Sleeves rolled up, tie askew, pacing the floor with excitement – that’s how many of James “Jim” Allen’s co-workers and friends describe the community advocate, public affairs expert, and former editor of the Shelby Daily Star. Throughout the course of his life, Allen immersed himself deeply in revitalizing Cleveland County and igniting support for the arts in Charlotte.
Allen passed away Sept. 19, at age 80.
“A whirlwind kind of guy. … He was that kind of guy,” said Dr. Kevin Soden, medical director for Texas Instruments, medical consultant for Fortune 100 companies, who worked with Allen at Hoechst Celanese.
The long list of Allen’s professional and volunteer activities attests to a full, rich life centered around community development. The inventory of Allen’s achievements includes chairman of the Cleveland County Chamber of Commerce and numerous other boards, and member on advisory board for both UNC Charlotte and Gardner-Webb University.
“The point of all that is that Jim was just an exceptionally civic-minded person,” said Dr. Frank Bonner, president of Gardner-Webb University. “He was just devoted to the quality of life and economic development of Cleveland County.”
Bonner described how during the decades when Allen was working and volunteering in Cleveland County, the county transformed into a more cultural vibrant, economically stable place to live.
Bonner pointed to the relocation of several large manufacturing and service companies, the new home in Shelby for the American Legion World Series, and cultural attractions such as Destination Cleveland County and new convention center. Allen also co-founded the Foothills Merry-Go-Round Festival in 1998 and led efforts to open the Don Gibson Theatre and Earl Scruggs Center. Cleveland County was recently ranked one of the top 10 best small markets by Southern Business and Development magazine,
“The county, I think, has changed significantly for the better in the past 20 years. It’s moved from the textile industry to economic diversification,” said Bonner.
“(Allen) exemplified the kind of civic spirit and community spirit that brought all that about. Nobody was a better example.”
Across the board, co-workers related how consistently Allen embodied that spirit, both within Cleveland County and beyond.
As editor at The Star from 1963 to 1968, Allen mentored many young journalists and sparked their careers.
“He was always hard-working,” said Joe DePriest, columnist for The Charlotte Observer, who worked for Allen while studying at the UNC School of Journalism.
“He got there before anybody else and left after everybody else. He was a great inspiration to a young journalist.”
Allen carried his passion for communicating to his work as communications and public affairs director at Hoechst Celanese. There, he led the company to pledge to the Arts & Science Council in Charlotte. The council’s annual campaign was the highest per-capita giving campaign in the country, according to the former president and CEO of the Council, Michael Marsicano.
Marsicano, current president and CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas, described how Allen lit a fire in the Hoechst Celanese Corp. to rally around the public arts.
“His communication skills were just phenomenal,” said Marsicano. “He had a personal passion for the arts that he could articulate really well... and why the arts were good for education and good for economic development.”
Soden described how Allen insisted on clear and honest communication even during rockier times – such as when Hoechst Celanese was trying to determine if certain materials used in processing posed a risk to workers.
“When you get an inkling that something could be going on, what do you do? Do you bury it or do you confront it head-on?” said Soden.
Allen took the latter approach, working with the company to communicate with employees and commission impartial doctors to perform studies, who found no threat.
“I think he left people at the end of the day with the feeling that he was going to do the right thing by people,” Soden said.
The N.C. Legislature issued an official certificate of appreciation for Allen’s lifetime of contributions to the state. Rep. Kelly Hasting of District 110, prompted the award. Hastings described how, after years of knowing Allen personally, he was astounded to read Allen’s obituary and learn about his many accomplishments.
Marsicano echoed how, despite the thick portfolio of achievements, Allen did his work quietly, focused on his passion rather than attention.
“As articulate as he was, he had this kind of quiet resolve,” said Marsicano. “He just got things done in a very polished way. He shied away from fanfare. He was just a very genuine and authentic person.”