Jul 16, 2023 - Culture

A few inspirational quotes from Rolfe Neill, the iconic Observer publisher who died last week at 90

Rolfe Neill: "The ultimate objective is to become an authoritative newspaper. By that I mean on any subject that you know something about, when you read about it in The Observer you can say these people are accurate, they're informed, they understand the context, and they are presenting it in a way that others can understand." Rolfe Neill retires as Publisher of The Charlotte Observer at the end of this year, after more than20 years in the newspaper business. He is pictured in Dec. 16, 1997

Rolfe Neill, a Charlotte media legend, died Friday. He was 90.

Neill was, for a number of years and on a number of matters, Charlotte’s conscience.

He was the publisher of the Charlotte Observer from 1975 to 1997, an era when the Observer held oversized power in local media and civic life. On Neill’s watch, the Observer won two Pulitzers and never laid anyone off.

He was part of “the group” of leaders that included former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, former Duke CEO Bill Lee and former First Union CEO Ed Crutchfield.

Often, those business leaders would come up with an idea for how to grow or change the city, then ask Neill what he thought of it.

“You always wanted to know: What did Rolfe Neill think?” former mayor Harvey Gantt said in a wonderful tribute to Neill published by the Observer.

Zoom in: The journalists who worked for him remember him as the publisher who walked around the old South Tryon Street newsroom, sleeves rolled up, asking people everything from how their dog was doing (he knew the pet’s names) to what was going to be on the front page (because he was genuinely interested).

  • “All writers who worked with him and for him wanted to emulate the seeking of the truth,” McColl said in another terrific tribute in The Ledger from former Observer religion reporter Ken Garfield.

Go deeper: Neill’s words and wisdom are on full and permanent display in Uptown, near ImaginOn on 7th Street, in a public art display called The Writer’s Desk. It includes a collection of quotes from his Sunday columns.

The Writer’s Desk is a tribute to Rolfe Neill.
The Writer’s Desk is a tribute to Rolfe Neill. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Here are a few of our favorites:

  • “If we listen carefully, our critics instruct us better than our friends.’
    If the three most difficult words to say in the English language are, “I was wrong,” then perhaps the next in line is, “I don’t know.”
  • “We didn’t inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrowed it from our children.”
  • “On its worst days, the world is full of much more good than evil, more kindness than contempt, and more hope than resignation. Otherwise, we could not long continue the struggle called Life.”

Michael’s thought bubble: I last talked to Neill a few years ago, after the Observer’s owner, McClatchy, declared bankruptcy. He was kind and thoughtful as ever. Funny, too.

  • If all of our leaders — from elected officials, to managers of media organizations, to teachers of piano lessons — took a few notes from Neill today, the city would be a better place tomorrow.
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