John M. Belk
1920 – 2007
John lived a full life by any measure. He was an athlete, a soldier, a successful businessman, and perhaps most importantly, the mayor of Charlotte. He was a visionary, a philanthropist, a friend to all walks of life, as well as a husband, father and man of faith. After John’s passing, his daughter MC found a note while cleaning out his desk that read,
“I loved every second. And if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The third of six children, John was born to William Henry Belk and Mary Irwin Belk in Charlotte on March 29, 1920. He had fond memories growing up in the large family home on Hawthorne Street near Presbyterian Hospital, and described his childhood as “wholesome, home-oriented and fun.” His parents were devout Christians, instilling in him and his siblings an unshakable faith in God and a strong moral compass, which guided all aspects of his life.
John attended public schools in Charlotte and McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn. He stood only 5’6” as a high school sophomore, but grew to a towering 6’4” and 210 pounds by the time he left for Davidson College, where he played on the varsity basketball team. His love of sports extended well beyond basketball, though, both as a participant and a spectator. He even earned the nickname “Battling Belk,” due to his habit of sneaking out of the house to box (and legend has it he once lost a tooth in the ring).
Throughout most of his life John was a notorious bachelor, dating a long list of glamorous girlfriends before meeting Claudia Watkins. He was dazzled by her because she was different: smart, independent, and played hard to get! He was impressed by her accomplishments and sense of service, making history as the first woman to serve as a district court judge in Mecklenburg County. They married in 1971 and had their only child, Mary Claudia, in 1973.
Continuing a family tradition, John attended Davidson College from 1939 to 1943, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics. He served as captain of the varsity basketball team and was a leader in student government as well as other campus organizations. He sat on the school’s Board of Trustees for 30 years and received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1973 for his dedication and leadership in fundraising.
In 1989 John donated personal funds to build a new basketball arena, as part of an updated sports complex on the Davidson campus, and was later inducted into the Davidson Athletic Hall of Fame, to recognize his accomplishments in this beloved sport.
In 1995 John established the John Montgomery Belk Scholarship at Davidson, a well renowned program that currently awards eight merit scholarships per year.
John remained engaged with the school throughout his life because of the profound effect his college years had on him. He relished the opportunity to help deserving young people attend his alma mater, hoping they might enjoy a college experience like his own.
Service to Country
John’s life was one of service, and it began at an early age. He was a lifelong Boy Scout, joining a troop at age 12, advancing through the ranks, and receiving the Silver Beaver, Silver Antelope, Distinguished Eagle Scout and Silver Buffalo awards.
His military tenure began four days after he graduated from Davidson, when he shipped out to serve as Army active duty, Second Lieutenant. He fought in World War II from 1943 – 1946, followed by a stint in Korea from 1950 – 1952, where he served as Army active duty, First Lieutenant, and officer of the United Nations Civil Assistance Command. As captain of his company in Korea, John was assigned to help create small businesses and to aid the local citizens as they coped with the ravages of war. He was successful in developing some rice factories and helping others that had been damaged by bombs to become operational once again.
Also, while on active duty, John started several Boy Scout troops overseas. After returning home he assumed many leadership roles, both locally and nationally, in the Boy Scouts of America. He received Scouting’s highest honors when he was named a Baden-Powell Fellow in 1988.
John is remembered as a very successful businessman, having run his family’s company with his brothers for more than 50 years. It all began in 1888, when John’s father and uncle, William Henry Belk and Dr. John Belk, opened a single dry goods store in Monroe, N.C. They formed dozens of retail partnerships with businessmen in small towns across the Southeast, creating what was to become one of the region’s preeminent department store organizations.
In 1952, John returned home from the military and assumed a leadership role in this family business. Over time, he and his brother Tom completely transformed the Belk organization from a myriad network of small downtown bargain stores to expanded, modernized department stores, anchoring major suburban malls and shopping centers.
In 1965, John even had a hand in creating Charlotte’s South Park mall, by orchestrating a land swap with James J. Harris on what was then considered the outskirts of town. Today, it remains one of North Carolina’s premier retail centers.
In 1998, John led the efforts to merge 112 separate Belk store corporations into one corporate entity, Belk, Inc., which became the nation’s largest privately owned department store company. As part of his leadership, John mentored his three nephews, Thomas M. “Tim” Belk, H.W. McKay Belk and John R. “Johnny” Belk, who succeeded him as the company’s third generation of family leaders when he retired in 2004.
John’s life of service didn’t end with his military career. He held a variety of significant civic leadership positions in Charlotte, including president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce (1964) and Mayor (1969-1977), all while still at the helm of his family’s company. He helped to forge the beneficial collaboration between business and government that continues today in Charlotte, positioning the city as one of the nation’s largest banking centers and fastest growing metropolises. John’s tenure as mayor wasn’t simple or easy, as he frequently had to make tough decisions – ones that weren’t always popular – to ensure Charlotte was poised for the brightest possible future. But John was honored to hold the office of mayor and saw it as an opportunity to serve the city he loved.
John’s accomplishments left many lasting impressions in Charlotte. He was instrumental in the expansion of Charlotte’s airport as an international hub, enabling the city to become a major financial, transportation and distribution center. And ever the avid sports fan, John helped bring professional basketball and football to Charlotte, even becoming part owner in the Panthers NFL franchise.
He served on the boards of countless public corporations, universities and nonprofit, community and charitable organizations. John held several national leadership positions and received a long list of local, state and national awards for his business achievements and civic contributions – far too many to list here.
John loved the city of Charlotte and worked hard to see it grow and prosper. He served in several capacities simply because he saw a need and was willing to fill it, thus creating a unique impact on his hometown.