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Photo by Chris Smith
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A portrait fom his Navy days. Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
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Art enthusiasts, the Novembers have earmarked their extensive glass collection for the Valentine Richmond History Center. The piece is by Seattle artist Richard Royal. Photo by Chris Smith
Neil November has a distinct military bearing, approaching everything in life pragmatically — including his bald head.
"When I shave, I just keep going," he says, circling his head with his hand. "I don't see a need to pay for a haircut when I can do it myself."
Even though November holds sway in powerful financial circles and has donated millions of dollars to numerous causes, he prefers to maintain a low profile, living simply, driving compact cars and giving no indication that his family once owned a fine men's suiting company.
"One of Neil's most colorful and widely celebrated eccentricities in earlier years was his wardrobe," longtime friend Charlie Sydnor says. "It was overwhelmingly polyester, featuring muted combinations of basic colors. One colleague once said that Neil's fashion style could be called ‘the Western Auto look from Kmart.'"
Neilson J. November, who turns 89 next month, has repeatedly been named among the most powerful Richmonders by local publications. Although reserved, November readily lends an ear to new ventures, which has been the saving grace for countless individuals in Richmond, particularly those in theater.
Neil and Sara Belle, his wife of 63 years, have been quietly supporting writers and artists of all ages and persuasions for almost half a century.* Their most recent gift was $500,000 to the Valentine Richmond History Center. The Novembers receive about six letters daily requesting donations. They've been advised to reduce their giving.
"Our accountant says we'll be broke by 2015 if we keep giving at the same pace, so we've slowed down significantly," Neil says.
Bruce Miller, artistic director of Virginia Repertory Theatre, which houses one of the eight theaters in the city that are named for the Novembers, has worked closely with the couple for some 40 years.
"Neil credits his commitment to philanthropy to his father, who in the late '40s began contributing heavily to founding the state of Israel," Miller notes. "Neil's dad made it clear he couldn't find any comfort living like a king when so many of his brothers were struggling to create for their families any kind of life at all. However, Neil would hate being portrayed as an angel. Like countless red-blooded Navy men before him, he relishes his reputation as a rapscallion."
November was a freshman at Washington & Lee University when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
"I went to enlist in the Navy with several fraternity brothers just days after the bombing. The Navy folks said, ‘You're a good fellow, but get some more education, and then we can turn you into an officer.' "
November returned to W&L, then transferred to the University of Richmond in preparation to enter midshipman's school at Columbia University. Commissioned at 19, he was the youngest ensign assigned to the USS Lauderdale, a carrier built exclusively for transporting troops to invade islands. By the end of the war, through attrition at the officer level, November had become the ship's commander.
He had learned early on that, since he didn't have 20/20 vision [a strict Navy requirement at that time], he wouldn't be permitted to fly planes, an abiding dream for him. "That's the first time I ever remember crying," November admits quietly.
His sight was good enough to help determine the outcome of the war in another way, however. November was a spotter, trained to recognize all aircraft manufactured in Germany, Italy, Japan, France, England, Russia and the United States.
"On board ship, I would be in the conning tower, a raised platform, with a talker behind me, holding a telephone that connected to all the guns. When I spotted a plane, I had only seconds to either call for fire or let them pass."
November recounts a harrowing incident that occurred during the war, when he left his ship to retrieve blood for wounded men.
"When I got to the supply ship, I was told, ‘You better get your butt moving. You've got trouble coming right behind you.' "
November headed full speed back to the anchorage, followed closely by other American boats. Those boats, however, had been commandeered by the Japanese and loaded with explosives.
As dusk approached, November recalls, "I had the distinction of being shot at from behind by the Japs, who knew I wasn't one of them, and being shot at from the front by Americans, who didn't give a damn if I was one of them."
The boats mounted with charges exploded, while bullets ricocheted off November's boat, causing splinters to fly.
"When we finally got under the point where the Americans couldn't lower the guns any more, I heard a man on our ship say, ‘Son of a bitch. He's one of us!' "
After the war, November returned again to Washington & Lee, meeting the woman who changed his life.
In 1946, Sara Belle Slusky was a junior at Randolph-Macon Woman's College. A friend in Lynchburg wanted to introduce her to some college boys.
"We ended up at the Jewish fraternity house at Washington & Lee," Sara Belle recalls. "When I realized I'd left my cigarette case at a restaurant, someone asked Neil, who had a car, if he would help retrieve it. Neil's first words to me were, ‘Goddamn it!' He had no use for cigarettes and he didn't drink, but he did like women, so everything wasn't lost."
Sara Belle stopped smoking, and the couple dated for four years. She moved to Augusta, Ga., completing a bachelor's degree in biochemistry at the University of Georgia and a medical technology degree at the Medical College of Georgia. She then moved to Florida to be near her sister and to run a medical laboratory.
Neil had returned to Richmond after graduating from W&L in 1948. "He was visiting me in Miami on New Year's Eve of 1949," Sara Belle recalls. "I got a delivery of a gorgeous white orchid from another boy I was dating. The card read, ‘All my love, Henry.' I was embarrassed then, but I love the story now!"
Not to be outdone, November showed up the next day with an orchid lei for Sara Belle.
"I wore the lei to the Orange Bowl; everybody thought I was the queen," Sara Belle remembers with a laugh. "Neil proposed in the stadium, without a ring. He probably thought he had to move quickly to get ahead of Henry. Besides that, he said it would be less expensive to get married than to keep paying for long-distance phone calls."
Prior to the couple's marriage in 1950, November had accepted a position with Piedmont Airlines as a co-pilot.
"That lasted about 20 minutes," November recalls. "My father said, ‘You're coming into the business.' "
The Family Business
The business was Friedman-Marks Clothing Co., known for constructing fine men's suits. The company had its beginning in New York City's Brooklyn borough, where November was born in 1924.
"My grandfather, who was from Austria, started the business. I understand he had a violent temper. I'm unsure what happened, but my grandfather was forced out."
November's father, Israel, born in 1898, was chosen from among the seven brothers in the family to run the business, necessitating his withdrawal from high school.
"My mother, a noted commercial artist, ruined her health staying up all night making illustrations for newspapers, trying to help keep the family afloat."
November's maternal grandmother took care of him when his mother, Sara D. November, was institutionalized for a few years.
"My grandmother was Russian. I understand she had been a seamstress for the tsarina of Russia at one time. She only spoke Yiddish. The only Yiddish I remember is, ‘Nish de keppele. Not the head.' She always got soap in my eyes when she bathed me."
The Novembers moved to Richmond in 1925. Israel November had negotiated a partnership with Harry Marks, which eventually dovetailed into a combined relationship with Dan Friedman and the formation of Friedman-Marks Clothing. "My mother never did forgive my father for not having his name in the business."
Neil's mother, by then a widely acclaimed artist whose work would be exhibited at the 1939 World's Fair, was instrumental in developing the Richmond Academy of Arts, the forerunner of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center for the past 19 years, had known Neil and Sara Belle November socially, but their friendship blossomed after Martin made a discovery one day in some old files.
"What tied us together was an article about Neil's mother that ran in the Times-Dispatch in 1932. It was reported that Mrs. Sara D. November received a telegram at the Valentine, while she was teaching an art class, notifying her that her work had been accepted at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C. I called Neil and shared the news."
In September 2014, the Valentine will open a newly designed Sara D. November Education Center. The center will house her original self-portrait, now hanging in the Novembers' apartment.
"Our interest is in Sara's painting because she was a Richmond artist, but the Novembers have collected amazing art glass as well," Martin explains. "That will be coming to us in the future, but right now we're also getting a portrait that Neil painted of his mother and some of his childhood paintings, along with some of the sketches and work that Sara D. November did as a graphic designer."
Neil's father, known as "Izzy," eventually developed Friedman-Marks into one of the leading manufacturers of dry goods in the nation. At its peak, the company had between 2,000 and 2,500 employees.
"I started out making 75 cents an hour as an elevator operator," November says. "When I became a floor supervisor, my father said no air-conditioned office for me — said I should be on the floor so I could be accessible to the workers. He was right, too."
In the mid-1950s, Neil and Sara Belle traveled to Japan on a business venture.
"The Japanese wanted to establish a plant to produce Western-style men's clothing. They selected us because we had a reputation for making the best men's clothing at the most reasonable prices. I went to organize the plant, although I was reluctant. Only a few years before, I had been shooting at the bastards. We were treated very nicely, except for what they fed me.
"Every day for lunch they served the workers huge bowls of vegetables. I wanted some of those vegetables, but they insisted they knew what Americans liked, so they brought me a heaping plate of postage-stamp-size sandwiches. They brought the same heap, getting smaller and smaller, day after day. By the end of my stay, the ones left were as crisp as potato chips."
Back in the United States November continued working with his father, but his creative side craved an outlet.
"I loved to build things. I got together with a friend of mine, Ralph May, and formed a real-estate business. We built about 400 houses, starting near Willow Lawn and ending up on the South Side, before Ralph took it over completely."
"I always thought they should call themselves the Calendar Boys — May and November," Sara Belle says with a laugh. "Neil would leave the factory and go to the construction site. When we were young, he worked all the time," she recalls. "When he wasn't working, he was flying. We wanted a family, but when we didn't succeed in having our own children, we adopted Randy in 1956 and Scott in 1958. However, I ended up raising the boys, took them fishing and to ball games."
In addition to caring for the children, Sara Belle had a 40-year medical career, including lab work for doctors in pioneering surgery at the former Medical College of Virginia.
"It was the only job I ever quit — all the patients died," she says. "It was the beginning of heart transplants."
Sara Belle's family history includes a Polish maternal great-grandfather who developed yeast and brought it to America, and a paternal grandfather who developed a successful building supply business that was passed on to her father. Her inherited wealth has significantly supported the couple's philanthropic endeavors over the years.
In Her Honor
The Novembers lived together on Richmond's Riverside Drive for 50 years, but Sara Belle, now 85, confides that Neil never really "saw" her until they moved to the Westminster Canterbury retirement community.
"When we were young, he was either working or flying. That's how I ended up raising the boys. At one point, I almost left him."
"That was news to me," Neil quips. "I didn't know anything about that until we were driving downtown one day and she pointed to a place and said, ‘I almost moved there.' I'm glad she decided to stick around. I can't remember ever loving her more; in fact, I can't keep my hands off of her."
November's humor is intact, as is his military bearing and commanding voice. He becomes quiet, though, when asked about his philanthropic work and prefers to steer attention to his wife, whom he honored with a billboard over Interstate 64 when she was chosen one of the Richmond YWCA's Outstanding Women in 2001. November's unabashed love for his mate remains apparent, as he names theater after theater in her honor.
"I wish he wouldn't do that. He always keeps it a surprise until it's already done," she says with a twinge of embarassment.
November just grins, obviously delighted with his covert operations, all the while claiming to have many girlfriends — a running joke Sara Belle both indulges and enjoys. She recounts an incident from last year when Neil was recovering from an attack of transient amnesia.
"We were in the hospital room. In came the neurologist, a beautiful woman. Neil immediately started hitting on her. She said, ‘Mr. November, that's not funny. What's today's date? Who's the president?' When he started flirting with her, I knew he was fine."
Sara Belle's nonchalance over Neil's fascination with other women demonstrates her confidence in stature with her husband. She is referred to by more than one acquaintance as the "power behind the throne."
Love for Stage and Sky
After Friedman-Marks was sold in 1968, November stayed for a two-year transition period. In January 1971, at age 47, November took his share of the factory sale and began dedicating himself to philanthropic work, which included the theater in a big way. He's worked closely with Bruce Miller, including when Barksdale Theater and Theatre IV merged to become Virginia Repertory Theatre in 2012.
"I spent years thinking Neil just didn't like me, before realizing that his brutally honest teases were a sign of affection and respect," Miller divulges. "Beneath the curmudgeonly veneer lies one of the most caring and generous men I've ever met."
November reaped the benefits of his investment in an unexpected encounter after a performance at the Empire Theater in 2011.
"We had supported the School of Per-forming Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC) for years," he remembers. "Allison Gilman, who participated in SPARC as a child, was performing at the Empire. By then, she was in high school. After the play was over and the actors were signing playbills, Allison ran over, threw her arms around my neck and said, ‘Mr. November, I made the big time!' I really got a kick out of that. Now she's off to college, studying theater."
Sara Belle had always loved theater and performed in Pennsylvania and later on several Richmond stages, which led to Neil's interest in supporting theater, but his enduring love was airplanes. As a boy he spent endless hours designing, building and testing model airplanes with several childhood friends. Among them were Abe Hertzberg, inventor of the shock tube that enabled hypersonic flight, and Walter "Matt" Jefferies, who designed the original Starship Enterprise used in the legendary TV series Star Trek in 1966.
"Ed Galeski was part of that group," November adds. "He later flew the B29 during the day and wrote the manual at night, creating the airplane characteristics that ended the war."
November took flight lessons as a teenager at the Hermitage Airport on Laburnum Avenue and washed airplanes, the pilots rewarding him with rides as payment. He earned his license at 16.
"I can't ever remember not wanting to fly. The first thing I did after the war was use my discharge pay to buy an Army surplus plane. I knew Sara Belle was the girl for me when she didn't throw up when I took her flying. One girl threw up in my hat. Ruined it."
November's love for flying led him to help develop the Richmond International Airport in 1984, an evolution from the Richard Evelyn Byrd Airport, named for the Virginia explorer-aviator and admiral.
In 1987, November raised the funds to build the Virginia Aviation Museum, as well as an expansion in 1991. In 1993, he was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.
An Impressive Résumé
November's philanthropic credits would fill a book, including chairmanships of the Capital Region Airport Commission, the Science Museum of Virginia, the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society, and the Virginia Aviation Museum. He served as chairman or president of many other local organizations, and he was instrumental in establishing the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
In 1976, November orchestrated an event called the Israeli Showcase, bringing together hundreds of volunteers to build a replica of Israel, thereby giving city residents an opportunity to experience a plethora of Judaic traditions. Visitors could even insert prayers into a replica of the Western Wall. A daily newspaper article trumpeted the schedule of events, which incorporated other religions in the city as well.
The following year, November organized Golden Wings, a two-day air show commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh's transatlantic flight. The show included winged aircraft from the Wright brothers' flyer to the Concorde.
November also helped raise funds for the development of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, established in 1997. He was the first chairman of the board of directors and remains an honorary trustee. The Neilson J. November Award, bestowed by the museum, is named in his honor. Past recipients have been high-profile figures in the city and state, including former Mayor and Gov. (and now U.S. Sen.) Tim Kaine; Robert and James Ukrop; and the late Walter Sullivan, who served for 29 years as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.
Although November enjoys working, he treasures the friends he has gathered over a lifetime.
Sydnor, president and executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, says, "Among all the things Neil November knows how to do well, creating special moments and unforgettable encounters for his friends is a talent he commands, perhaps better than any other."
Mort Thalhimer, now 90, has been a lifelong friend. Thalhimer, who served as a Navy pilot in World War II and also as an usher in the Novembers' wedding, vividly recalls Neil as a daredevil.
"We lived a block and a half apart. One of our favorite stunts as teenagers was to tear down the alley on our bikes between Monument and Grace to the garage behind my house. We raced inside the open door, threw on brakes and spun around in a circle, hoping we could stop. A few times we hit the brick wall. We were always taking crazy risks."
The two friends are now part of a group known as the Secret Seven, which is neither secret nor composed of seven members. Membership in the group, originally formed around 1993, depends on a vote of the 10 members, all male, who gather each week to share lunch. The group doesn't allow women as members, based (they say) on the men's salty language. The group discusses upcoming enterprises in the city that might need their financial backing.
November is also keenly interested in politics. He has quietly supported Democratic candidates for decades, even escorting former Gov. Gerald Baliles to Israel for fact-finding trips. His efforts paid off with the formation of the Virginia-Israel Commission, developed during the Baliles administration in the late 1980s. Several other agreements were fostered from that effort, setting the stage for ongoing economic ventures between Virginia and Israel.
Along with being a close personal friend, Baliles describes November as "a force of nature, a derecho of human energy and a GPS for leadership and results."
Ric Arenstein, managing partner of Arenstein & Associates and formerly a special assistant for Baliles, agrees. "In state government, we were capable of structuring the plan, but it was Neil who sold the governor's vision for Israel."
Arenstein credits November with helping him and Allison Weinstein in 2002, when they co-chaired the effort to refurbish and rebuild the Jewish Community Center, now called the Weinstein JCC.
"The minute Neil realized we had it under control, he went off and did something else. For a guy with a giant ego, his ability to separate and let others do what they're capable of doing is part of his power."
Arenstein says that November's ego is a virtue.
"I think people who make great change do so because they think others aren't as capable. That's ego, but in the most positive way. I think Neil believes he can do things that nobody else can do, and he does. He's like a general. Everything is well-thought-out. He sees what it takes and then executes it."
The World Stopped
While the Novembers have had many high points in their life together, their world fell apart on June 14, 2005, when they learned that their younger son, Scott, had committed suicide. He was 47 and had been a Richmond police officer for 15 years.
"He never rose in the ranks because he refused to give anyone a ticket; he preferred to just warn them," Neil offers. "He left a note in my office saying, ‘I hope you'll understand why I'm doing this.' Of course, we never did."
"He was such a good person," Sara Belle adds softly. "His best friend told me that he takes his lunch to Scott's grave every week and has lunch with him. We've been amazed at the stories we've heard of Scott helping others."
After moving to Westminster Canterbury later in 2005, the Novembers funded a 300-seat theater there, along with an art gallery in their son's memory. A portrait of Scott is on permanent display.
"We were blessed to have two wonderful boys," Sara Belle says, "and Randy is still wonderful. His first wife died, and when he remarried, he wanted the service held in the art gallery so he could be near his brother."
While the Novembers remain active and excited about the city's possibilities, they ponder Richmond's future.
"We have plenty of theaters. We could do with less graffiti, though," Sara Belle muses.
Neil believes the region lacks specific direction.
"We need more sidewalks. The streets need fixing. The potential is there if the right administration takes over, but they seem to be wishy-washy right now."
He also wonders about future generations. "As a member of America's fast disappearing ‘Greatest Generation,' I am bitterly disappointed at the apparent decaying of our country since I fought in the Pacific in World War II."
For Charlie Sydnor, November's imprint upon Richmond conjures thoughts of legendary English architect Sir Christopher Wren.
"Summarizing Neil's legacy reminds me of the inscription on the plaque that covers the grave in which Sir Christopher Wren is interred. It's in the south wall of the crypt in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which Wren designed and built. The inscription notes simply: ‘Reader, if you would seek his monument, look around you.' "
© Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2013.
Beyond the Page
Here, Nancy Wright Beasley shares the behind-the-scenes details about her extended personal column on Neil November:
About 15 years ago, when I told my mother that I was interviewing Neil November for an article, she placed her hand over her heart and said, "My Neil November?"
Much to my surprise, I learned that Neil was her floor supervisor when she worked as a seamstress for Friedman-Marks clothing factory, co-owned by Israel November, Neil's father. In a quiet voice, Mama said, "I'll tell you one thing. You won't find anybody to say anything bad about him." My mother didn't have a high regard for many males, so to hold Neil in such esteem for some 30 years was a surprise.
Neil reminds me of my mother. Like she, Neil always has encouraged me to keep going, exemplifying my mother's motto for life: "Nothing beats a failure but a try." He introduced me to Carole Weinstein, who helped me publish Izzy's Fire, my first book, and he helped to send me on trips to Lithuania and Israel after I received author invitations in both countries as well as to Hollins University for more study.
For years, I asked Neil to allow me to write about him and his wife, Sara Belle. He always respectfully declined but, following my mother's advice, I just kept trying. He recently acquiesced.
I've spent months on this piece and wish I could include all the funny stories I've uncovered. Alas, space constraints allow me to only highlight the lives of two very remarkable people.
And, as always, my mother was right.