Bill Neville took the first steps toward becoming the “consummate” political backroom man as an assistant to Judy LaMarsh, a fiery Liberal cabinet minister in the Pearson government.
But his disaffection with the leadership of Lester B. Pearson’s successor, Pierre Trudeau, soured him on the Liberals. And a subsequent defection to the Progressive Conservatives landed him the top job in the office of former prime minister Joe Clark, where he made his real mark on Ottawa.
Mr. Neville, a quiet man of intelligence and political acumen as well as great personal resilience, died on March 13, at the age of 77.
Mr. Clark remembers him as hard-working and endowed with an exceptional understanding of policy.
“He was, to me, almost a North Star that I could count on as I came in as a young leader dealing with issues that were not very well known to me,” said Mr. Clark. “I could trust him absolutely. His judgment was very strong.”
Bill Neville did not start out as a public servant. Born in Montreal, he studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.
A summer internship in 1956 landed him a job in the parliamentary press gallery with British United Press (BUP) – later called United Press International.
By the mid-‘60s he had a wife – the former Marilyn Biggs – and two young sons, Lindsay and Ross. But he also had a career he no longer enjoyed. So he quit journalism and went to work for Ms. LaMarsh, who came to rely on his unflappable nature, strong writing skills and forthright opinions.
In her 1969 autobiography, Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage, Ms. LaMarsh wrote that Mr. Neville was a miracle.
“His own judgment was very often superior to mine, and I trusted him implicitly,” said Ms. LaMarsh. “He never tried to duck out of anything, never talked back when I blew up, talked me out of it when I was unfair to others, took my side and became my friend and closest adviser.”
When Ms. LaMarsh decided to support Defence Minister Paul Hellyer in the 1968 Liberal leadership campaign, Mr. Neville also joined the Hellyer team and met Mr. Hellyer’s assistant, Bill Lee. The two men hit it off and decided they would form a government-relations firm once the leadership race was over.
That company, Executive Consultants Ltd. (ECL), was almost immediately successful. Investigative journalist John Sawatsky says in his book The Insiders, which devotes many pages to the work of the two men, that Mr. Neville and Mr. Lee were pulling down six-figure salaries a year later – money that was unheard of in the late 1960s.
But Mr. Neville had grown increasingly frustrated with the Trudeau government. In 1974, he quit ECL to run as a Progressive Conservative and chose to challenge John Turner, the Liberal finance minister, in the riding of Ottawa-Carleton.
While it wasn’t exactly a rout, Mr. Turner won the seat by more than 10,000 votes. It was clear to all that Mr. Neville could not return to ECL with a Liberal government in power after he had brazenly taken on a Liberal cabinet minister.
So he found work as a senior policy adviser and then research director in the office of Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, earning much praise from Tory MPs.
That success was noticed by Mr. Clark. When he won the party leadership in 1976, he asked Mr. Neville to be his chief of staff and kept him in that position after winning government in 1979.
“I had not had a long experience with government, or indeed with the national media. Bill had both,” said Mr. Clark. “And he had proven his great competence in the research office, including, among other things, earning the respect of the parliamentary caucus. And that was important to me because I started with very little parliamentary support and the caucus was full of tensions then.”
Lowell Murray, a former Tory senator, was the national campaign chairman for the party when Mr. Neville worked for Mr. Clark.
“He was a workhorse,” Mr. Murray said. “And, unlike a lot of people who are creative, he was also an excellent manager. So he would manage during the day and at night put together speeches and policy recommendations.”
When Mr. Clark’s short-lived government was defeated, Mr. Neville told the CBC that the Progressive Conservatives had not moved fast enough to roll out policies, especially as they related to energy and the budget. “By the time that we had brought them forward, we had dug such a deep hole that we couldn’t get out of it,” he explained.
But the Tories had not lost faith in Mr. Neville. They appointed him to the transition teams of two subsequent prime ministers – Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell.
After politics, Mr. Neville returned to government relations. In 1988, he joined with Jodi White, a former chief of staff to Ms. Campbell, in forming The Neville Group, another Ottawa consulting company.
“I think he is one of the great unsung heroes of his period of public policy in Canada,” said Ms. White. “He was quite a quiet and, frankly, shy guy. He was never looking for personal glory. He was a consummate backroom person.”
In one of his many post-politics jobs, Mr. Neville worked for the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturer’s Council. The Non-Smokers Rights Association played up his association with Mr. Mulroney in a Globe and Mail ad that said: “How many thousands of Canadians will die from tobacco products may be in the hands of these two men.”
But he was also on the board of the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Foundation, the National Advisory Council of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, and was vice-president of the Canadian Diabetes Association.
Meanwhile, Mr. Neville’s personal life was marked by tragedy.
His son, Lindsay, was a bright, good-looking kid but also a troubled soul who had many brushes with crime. He robbed a convenience store and was killed during a police chase in a stolen car in 1984 at the age of 21, leaving behind a pregnant widow.
At a coroner’s inquest, Mr. Neville said his son had a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality. One part of him had been in trouble with the law for the better part of seven years, he said, but “the other part of him was a very warm and gentle young man.”
Like his father, Lindsay was a diabetic, a condition his parents said left him testing the limits of his mortality.
But diabetes was just one of Bill Neville’s many health problems. “He had Crohn’s disease, he had cancer, he had every imaginable surgery you could imagine,” said Mr. Murray.
During the 1993 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, Mr. Neville appeared as Ms. Campbell’s spokesperson on television panels with a head left bald from chemotherapy treatments.
He was helped through it all by his wife, Marilyn, whose fun-loving and outspoken personality provided a contrast to that of her more reserved husband.
There were many times that Mr. Neville’s friends and family believed his death was imminent. In one instance, Mrs. Neville and and Mr. Murray began planning a funeral; doctors warned them to prepare for the worst.
Mr. Murray said he went to the hospital to visit his friend, perhaps for the final time, “and the fellow whose funeral I was preparing was sitting up, reading Fortune magazine with another eye cocked on a golf game on television. The number of times the man came back nearly from the dead was astonishing.”
So it was a huge shock when Marilyn Neville died first.
“I don’t know many couples who were as close to one another as Bill and Marilyn were,” said Mr. Clark. “It was very hard on him. But it was hard on him not just because of the suddenness of the death, but because of the quality of the relationship. It was really quite profound. They had an abundance of interests together. And, in a sense, although they didn’t shut out other people, they were very self-sufficient as a couple.”
Mr. Neville’s friends say he will be remembered for his policy work, but also his ability to bounce back following periods of intense personal difficulty. Even after the loss of his wife, he found ways to enjoy living.
“In the last e-mail I received from him before he passed, he talked about how he was taking lessons to work on parts of his golf game,” said his son Ross. “Although I really think he knew he was near the end of his life, he kept living his life to the fullest right to the end. He never let the health problems he had suffered from the past few years stop him from doing the things he loved best, and I think that is a true commentary about how he approached life.”