Dr. John Neil Varnell


A celebration of the life of Dr. John Neil Varnell, 74, of Natchez, Miss., who died on Wednesday, March 6, 2019, will be held at his home, 205 Clifton Ave., at 4 p.m. on April 14, 2019.

Neil was born on Feb. 23, 1945, in Cleveland, Tenn., to Robert Wayne Varnell and Mary Ruth Dethero Varnell. He grew up on the family dairy farm.

Neil 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 completed a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. Between college 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 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 and 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. He taught on military bases in Kwajalean Atoll in the Marshall Islands, Korea, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Iceland, Portugal, and Malaysia. On weekends and holidays, he explored other countries.

While he taught and roamed overseas, he rented his house fully furnished to a couple who operated the house as a bed and breakfast. When he returned to Natchez in 2001, he decided to see what it would be like to operate a bed and breakfast. He simply continued the business established by his former tenants. He enjoyed the interaction with his guests and the freedom of staying at home and working in his garden.

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 overlooking the river. This was only one of Neil’s battles, but it was surely the most important as city officials now embrace preserving the bluff property as a public park.

Neil was preceded in death by his parents; and one brother, Robert Wayne Varnell, Jr.

He is survived by one sister, Katie May Varnell Edstrom (Carl); sister-in-law, Judy Fulton Varnell; nephew, Robert Wayne Varnell, III (Kelli); nieces: Gretchen Edstrom Hays (Mike), Amy Edstrom Harney (Rick), and Marny Varnell Birkitt (John); six great-nieces; and four great-nephews.

The family requests memorials be made to a charitable organization of the donor’s choosing.


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