewide force and tobacco is an important issue. The story of tobacco was, should North Carolina depend on something whose uses kill people? He framed it as a moral dilemma, and so it went from there to 'Well, what is the Charlotte area's biggest business at the time?' And it was textiles. And that's where the investigation into brown lung got started. And then it was almost like he was picking off the sacred cows of North Carolina. And what came next? Religion. The reason that The Observer covered PTL and the reason it actually found out about the scandal was that it was a local story. PTL was a big business in Fort Mill. So, one of Rolfe's great characteristics was leaving the newsroom alone on the big things.

Now, he was deeply involved many times on the small things. Back in the day, we had the earliest copies of the paper that came off the press, delivered to Rolfe, to the editor's home and to my home. You'd look at those early copies and find the things you wanted to fix for later editions. So it wasn't unusual to get a call from Rolfe saying, 'I think there's a typo on page 17A.' But in terms of Rolfe saying, 'You can't cover this or you shouldn't cover that' — that never happened.

Terry: Well, he wasn't just a newspaper publisher. He was also a leader in the community. He was a member of the informal group of civic and business leaders known as 'The Group' that also included mayors and CEOs of banks. Neill made no secret about wanting to support Charlotte's growth. So, you know, I'm curious, how did he separate that role from his role leading the paper, but also holding powerful institutions and people accountable?

Ethridge: Well, I don't think he ever saw it as a conflict. What you referred to was really a group, and there were some ancillary members, but the primary members were Rolfe and Bill Lee, who ran Duke Power, and Ed Crutchfield, who ran First Union, which is a predecessor of Wells (Fargo), and Hugh McColl, of Bank of America. They were important because their institutions were the biggest and most influential in town. They also came with the resources to devote to making Charlotte a bigger and better place — and it was in all of their interests, both personally and businesswise, to make Charlotte a bigger and better place.

Rolfe's great asset wasn't capital, necessarily. It was the power to focus the attention of the press on issues that needed focusing. I'll give you an example. Back in the early days, there were no people living in Fourth Ward. It was a place where, the district attorney used to say, 'Ii you wanted to get shot on Saturday night, that's where you went. You went to Fourth Ward.' Well, Hugh McColl understood, and Rolfe and the others in the group that you needed to have people living downtown. You needed a vibrant downtown. It was the only way that commercialism was going to exist. And so how would you do that? Housing. A group of women from the Junior League wanted to restore a great old Victorian mansion that was called the Berryhill House, and it's still there. They went to Hugh McColl and others and some money was raised and they started work on it.

Well, what Rolfe did was make sure that the newspaper covered every single facet of the renovation of the Berryhill House, and it brought it to the public's attention. And highlighted that whole need for housing downtown, which Bank of America, then NCNB, kind of kicked off. You know, was it harmful for The Observer to write all about the Berryhill House? No, it wasn't, it was an interesting story and it was a precursor to something important. So it was good to cover.

Terry: In 2017, Neill won the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Daily Tar Heel at his alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill. And he said then that he was worried about the declining state of journalism and its effect on democracy. What's your reaction to that?

Ethridge: Well, I think he was dead on. He was relentlessly dedicated to the facts. He didn't tolerate puffery. He didn't tolerate self-delusion. He was, you know, very tough on himself. He had very high standards for himself. And he had those same high standards for others whom he thought ought to have high standards and were capable of living up to them. And if you ever fell short, he had no problem telling you that you had fallen short. You know, he'd never held back.

Terry: What would you say is the most important thing you learned from Rolfe Neill?

Ethridge: This is a lasting legacy of Rolfe Neill for many, many people. He was widely known for remembering everybody's name, the names of their spouse, their children, their pets. He had a tremendous memory and just fantastic recall. But it was more than that.

Rolfe felt in his heart that if you took the time to get to know people and remember their names, they would remember that you cared about them, that it would make them feel good and feel honored and feel like they were special. It made a huge impression on people. When Rolfe recalled those details and established personal relationships with almost everyone he ever met. As I say, it's not just brainpower, it's intent. That was a great lesson.

"Making Modern Charlotte" Documentary Trailer

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.