Honoring Rolfe Neill and His Contributions to Charlotte’s Community of Readers and Writers – Rolfe Neill, the publisher of The Charlotte Observer from 1975 until his retirement in December 1997, died on Friday, July 14, at the age of 90. Even though I never met him, I felt like I knew him because I always read his columns that ran in the paper every Sunday. His columns were thoughtful, gracefully written, and often personal in nature. His deep love of Charlotte came through in his columns although he was certainly not blind to the city’s flaws. He had a knack for turning phrases and coming up with story angles that resonated with readers. He clearly cared about the quality of his own writing, and he expected the same commitment to excellent writing from that the journalists who worked for the paper. During his tenure as publisher, the paper won three Pulitzer Prizes.
In addition to serving as the publisher of The Charlotte Observer, Neill played a significant role in supporting Charlotte’s cultural institutions, including the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. Neill helped establish the library’s Novello Festival of Reading, which ran from 1991 until 2010. Although Novello came to an end, the community spirit that defined Novello lives on today in the library’s annual Verse and Vino and EpicFest events.
After his retirement, Neill became very involved in the activities of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation. Jenni Gaisbauer, the Executive Director of the Foundation, sees him a “true library champion.” I contacted Jenni and asked her for more information about Neill’s support of the library. Here is what she sent to me:
I met Rolfe during my tenure at Levine Museum of the New South but it wasn’t until I got to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation that I was able to get to know him on a more personal basis. Something interesting I learned about Rolfe was that when we served on the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation board years ago, he encouraged them to think about funding public libraries as part of their work. While it’s not one of their major pillars today, Knight Foundation is one of our largest donors for the new Main Library and has given us dozens of grants over the years. None of that would’ve been possible without Rolfe and the leadership of former Charlotte leader for Knight Susan Patterson and/or Charles Thomas today.
He had a long history with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and was a consistent donor since 1999. He played a pivotal role in the library securing the large Romare Bearden tile mosaic that was once showcased on the first floor of the Main Library and will once again have a prominent home inside the lobby of the new Main Library. Most recently, he served as an advisor to our current campaign, the CommonSpark. He would sit down with Karen Beach (the Deputy Director of the Foundation) and me and tell us who we should ask to support the project. I can’t tell you how helpful it is when you reach out to someone to set up a meeting and you can say, Rolfe Neill encouraged me to reach out.
I thank Jenni for her recollections. I also thank her sending me a photograph of Neill sitting in front of a cluster of book-related sculptures created to honor Neill’s contributions to Charlotte. This work is located on 7th Street in front of ImaginOn, which houses both the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s Spangler Library for Children and the Charlotte Children’s Theatre. Given that so many children visit ImaginOn, it seems fitting that children constantly swarm over this set of sculptures. The work features a thirty-foot tower of books capped off with a gold quill pen swirling around in a giant inkwell. It also includes an abstract version of a manual typewriter with keys that are plenty large enough for children to stand on them, and stand on them they do. Installed in 2005, this set of sculptures is titled “The Writer’s Desk: A Tribute to Rolfe Neill.”
The sculptures include many inscribed quotations from columns that he wrote during his years with the paper. One of these quotations reads, “If reading one good book is fun, reading four must be quadruple the pleasure. Two hard covers and two paperbacks carelessly snuggle about me in the hammock.”
Rolfe Neill has left us, but his campaign to support our public library and promote the reading of books still reverberates throughout our community. I like to think of him somewhere in a celestial Storied Charlotte, resting comfortably in a hammock with four books by his side.