Dr. John Neil Varnell
Feb. 23, 1945 – March 6, 2019
NATCHEZ— A celebration of the life for Dr. John Neil Varnell, 74, of Natchez, who died Wednesday, March 6, 2019, at Merit Health Natchez, will be held at his home on Clifton Avenue, with the time and date to be announced at a later date.
Arrangements are under the direction of Laird Funeral Home.
Neil was born on Feb. 23, 1945, in Cleveland, Tenn., the son of Robert Wayne Varnell and Mary Ruth Dethero Varnell.
He grew up on a family dairy farm.
Neil was intellectually gifted and applied himself academically. He received his undergraduate degree from Emory and Henry College in Virginia, which was the alma mater of his grandfather, father, brother, and two uncles. He finished his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi. Between college graduation and graduate school, he served three years in a Methodist mission program in Malaysia. After finishing graduate school in 1975, he moved to Natchez to direct the Southwest Mississippi Mental Health Complex. He soon bought a deteriorated historic house overlooking the Mississippi River on Clifton Avenue and embarked on its restoration.
In 1979, Neil opened a private practice as a clinical psychologist. He also taught psychology courses on the Alcorn University campus in Lorman and at the Alcorn School of Nursing in Natchez. In the latter years of his career as a clinical psychologist, he also worked with the Natchez Adams County School District. He was a caring psychologist. One former patient credits him with getting her through a divorce from an abusive husband and coaching her through nursing school so she would be able to support her family—even though she had no money to pay him. Neil was also a safe harbor for abused and neglected children.
In 1997, he decided to see the world and entered into a four-year contract with the University of Maryland to become a roving professor of psychology at United States military bases. The university used the quarter system and he sometimes spent only one quarter in a particular country. He taught on military bases in Kwajalean Atoll in the Marshall Islands, Korea, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Iceland, Portugal and Malaysia. He particularly enjoyed living in Germany, which appealed to his respect for efficiency. On weekends and holidays, he explored other countries.
While he taught and roamed overseas, he rented his house fully furnished to a couple who received his permission to operate the house as a bed and breakfast. When he returned to Natchez and his home on the bluff in 2001, he decided to see what it would be like to operate a bed and breakfast and he simply continued the bed-and-breakfast business established by his former tenants. He found he enjoyed the interaction with his guests and the freedom of staying at home and working in his garden. Cured of wander lust, Neil’s travels after 2001 were limited to visiting family members, whom he greatly loved, in Tennessee and Colorado. He also particularly enjoyed their visits to Natchez.
Although his family had deep roots in eastern Tennessee, Neil thrived as a Natchez transplant and never entertained any thought of leaving the city and his paradise overlooking the river. He was passionate about the town and its people and rejoiced in its cultural diversity. He was also an activist and waged a fierce battle to halt development of the land along the Natchez bluff. He wanted the bluff and its incredible views available to all residents of the city. The match that ignited his fire was the city’s sale of even the public sidewalk along the bluff to a private developer. He picketed, consulted engineers, and tirelessly lobbied state and federal officials. This was only one of Neil’s battles, but it was surely the most important as city officials have now embraced preserving the bluff property as a public park.
Neil Varnell was exceptionally frugal. He counted the strips of bacon in packages before placing a package in his grocery cart. He recycled everything—even the used soap bars at his bed and breakfast. He delighted in cutting off the utilities when he had no guests and he did all the cooking and cleaning. He spent little money on himself—certainly not on clothes—and he even cut his own hair. What no one realized is that Neil’s frugality meant that he was constantly engaged in fundraising for the city’s charitable and educational organizations. He accumulated a significant estate, which after bequests to his beloved family, he divided among educational and charitable institutions, all but one in Natchez.
The organizations that will benefit from Neil’s frugality include:
Emory and Henry College
Historic Natchez Foundation
Alcorn State University (psychology scholarship)
Natchez Cemetery Association Endowment Fund
Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American Culture
Natchez Adams Humane Society
Natchez Festival of Music
George Armstrong Library
Preservation Society of Ellicott Hill
Pilgrimage Historical Association
Natchez Little Theatre
Natchez Community Stewpot
Natchez Adams County Habitat for Humanity
Neil’s charitable giving was inspired by his love of Natchez, his respect for non-profits and their volunteers, and the example of his parents who also made substantial contributions to their community. Neil was preceded in death by his parents and one brother, Robert Wayne Varnell Jr.
Survivors include one sister, Katie May Varnell Edstrom and husband, Carl; sister-in-law, Judy Fulton Varnell; one nephew, Robert Wayne Varnell III and wife, Kelly; three nieces, Gretchen Edstrom Hays and husband, Mike, Amy Edstrom Harney and husband, Rick, and Marny Varnell Birkitt and husband, John; and six great- nieces and four great-nephews.
The family suggests memorials be made to any of the charities that Neil listed as beneficiaries of his estate.
Online condolences may be sent to the family at lairdfh.com.