Joining the Boy Scouts gave Rolfe Neill his first camping experience.
He hiked, slept in a pup tent and learned to coexist with bugs and scampering animals. That week at summer camp in the woods was a big adventure for a 12-year-old from a Southern military and mill town. His parents didn’t have the money to pay for it, so he worked in the camp’s mess hall, peeling potatoes and cleaning pots and pans.
A later camping trip with a group of Scouts had him hiking 40 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains.
“Camp taught me to appreciate the magnificence of the outdoors,” Neill said. Whether it's mountain sunsets, waterfalls, or blooming flowers, being out in nature reminds him: “I am still stunned by the physical world around me.”
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Neill, a long-time business and civic leader in Charlotte, is this year’s honorary fundraising chairman for The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. The former Charlotte Observer publisher says he hopes to raise money and awareness of the life-changing potential camp can offer a child.
“The sheer joy of what they get out of it is a huge reward…” Neill said. “I can’t think of a better investment in our young people.”
This year, the Summer Camp Fund will send more than 1,000 kids from mostly low-income families to 37 different camps. They’ll be immersed in the outdoors and away from televisions and gadgets. They’ll swim for fun and to become stronger at it; and read to avoid the academic setbacks that often occur during summer break.
“I am so excited that Rolfe Neill is our honorary chairman because I have such respect and admiration for him,” said current Observer publisher Ann Caulkins. “Rolfe is absolutely passionate about this opportunity for young people.”
During Neill’s time as publisher he was a member of the “The Group,” a handful of powerful business leaders credited with helping steer Charlotte’s course as a rapidly-growing, progressive New South city. (Another member, former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, served as the Summer Camp Fund’s honorary chairman in 2013.)
“By the time I came to Charlotte there was such a rich legacy because of the impact Rolfe had made in Charlotte,” Caulkins said. “He touched education, he touched economic development… Rolfe was a part of all of the conversations that took place to make Charlotte a better city.”
A child of working class parents, Neill was 10 years old when he started delivering newspapers for The Columbus Enquirer, in Columbus, Ga. He later graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, became a reporter and editor at various newspapers, and spent 22 years as the Observer’s publisher before retiring in 1997.
He said the lessons he learned in summer camp served as guidelines in life.
“Things I got out of summer camp were self-reliance, and learning to get along with other people and survival skills…” Neill said. “One of the advantages of camp is it teaches you resilience…there isn’t always someone there to make your decisions for you, you have to learn.’’
He says summer camp can teach kids invaluable social skills and to put themselves into other peoples’ circumstances. He remembers once spending a week with his cousins at a 4-H camp. “Me being a city boy, I learned how much backbreaking work goes into producing our food.”
As a parent, he shared the skills he learned as a kid with his own children during family camping trips. He credits that early time spent outdoors with his continuing love for nature and hiking. And at 83, he walks three to four miles a day.
Neill says he hopes the community will come up with creative ways to support the Summer Camp Fund. He says people could make their donations a meaningful family venture. For example, if a kid gave up part of his allowance or lawn-mowing money, and parents cut $5 off the weekly grocery bill enough times, it could help send a needy child to camp.
“Put a jar on the kitchen table and put the loose coins in it,” he said. “Have some odd jobs that pay…it’s a wonderful teaching for children to learn about the value of giving.”
To give to the Summer Camp Fund
Donate at charlotteobserver.com/summercampfund. Or send donations to The Summer Camp Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269.
Each Sunday during the drive, the Observer will list contributors in the Local section. If you wish to make an anonymous donation, indicate it on the “for” line of your check or on PayPal, note your preference in the special instructions field. To donate in honor or in memory of someone, use the “for” line or special instructions field. Donations are tax-deductible and are processed through Observer Charities, a 501(c)(3).
If you have questions about your donation: 704-358-5520.