LHS grad turned heads in multiple fields

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local

George Neavoll moved out of Lebanon for the final time in the early 1970s, but he was off to a career that turned heads.
Neavoll, 84, died June 6, 2023.
He was a newspaper journalist, an advocate for democracy and humanitarian causes, a stamp and book collector, and last, but not least, a devoted birdwatcher.
“George was often known as the longest active Oregon birder, and wrote essays and gave speeches about how much the species of the Northwest have changed since he began birding in the 1940s, friend and fellow birder Erik Gauger said in a tribute he delivered at Neavoll’s funeral June 25 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Portland – Oregon.
That distinction is necessary because Neavoll was a longtime newspaper editor in Portland, Maine, where another publication once did a story on him entitled, “Is This the Most Influential Man in Portland?”
Dottie Belknap of Portland, whose 92-year-old husband Sabin was another of Neavoll’s birding buddies after Neavoll returned to Portland – Oregon – after his retirement, said the funeral “definitely felt like a Celebration of Life.”
Born Aug. 20, 1938, Neavoll grew up in the Fairview area with his three siblings, brother Jesse and sisters Florence and Frances, the son of Jessie Hunter Neavoll and Mazie M. Neavoll. His father “a land speculator and subsistence farmer who moved to Lebanon from Nebraska,” Neavoll once told an interviewer. Neavoll once described his father as “a little bit of a rogue.” who died at age 71 when his son was 9.
Neavoll started his journalism career at Lebanon High School, where he served as editor of the Hi-Light, the student newspaper.
He graduated from the University of Oregon in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. While at the university he served as desk editor for the Oregon Daily Emerald. He then took graduate courses in Mexico before joining the Peace Corps, serving from 1967-69 in India, where he met his wife Laney, who was also serving in there in that organization.
According to a 1969 Lebanon Express report, Neavoll’s stint in the Peace Corps involved promoting mushroom agriculture in a small mountain village in India, “trying to induce local farmers to raise mushrooms as a profitable side crop.”
Later in life, according to Gauger, the Neavolls had 10 cats, “named after his friends in that small mountain village in India.”
Neavoll was involved in newspaper journalism from 1969 to 1999, working as a reporter-photographer, editor, editorial writer and columnist in Oregon, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan and Maine. He was a Pulitzer Prize juror in 1988.

Neavoll works in his office at the Portland (Maine) Press Herald-Sunday Telegram in this undated photo from the Casco Bay Weekly.

“He always insisted to me that he was not a journalist, but a ‘newspaperman,’ and even after retirement he continued his work fighting for freedom of the press and human rights issues,” Gauger said in his tribute.
Neavoll’s return from India included planned stops in Nepal, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, France, England and Iceland.
He started his professional journalism career at the Lebanon Express – “I did everything but weather and sports,” before moving on to the Idaho State Journal as state editor. Then he moved on to jobs as editorial writer at the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal Gazette and the Detroit Free Press.
Tall and slender, he had a “mane of silver white hair and piercing blue eyes – very impressive, yet unassuming,” an acquaintance recalled.
Early in his career he had the opportunity to interview Alexander Kerensky, who was prime minister of Russia during the 1917 revolution.
He worked at the Wichita Eagle in Kansas for 14 years, winning several awards for pieces on human rights abuses in Central and South America.
Neavoll retired in 1999 as editorial page editor at the Portland (Maine) Press Herald (78,000 daily circulation) and Maine Sunday Telegram nearly 145,000).
Politics, particularly human rights and desegregation, was one of his major interests.
According to an obituary, he was a regular on the Jim Lehrer show and an advocate for freedom of the press around the world. Gauger said his friend was considered an expert on the Soviet Union – “his journalism on the subject earned him accolades from former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.”
In a 1995 interview with the now-defunct Casco Bay Weekly, an alternative newspaper circulating in Maine at the time, he was described as “a lifelong Democrat who votes for ‘many’ Republicans.”
“Everybody is a little bit liberal and a little bit conservative,” he told the interviewer for the “Most Influential Man?” article.
Neavoll was very interested in the issue of segregation in the United States and as a student he was involved in a campaign to abolish Oregon’s death penalty and in the Student-Faculty Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and with Friends of the Three Sisters Wilderness. He was a member of the Board of Councilors for the Save-The-Redwoods League.
He received a Global Media Award from The Population Institute in 1996, a Human Rights Award from the Portland chapter of Amnesty International in 1995, and the first Portland Bias Crime Task Force’s Diversity Bridge Building Award in 1995.
The University of Southern Maine possesses his collection of items representing “three important periods in the liberation struggle” for African Americans and Africans.
In the 1990s the U.S. State Department asked Neavol to be the U.S. representative to what may have been the first democratic election in the small west African nation of Coe d’ Ivoir.
He was known as a humanitarian and was active on multiple boards during his life.
Neavoll was also a gourmet chef, and an avid stamp collector – the books containing his stamps, which he began collecting as a 10-year-old, formed a pile 3 feet in height. Most of his collection was issued prior to the year of his birth – 1938. At age 68 he announced he would give the collection to a youngster who won a 300-word essay contest he conducted for the purpose.
Neavoll did something similar with his “small library” of 3,000 books, putting out a query to library groups across the state of Maine and eventually giving them to a group starting a new library in the tiny Aroostook County town of St. Agatha.
Neavoll was preceded in death by his wife Laney, in 2002, who was debilitated by a stroke, and all of his siblings.

On the beach, George Neavoll, in retirement, doing one of his favorite things: birdwatching. Photo courtesy of Dottie Belknap

“Having suffered the loss of his wife, his entire family and almost all of his friends, George often remarked how birding was his savior through the hardest parts of his life,” said Gauger, who was Neavoll’s birding partner for 16 years.
Neavoll was an avid bird lover, starting with watching California quail as a boy in Lebanon.
His mother gave him the Peterson Field Guide, which opened the bird world to him. His North American birding life list contained 621 species, according to his obituary. During his tenure with the Peace Corps in India, his travels to every country in South America and four excursions on the Trans-Siberian Railway, taking him to most of the countries in Europe, added an additional 257 species to his list.
Belknap’s husband Sabin “probably birded with George more than anyone” after Neavoll moved back to Oregon, she said.
“Ridgefield and Sauvie Island were their most common destinations. Both Erik and I have been in awe as to how Sabin, a retired physician who at age 92 was 8 years older than George, handled George in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank and bathroom needs.”
The pair’s last trip to Ridgefield was at the end of May, she said.
“When Sabin picked him up at Robison Care Center, George said, “this is a very special day. This is the 200th time you have taken me to Ridgefield.”
That kind of meticulous detail was typical of Neavoll, friends say.
“He was a world traveler and adept with the species of the Indian subcontinent, the Far East, Oceania, Europe and South America,” Gauger said, noting that Neavoll was “an exceptional birdwatcher, taking detailed handwritten notes throughout his entire life.”
“I have countless memories of birding with George, but the one I will always remember is the day we were wading in the shallows of the Columbia River Delta and were suddenly surrounded on all sides by 30,000 sooty shearwaters which had somehow chased a school of herring into the 6-inch shallows. They were so dense in their numbers, we became surrounded by a wall of black.”
– Sarah Brown contributed to this story.