Monday, August 20, 2007

Care about Charlotte? Learn about John Belk

Many people reading this may know of John Belk only because they’ve shopped in one of the department stores that bear his father’s name. But anyone who cares at all about Charlotte should know a lot more than that about the imprint this imposing, colorful, gregarious man left on this community.

Just before Belk’s memorial service this afternoon, I heard someone question whether Charlotte truly has a "culture" of its own, or whether we’ve become so overrun by transplants that we are a hodgepodge of other cultures and influences.

I’d argue that John Belk is one of the many things that make Charlotte’s culture unique.

As mayor from 1969 to 1977, he oversaw a period of sweeping change, including shifting racial dynamics, airport expansion and construction of the city’s first convention center. Afterward, he remained a vital part of the local business and philanthropic community.

You’ve likely driven on the John Belk Freeway, attended a show at the Belk theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center or perhaps seen one of the buildings that bears his name at Davidson, UNC-Charlotte or other schools.

We remain the corporate headquarters of the retailer he expanded into the largest privately held department store company in the United States, and we benefit from being its employment center and from the lively retail competition that its presence brings. (There’d be no Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus at SouthPark without the flagship Belk store that came first). Click here to read more about his legacy.

My favorite part of Belk’s role in our history is his colorful use of language – see my colleague Jim Morrill’s blog for some examples of classic "Belkisms." I experienced several of them myself when I covered retail for the Observer from September 2001, through Belk’s retirement from the company’s chairmanship, and until I began this newcomers job last year.

At his retirement in 2004, he told me: "While I can still chew gum and talk, I want to get out of the way."

When asked how he plans to spend his time in retirement, he replied: "I haven’t thought about it. But there’s always more to do than I could handle."

Then he added: "The world’s going on, and it’s a good thing it does."

When I spotted him a few months later at a public function and asked how retirement was going, his answer: "Life is like a roll of toilet paper. It goes a lot faster at the end."

I enjoyed a personal connection with him, too: My late great-grandfather, Edward Jones Erwin, taught Shakespeare, Tennyson and Browning at Davidson College, and Belk was one of his students. Belk told me he had fond memories of the classes. When I had the chance to chat with retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl after today’s memorial service and shared the connection, McColl quipped: "I’m surprised John ever took an English class."

It is fitting that the memorial service for a man who approached his life with such humor was filled with laughter. I’ll conclude with one more joke from John Belk, which his friend Bishop George Battle shared during his eulogy:

"What do you say to a man who has two black eyes?
Nothing – he’s already been told twice."


Blogger Julie Kelly said...

Growing up in the malls of the South, I have always loved Belk department stores, complete with Belkie Bears during the holidays. I had no idea of his history in Charlotte.

Thank you for introducing me to his character and legacy. It makes my memories shopping with grandma in Belk's, from Greenville, SC to Hartwell, GA's tiny store, a little more connected to where I'm living now.

9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leigh, thank you (and Hugh McColl!)for making me laugh. I find that I have been much saddened by John Belk's passing, since we have lost someone who was indispensable to building today's Charlotte. I never knew him, but growing up in Charlotte I always thought he was bigger than life. He wanted to be remembered as someone who was good to Charlotte and he of course will be. I can't imagine Charlotte without him-his love for the city was plain to see for years and years.

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to add...I remember the time that Piedmont Airlines made its first non-stop trip to London from Charlotte/Douglas and the tv news showed us John Belk, on the steps of the plane, shouting "hooray for Piedmont!" I know he surely also meant, "hooray for Charlotte."

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh please let this be the errant CAPITALIZER's last post!

Granted, Belk has done a lot for Charlotte, but so have a lot of other people. I think his death, funeral, obit, and media coverage over the years has been blown way out of proportion and has been way over the top. I could have done a lot around here growing up too had I had all the money he had! Money equals power, even here in Charlotte.

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think John Belk recognized that other people did things for Charlotte every time he sent a hand-written note of thanks. Every time he greeted people cordially he set aside his wealth and power to acknowledge our mutual humanity and worth. It takes nothing away from the countless Charlotteans who give of themselves every day to the city to acknowledge that John Belk's contributions were special and transformative.

If nothing else, I would point to the new airport and subsequent international hub that his efforts produced. There are but a scant few others whose work and commitment produced such a lasting impact for Charlotte. We know who they are and they of course love Charlotte just as much.

One thinks of Leona Helmsley who also passed recently at the same age. She cared not a whit for anyone she touched. John Belk cared deeply for his hometown and for those whose lives intersected his.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

all I want to learn about Charlotte is where the exit door is and I want my $50,000 dollars back I brought here.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Besides those much-loved Belkie bears from the Charlotte Belk department stores, if they had some stores in Russia, they could add some Belkie squirrels to the roster since "belka" and "belki" are the Russian words for "squirrel" and "squirrels."

For that matter, since the genetive form of the Belk family name would be "Belka" in Russia, then the Russian Belk squirrels could be known as "Belki Belka."

This would surely brighten somebody's day in Moscow, St. Petersburg or old Irkutsk.

Das vidania!

2:26 PM  

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