Bull statue at Johnson C. Smith University
Irwin “Ike” Belk was less known than his brothers Tom and John, the top executives for decades at the largest family-owned department-store chain in the U.S. But he led a truly fascinating life and made a huge impact, veteran North Carolina author Marion Ellis explained in his 2006 book, Call Me Ike; The Life of Irwin Belk.
Ike Belk, the son of Belk founder William Henry Belk, died last week at 95. Four other brothers previously died, including former Charlotte Mayor John Belk, a dominant force in Charlotte development for decades. Sarah Belk Gambrell is the sole surviving sibling. We asked Ellis, a Durham resident who specializes in biographies of N.C. families and public figures, to share some memories.
What is your favorite story about Mr. Belk?
It’s how he saved the United Nations from losing a payment by the U.S. government. It happened when [former U.S. Sen.] Jesse Helms was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Republicans weren’t getting along with the U.N. So someone there asked Mr. Belk if he’d call Jesse and try to work something out. “Sure, he said, We grew up together in Monroe. I’ll have him bring the committee to the U.N.” So they did, and they had a great time. Ike got everyone a UNC baseball cap. Soon after, they released the money, and Ike was a hero.
What were his passions?
He loved track and field ever since he was a runner at the McCallie boarding school in Tennessee. He set a record there and he became a lifelong fan. He eventually gave at least 20 Olympic-size athletic tracks. He was the biggest U.S. investor in the Olympic movement. He helped finance the Jesse Helms museum in Wingate. When I asked him if there was a pattern to his giving, he said, “It’s education.” He also loved UNC Charlotte. He was in the [N.C.] senate and led the effort to include [what was called] Charlotte College in the UNC System. The vote was 49-1. He never forgave the guy who voted no.
He also loved big bull statutes and he donated some of those. He told me that the one at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte was bigger than the famous one on Wall Street.
Did he have much to do much with the department stores?
Not really. John and Tom ran the stores and Ike basically looked after his investments and land holdings. The brothers didn’t get along very well, and there was a time when John and Tom barred him and other siblings from visiting the Charlotte offices. It was just family stuff, five boys and jealousy.
What did he do with his time?
He basically looked after his investments. He may be the wealthiest of the Belks because he was such a great investor. He told me he made a lot of money when his brothers bought out his interest in SouthPark, both the mall store and surrounding land. He was on the First Union National Bank board at age 18. He once told me, “We owned Lake Norman before there was a Lake Norman” because his father was so good at buying land for virtually nothing and selling it when it became valuable. They also gave away a lot of land over the years. He enjoyed time with his family and he just did what he wanted to do: If he wanted to go to Italy, he’d take his family to Italy.
What was he like to work with on the autobiography?
I loved every minute of it. He was an amazing guy. I spent a lot of time with him at his winter home in Key Largo, Fla. There were billionaires all over the place. But he had no pretense. If there was a question, he’d answer it.