For five years now, the Academy of Richmond County Hall of Fame has been inducting alumni, faculty and administrators. This year’s group includes 11 new members whose lives had an impact on others from Georgia to Hollywood, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Titan missile silos and the battlefields of World War II. All have been outstanding. This is the story of one.
Eighty cadets graduated from the Academy of Richmond County on June 11, 1929. Only two years earlier the school had moved from its Telfair Street home of over 200 years to its spacious new building on the drained swampland at the bottom of the “Hill.” These young men had begun high school in one place and finished in another. One of those cadets graduating at the academy auditorium that night was young Benjamin Neely Plumb, whose contribution to the evening’s ceremony was the class prophecy and whose contribution to the world were a bevy of popular musical recordings and his daughter, the well-known Brady Bunch actress Eve Plumb who played Jan Brady.
Neely Plumb’s Augusta roots were deep. His ancestors on multiple lines had been contributing members of the community. On his mother’s side, he was a direct descendent of Augusta inventor William Longstreet, whose attempt to use steam to power a boat on the Savannah River had preceded Robert Fulton’s Clermont on the Hudson. Longstreet’s son Gilbert had married into the prominent Eve family when he wed Martha Henrietta Eve, daughter of Oswell Eve. That gentleman had been a mariner in the Revolutionary Era who settled in Augusta around 1800, lived at Goodale for a time and developed Frog Hall plantation south of the city. In that family’s Cottage Cemetery now rest many of Augusta’s prominent leaders including Joseph Adams Eve, one of the early founders of the Medical College of Georgia.
Neely’s grandfather Benjamin Neely, whose name he bore, had been a leader in education in Augusta. Coming here after graduating from the College of Charleston, Benjamin Neely had become a teacher at the Academy of Richmond County in the antebellum period. After serving the Confederacy in the Civil War, he returned to Augusta to teach, founding a school for girls in 1866 that became Tubman High School. Benjamin Neely and his wife Henrietta Eve Carmichael Neely were parents of Hannah Longstreet Neely, Neely Plumb’s mother. Hannah’s brother, Benjamin Neely Plumb’s uncle, was Frank Henry Neely, a Georgia Tech engineer, who became chairman of the Board of Atlanta’s well-known Rich’s Corporation and a major contributor to Atlanta’s growth. Frank had been born in the “Cottage House” on the old Eve family land. It was probably Uncle Frank’s influence that sent Neely and his brother William to Georgia Tech after graduation from Richmond Academy.
In 1900 Hannah had married William A. Plumb, a widower with two daughters by his first wife, Katherine Boardman. William was the son of Alonzo F. and Mary Frances Plumb and William’s sister Nellie married Hollis C. Boardman, founder of the company that became Boardman Oil. Hannah and William had four children, two daughters and two sons, with Neely being the youngest.
In spite of his many family connections, Neely did not have a privileged childhood. He was only 4 years old when his father William, a salesman with Phinizy & Company, died in December 1916. Augusta was just beginning to rebuild from the disastrous fire that destroyed over 30 blocks of downtown that year. The Plumb’s Telfair Street home had escaped the conflagration by a block and a half.
Neely may have had childhood memories of World War I, as soldiers from Augusta left for European battlefields and others from throughout the country came to train at Camp Hancock.In 1918 the Plumb children would have been out of school for much of the fall when the quarantine to stop the spread of the Spanish Flu epidemic closed all local institutions.
Like many widows, Hannah had a family to support so she went to work. She became the manager of The Tea Shop, a position she continued until the mid-1920s when daughters Bessie and Mary took over the business. Stepdaughter Katherine, then 25 years old, was still at home and undoubtedly aiding Hannah with the younger children as well as helping support the family financially by working as a stenographer until her marriage.
In 1920 Hannah and the children were still living in the family home in the 300 block of Telfair but by the mid-1920s they had become lodgers in the home of their elderly neighbor next door. By 1929 the Plumb women were no longer at the Tea Shop, which did not survive the Depression. Bessie married but she and her husband lived with the family and Bessie took work as a stenographer. Throughout these years young Neely and his brother William went to nearby Houghton School and on to Richmond Academy in the mid-1920s.
Hannah tried to give her children a normal childhood. At the age of 10 Neely was part of the program of the Junior Missionary Society of St. John’s United Methodist Church and was active in the YMCA. In 1924 he was one of Augusta’s boys who belonged to the Junior Gym class at the Y. Neely, along with his friend Louis Hildebrandt, whose family owned the still-popular grocery store on 6th Street, were on Team B—the Beetles. The next year Neely was Captain of the Boys Y Division 3.
At Houghton School in June 1925, his last year there before entering ARC for high school, Neely was recognized with honors in geography. In 1928 he was able to go to camp at Caesar’s Head, S.C.
When Neely and his older brother William became interested in music is not clear, but Frederick Plumb was a music teacher and composer and may have taught the young boys. Neely was still in high school when he and William were playing with the band of the Augusta Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, so they must have been playing from a young age.
After graduation from ARC that June night in 1929, Neely spent some time at the Junior College of Augusta, playing the soprano sax in the school’s orchestra before leaving for Georgia Tech. A band known as the Georgia Tech Ramblers came to Augusta in May 1932 to play for the Augusta Demolay and according to The Augusta Chronicle, Augusta had two members of this “talented musical group”—Neely and his brother William.
While at Tech Neely worked for WSB (Welcome South, Brother) radio, the first station in the city and state. Founded by the Atlanta Journal, WSB began operating in March 1922. By the time Neely joined them, the station had moved to the top of the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel and become affiliated with the National Broadcasting Company.
After graduating from Tech, Neely’s love for music steered him out of a career in engineering. The risk of a career in music, a decision perhaps made when he looked out over the city of Atlanta from atop the Biltmore, proved to be a worth it. In 1954The Augusta Chronicle “bragged a bit” when it reminded the community that the Junior College once had an orchestra that included Neely Plumb, who “went on to climb the ladder of success in the musical world.”
Music took both Plumb brothers away from Augusta permanently. By the time Neely was best man in brother William’s Chicago wedding in 1937, only sister Bessie and her husband Frank Conlon lived in their hometown. They continued to care for Hannah until her death in 1958. Neely is listed in the wedding announcement of his brother as “formerly of Augusta.” Neely studied music in Chicago and Los Angeles and began playing with popular bands and orchestras of the day.
By the time of his own marriage in Los Angeles in March 1939, Neely Plumb was already making a name for himself. His bride was Flora June Dobry of Oklahoma City, a ballet dancer and actress, eight years his junior. The couple set sail from Los Angeles after the wedding and honeymooned in Honolulu where Neely was working with the Anson Weeks Band, a popular West Coast group in the big band era. A couple of months later the newlyweds returned to Los Angeles and made a home in Hollywood. He went on to play sax and sometimes clarinet with Artie Shaw, Ray Noble and others of the big band era. He worked with Judy Garland, Lena Horne and Ray Coniff. Plumb’s musicianship can still be heard on original recordings as well as on retrospective CDs such as “Jazz from Atlanta, 1923-1928,” or “Best of the War Years.”
For five years Plumb was the recording producer for the west coast division of RCA. In 1963 he became manager of A & R for RCA on the West Coast. He went on the produce the soundtracks for some of the major motion pictures of the middle 20th century—Sound of Music, True Grit, Bye Bye Birdie, the Good Bad and Ugly, In Cold Blood, The Harrod Experiment, She Came to the Valley, to name some of the best known. After an independent deal with Capitol Records, he produced the soundtrack for Franco Zefferilli’s Romeo and Julietand soundtrack albums for Taxi Driver and Three Days of the Condor. He had five gold records for soundtrack albums. He was also an arranger, conductor and musician who worked with many acts in several genres, including Artie Shaw, Jefferson Airplane and Glenn Yarborough. Plumb was the arranger and producer on the novelty pop song of Sheb Wooley that went to number one—“Purple People Eater.” A quick google shows that his discography is extensive.
Neely and Flora Plumb had four children—son Benjamin, and daughters Flora, Eve and Catherine. Daughter Flora began her acting career in 1968 with a small part in the television show Wild Wild West and went on to have appearances in others shows including Marcus Welby, MD and Lou Grant.
Her sister Eve, 14 years younger, became so well-known to audiences throughout the country, that she became the most recognizable member of the Plumb family. Beginning at the age of 6 in television commercials and appearances on shows such as The Virginian, The Big Valley and Lassie, Eve became a television star when she began appearing at age 11 as Jan, the middle daughter, on the popular The Brady Brunch. While the show only ran from 1969 to 1974, it has continued to run in syndication for years, still drawing viewers. Eve Plumb also worked in other television shows and movies, including Little Women. More recently she has done theater and has been a visual artist for over 20 years.
Neely and Flora had been married over 55 years when Flora died in 1995. Neely died one month short of his 88th birthday five years later in October 2000. Today he and Flora lie next to each other in a Hollywood cemetery under a headstone with the epitaph “Eternal Love.” Richmond Academy has produced some remarkable folks over the years; Neely Plumb is one and certainly deserves this recognition from his alma mater.