Billy Neville dressed throngs of NorthsidersBy JAY WIENER,
The Holy Grail sought in Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” is Publisher Charles Foster Kane’s final word, “Rosebud.” Those failing in the pursuit ultimately reflect, “How do you sum up a life?” I wonder while remembering Billy Neville.
I began patronizing The Rogue during middle school, continuing until present. The Rogue was “a game changer” upon opening in 1967. Its menswear was superior to anything in Jackson. Billy understood that a bad taste persisted after purchase if some imponderable went unserved. Billy sought customer satisfaction in contrast with contemporary businesses treating customers as ATMs to provide cashflow absent perceptible quid pro quo.
Billy and I dined at the Mayflower Cafe on Friday May 24th, returned to my home, and examined everything in every closet. David Crews, The Rogue’s Manager, has observed that, since I never changed size, I can wear clothing purchased in high school. I had no need to discard anything given the quality of what Billy sold. I possess a museum of The Rogue’s merchandise since my adolescence. I often say, risibly, that I have a wardrobe department rather than a closet; enabling me to dress as if for a movie shoot; perfectly for every occasion. May of last year, I wore a suit that went unworn for years, hitting the bullseye for a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs dinner at Seafood R’evolution. I do not believe that something should be discarded if it goes unworn for a year.
Billy said, after inspecting a wardrobe amassed over a lifetime, that not one item should be eliminated. His insight enabled me to see my clothing as a collection, rather than random items out of which to pick something to wear without regard to an entirety. It allowed me to understand that The Rogue’s hallmark was the fabrics that Billy selected when at market, their pattern and quality.
Billy sold style, subtly conveying how to dress; telegraphing that men can project allure without effeminacy or emasculation. Billy did not peddle a uniform but inculcated a sense of what worked individually. My brother, father, uncle and I purchased what worked for each of us. That appreciation was Billy’s strength.
Billy stocked what worked in the market that he served: The Rogue’s preppy style suited his customer base in Mississippi.
Billy repeatedly said that the sine qua non of his success was Ad Orkin, his landlord at The Rogue’s original location in the Capri Theatre: Ad instructed Billy not to pay rent during an unprofitable month.
When Billy outgrew his space, Ad allowed Billy to install a metal circular staircase and incorporate some of the oversized women’s lounge overhead. Few people visiting the subsequent space understand that its metal circular staircase pays homage to the original location.
As McComb native, Billy was devoted to Pike County people, the Emmerich family among them, particularly Wyatt’s mother Celia who was Billy’s schoolteacher when she moved there after college.
Billy considered the late “Brum” Day, Trustmark National Bank president, to have been his best friend. Billy was proud of serving on Trustmark’s board of directors, extolling the virtues of bank officers and board members. He fondly remembered the late Ben Lampton, the president before “Brum,” and adored the late Bob Nichols, who included Billy as an investor when purchasing ABC television affiliate WAPT.
Billy acknowledged his ongoing friendship with my family and expressed equal gratitude for anyone else with whom he interacted over time.
Judd Buchanan, former owner of Silver Star Mountain Resort where I train for cross-country ski marathons, represented London, Ontario in the Canadian Parliament, holding four separate ministerial positions in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s cabinet. Judd says that, after the youngest son Mike was killed in an avalanche, Trudeau brought the older sons, Justin — current prime minister — and Sasha, to Silver Star, where they dined in Judd’s home. Judd described Pierre Elliott Trudeau as diminished after losing Mike.
Billy seemed similarly diminished after selling The Rogue. Being unable to satisfy his customers left a void. When Billy spoke of his halcyon days or went to market and saw old friends, the elan returned.
After I first skied the Norwegian Birkebeiner Rennet marathon, I overnighted in Paris, en route home, and dined at a brasserie off the Place de la Bastille. My friend and I began a conversation with the couple at the next table. They were expatriates recently relocated to London. When I mentioned being from Jackson, the wife responded that she had recently visited Jackson for a wedding. I asked “Whose?” She said “Paige Neville.” I wrote Billy upon returning, remarking that, although I can shop anywhere in the world, I always return to The Rogue.
Long afterwards, I mentioned the story to David Crews who admitted, following a pregnant pause, “Jay, everyone working here knows that story: Billy read your letter at the Monday staff meeting after receiving it and concluded, ‘That’s what it’s all about...’”
Billy’s ongoing loyalty to his customers yielded unwavering loyalty. Billy’s legend will long outlive him.
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.