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Biography of Robert A.
of Robert Alvin
Written by his Great Great Granddaughter, Jennifer A. Seitl
An actor, newspaperman, and lawman, Robert Alvin Neff was born into a family who pioneered their way from the East Coast to the Mid West. This spirited, motivated man led a full life in which his descendants feel very proud, indeed. Like his family before him, he was drawn to the West and became a notable part of the settlement of the territory west of the Mississippi.
Robert was the eldest of four children. He was born in Bloomington, McLean Co., Illinois, in May of 1858, to George North and Mary Elizabeth Hamilton Neff. The Neff's had two more children, while in Bloomington. Sidney George was born in 1861 and Claude, born in 1863. In 1861, when the Civil War came to Illinois, George left his wife and two small children to volunteer his services as a Saddler with the Third Illinois Cavalry. After his tour of duty, George moved his wife and three children, to Colorado during the gold excitement in the late 1860's. After a short stay in Colorado, Robert's father brought the family to Ottawa, Kansas. It was in Ottawa that Robert's youngest sister, Lela Oleva, was born in 1869. By the time the Federal Census was taken in 1875, George and his family had settled in Wichita, Kansas, where they would remain until the Cherokee Land Run of 1893.
Robert grew into his manhood in Wichita, KS. He was a newspaperman in 1877 and again from 1889-1890. In 1877, Robert started his own newspaper, The Independence, which "lived about six months when the material passed into the hands of another local newspaper man, J.W. Robbins". From the newspaper to the theatre, we know that Robert also worked as an actor and dramatic manager between 1887-1890.
Missing from the Wichita census for nine years, Robert traveled to make his living in the Theatre. He met fellow actor/dramatic manager, Susan Chase Skinner in Amboy, Lee County, Illinois in 1880. It has been speculated that Robert and Susan were on the road with a Theatre Company when they were married in Bates County, Missouri, in 1881. In March of 1882, a daughter, Roberta Aurora Neff was born in Aurora, Nebraska.
Robert and Susan found their way back to Wichita by 1884, where yet another little girl, Claudia Aline, was born on July 30th. Joy was preceded by tragedy when the small family lost their oldest child, Roberta Aurora, to spinal meningitis that year. Robert worked as a dramatic manager and actor for the next three years. His wife, Susan, acted as his drama coach and manager. In 1889, he took employment, once again, as a reporter, for the Wichita News-Beacon. This year another daughter, Velma Ethel Neff, was born to Robert and Susan. In spite of his profession as a writer, his true passion was the theatre. It was at this point in time, that Robert decided to best utilize his skills by going to law school. Susan lived alone, in Wichita, with their two children and worked as a dramatic manager for a local theatre/Opera House.
After taking up the study of law, in 1893 Robert moved his wife and two daughters to Blackwell, Kay County, Oklahoma Territory at the opening of the Cherokee Strip. Here he started a law office and was elected as Probate Judge of Kay County on November 3, 1896 and re-elected in 1898. His political associations were fusionist. Between 1900 and 1915, Robert owned and edited several newspapers. The two newspapers he owned were the Blackwell Sun (1900 - 1908) and the Ponca City News. Robert was also a published author. In 1906, the Leader Printing Company of Guthrie Oklahoma printed his book, Civil procedure before justices of the peace (Oklahoma practice).
Robert first purchased property, "lot seven in block ten of the original Lawton townsite", on May 19, 1902, from David Mortar. In 1904, when he finally made his home in Lawton, he was s associated with T.M. Bixby as editor of the Lawton Democrat, now the Lawton Constitution. Here he "wielded the pen of a ready writer" for a number of years. He ran against "Fain in a close race of Comanche county attorney", according to the Rev. T.J. Irwin who wrote an intimate obituary for his friend, for the front page of the December 16, 1915 edition of the Lawton Constitution.
In 1907, while Robert
was working as a Circuit Court Judge and staying at the Elks hotel in Guthrie,
Oklahoma, he received a letter from the Lawton Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber
was making a request for the Lawton judicial district be included in the
court district of the counties of Comanche, Caddo, Jefferson and Stephens.
The "call of the boards" was too strong for him. In the final years of his life, Robert went back to his true love ... the theatre. Irwin wrote:
"The ruling passion of his life was his love of the drama, so he organized the Neff Theatre Company in Lawton and was on the road again and made acting his chosen profession. He played in all the principal cities and country, especially to very large appreciative houses in Lawton, Oklahoma, generally. His long love devoted to the drama, coupled with decided natural ability, made Neff a prime favorite with his audiences in each of his roles."
Rev. Irwin also spoke of a beautiful country residence, which, in my family history, was known as the Big "V" Ranch. "Colonel Neff owns a farm and beautiful country residence two miles south of Lawton. Here he took a needed rest once every year. He loved Lawton and here he laid down his life, and will be laid to rest in Lawton Cemetery."
Robert A. Neff died of acute auto-toxaemia on December 15, 1915. His wife and his daughters were at his bedside. The best summation of the man and his life was written by his friend, Rev. T.J. Irwin, in the last paragraph of his obituary in the Lawton Constitution on December 16, 1915.
"Colonel Neff always gave good, clean performances, supported by a strong company made up mostly from his own family all of whom are lovers of high-class drama. He never played a whiskey town, nor allowed a drinking man to be connected with the company. Speaking from long personal and intimate acquaintance, Robert A. Neff was a unique character, and a noble Christian man, a prominent and enthusiastic Mason and Odd Fellow who followed the Golden Rule in his daily life. He was a faithful, tender and affectionate husband, and a loving and kind father, and as true a friend as ever lived. Such, in brief our line, the unadorned facts of the career of Robert A. Neff. They illustrate a character rounded, integral and complete. His life was gentle; and the elements so mix'd in him that Nature might stand up and say to the world, "This was a man."