Neville: going out with his boots on; aparting look at an officer and a gentleman of the NRA – Robert B. Neville, National Restaurant Association

Neville: going out with his boots on; aparting look at an officer and a gentleman of the NRA – Robert B. Neville, National Restaurant Association – obituary

Charles Bernstein

WASHINGTON — The Marine battalion commander led his troops onto the beachhead that gloomy day over 40 years ago as the Battle of Guadalcanal began. Within 30 minutes half the American officers had been killed by Japanese sharpshooters.

But the Marine infantry commander survived this and other fierce World War II battles in the Pacific and later in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He was always an inspiration to his troops. He even miraculously survived an explosion that buried him in a pile of rubble.

Later he survived in a different way through numerous challenges at the National Restaurant Association for the last 17 years and proved an incredible inspiration to his staff there, too.

Robert B. Neville, who died Jan. 7 at age 67, was a Marine and a trooper to the end. As much as he inspired the servicemen under his command, and then his staff people, he inspired all who knew him even more by his valiant two-year struggle against cancer.

“I’m going out with my boots on,” he would say last fall as he strove to remain active against the unrelenting ravages of the disease.

Bob Neville was a true officer and a gentleman, perhaps one of the last of the “old school.” But his gentle nature and kindess were sometimes mistaken as signs of weakness, when actually he was tought as nails whenever the occasion demanded.

He was universally respected–even by his staunchest adversaries. After a bitter battle a few years ago between Neville and Sen. Robert Dole (now the new Senate majority leader) over tip credit reporting rules and a threatened reduction in entertainment and meal tax deductions, Dole wrote a letter to Neville, it has been learned, stating that “it was a tought strubble for both of us, but I have nothing but the greatest admiration and respect for you.”

Neville said not too long ago, “I don’t know why some people think I’m soft. I’ve taken the toughest actions necessary with staffers whenever the situation demanded it.”

bob Neville was loved by all who knew him. He maintained total integbrity and credibility in all his dealings with the NRA staff, the board and Congress.

“Bob worshipped fairness,” says one source close to him. “He would act with due deliberation, but once he made up his mind on any question, he would take immediate action.”

During a traumatic period for the NRA in the early 1980’s, it was Neville who held the NRA together, both in legislative and lobbying struggles and on the staff.

“Bob Neville was really our salvation during the most trying times,” said one NRA board leader of that period. “He offered stability and reason in a time of turmoil. And Bob had the guts to make the tough decisions on the staff. Thank goodness he was there.”

Another board source, Chicago’s Patrick O’Malley, NRA 1976-77 president, called Neville “the most humble, knowledgeable guy you’d ever want to know. He had humility, but no individual ever made a greater contribution to the NRA than Bob Neville.”

Neville expressed himself eloquently on Capitol Hill, O’Malley recalled, “and I particularly remember his tremendous fight for us on the minimum wage issue when I was NRA president.”

“In his own quiet way,” said 1972-73 NRA president Robert Flickinger, “Bob Neville was a total professional and a very effective lobbyist. He was always well-prepared, and his written briefs on the most complicated legal questions were marvelous.”

On occasions where the usually calm Neville would find out that anyone had performed with anything less than full integrity, he would become enraged and let the person know it. But he kept a perspective and balance on where things fitted.

Bob Neville’s character was molded very early in a poverty-stricken childhood in Willoughby, Ohio. As a teenager, he would give up meals just to scrounge up 25^ to see a Shakespeare play. He had a respect for the finer things of life and for the underdog. But most of all, he was totally unassuming and modest even when he had literally pulled himself up by his bootstraps and steadily risen in stature.

He joined the NRA’s Washington staff as assistant counsel in 1968 after retiring as a Marine colonel and chief legal adviser to the Marine commandant. He became NRA Washington counsel and head of its Washington office.

After the NRA moved its headquarters from Chicago to Washington in 1979, he served as acting staff chief and executive vice president periodically until finally being named permanently to the staff chief’s post in May 1982. He held the post until last February, when his illness finally forced him to step down and William P. Fisher returned to the NRA in his former capacity as staff chief and executive vice president.

Neville was a masterful thinker who insisted on putting all sides of a question on paper. He had an astounding memory and constantly shocked congressmen by recalling names and events that they had long forgotten.

Neville, who had a love for constitutional law, was also adept in tax and labor law and engineered many of the political victories that the food-service industry achieved over the last several years.

He had a problem when he worked in the advocate general’s office on legal cases: “He argued his cases for defendants so eloquently and so astutely in the military that many of the people he defended were found innocent. Then every military person accused of anything wanted Bob to represent him, and Bob just didn’t have the time to represent them all,” said a military source.

Neville is the only known Marine officer to achieve the status (in the 1960’s) of a Navy judge advocate general.

As a Marine staff colonel in Vietnam, Neville recalled, “I’d often be surprised to pick up the phone and hear President Johnson relaying commands and questions through me about battle plans.”

Neville’s staff people admired him. “He was the best boss anyone ever had,” said long-time NRA secretary Ruth Tracy. “I saw him get really angry only twice in 16 years, and I could only tell by his body tensing up. He was able to keep his emotions inward when necessary.”

“Bob was a warm, behind-the-scenes person,” observed NRA 1968-72 staff chief Richard Brown. “He was able to bring chains and small operators together at a time of polarization in the early 1970s.”

“Bob Neville was a thoughtful boss, demanding top quality but always sensitive to individual aspirations,” said Susan Mills, veteran NRA research director.

Neville is survived by his wife, Annie, at their home in Arlington, Va.; a brother, Donald C. Neville; a daughter, Breen Anne Buff, in Wyoming, and an infant grandson, Allen Robert Buff.

In his final days Neville was overjoyed with the birth of a grandson and felt everything was worthwhile with his whole family present during the toughest weeks when he was in the greatest pain. He always gritted his teeth and somehow persevered then, just as he had done with the Marines and with the NRA.

Funeral services were conducted Jan. 10 at the Fort Myer, Va., Old Post Chapel, and burial was in adjacent Arlington National Cemetery.

A large contingent from the Marine corps, serving as an honor guard, paid special tribute to Neville outside the chapel and at Arlington.

Perhaps the most compelling tribute was given some years ago, and held true through the present, by House of representatives former reading clerk Jonas Bartlett, who said that “Bob Neville may be too self-effacing. He is not a personal promotion and recognition operator.”

bob Neville indeed got the job done beautifully every time, without fanfare or frills. He expertly controlled each stern test he faced right to the end.

COPYRIGHT 1985 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group