John Montgomery Belk (1920 – 2007)
A Lifetime of Accomplishment and Service
In 1920, John M. Belk was born the third of six children to William Henry Belk and Mary Irwin Belk in Charlotte, N.C. John’s parents raised him and his siblings to have a strong Christian faith, to value a good education, and to recognize any opportunity to serve their fellow man as a privilege. John’s life of service began early, when he joined the Boy Scouts at the age of 12—an organization for which he would develop a lifelong devotion.
After graduating from Davidson College and serving our country in World War II and Korea, John ran the family business with his brother, Tom, for over 50 years, transforming it into the nation’s largest privately held department store. In 1969, he was elected mayor of Charlotte and served four terms, all the while remaining at the helm of the family business. John viewed his tenure as mayor as a time of service to the city he loved—and one of his most important roles. Through his leadership and public service, he helped shape the city’s future, spearheading the international expansion of Charlotte’s airport, revitalizing troubled Charlotte neighborhoods, and saving downtown Charlotte from the deterioration many other towns experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. John worked tirelessly to propel the city forward, helping to forge the collaboration between business and government that has positioned Charlotte as the nation’s second-largest banking center and one of the country’s fastest growing cities. He also played a key role in bringing major collegiate basketball tournaments and professional NBA and NFL teams to Charlotte, which pleased him as a community builder and an avid sports fan.
John retired as chairman and chief executive officer of the family business in 2004, having led the company his father founded back in 1888 to become one of the South’s most successful and respected retailers. But the Belk family is known for much more than just the business. They are known throughout the South as a generous, community-focused family defined by a spirit of giving. John demonstrated this spirit throughout his life, giving generously to improve the Charlotte community, the Presbyterian church, Davidson College, the Boy Scouts of America, local and state universities and other worthy charities and causes. Much of his giving was focused on education, because John inherently believed that a quality education and leadership training are key to leading a productive and fulfilling life. Through his experience in the business world, he saw the need for educating the populace to meet the needs of the workforce. These notions, coupled with a passion for his city and state, propelled John to establish the John M. Belk Educational Endowment.
Those who knew John best say his greatest gift was cultivating relationships. He enjoyed people. He built relationships within all walks of life, and he spent his time nurturing those relationships and drawing energy from them. He tried to help others connect so that they might build relationships as well, because John understood that successful businesses and communities are all built on effective relationships and shared dreams.
John died in 2007. His wife Claudia and daughter MC continue his legacy to create educational opportunities and pathways to prosperity for today’s workforce through the John M. Belk Endowment.
For a more complete biography of John Belk, please watch the 60-minute documentary “A Portrait in Principle.”