As a student at Myers Park High School in the 1950s, Dale Halton and her best friend wanted to run track. No, they were told. Girls will never do that.
Halton studied dance, enjoyed it and wanted to try for a career. No, she was told. Nice girls from good Charlotte families don’t do that.
“I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Halton says, with a gentle laugh.
Halton ended up rebelling against tradition another way. At a time when being a woman in charge of a business still raised eyebrows, she took over her family’s soft-drink operation. For more than 20 years, she ran Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Charlotte. That gave her a path right back to dance and sports: Now she helps make it possible for others to do and enjoy what was forbidden to her.
Halton is a top contributor to N.C. Dance Theatre. She has long backed the athletic program at UNC Charlotte, where her name is on the basketball arena and tennis facility – and will go next on the field house being built for the new football team. Closer to uptown, the Halton Theater heralds her contributions to Central Piedmont Community College.
“The more you have, the more responsibility you have to give to others,” Halton says. “I think it’s important to help folks who don’t have what I have. I wish I could do more. It’s fun.”
Halton has done all this in a city that she once intended to put behind her. The Charlotte of her youth, she recalls, was “a quiet little town. I didn’t like it very much.”
“I was kind of an oddball,” she says. Even the city’s climate disagreed with her – which is why she now spends about half the year in Colorado.
At Myers Park High, Halton and her best friend “could outrun anybody in our class,” she says. She played basketball in gym class, but “I didn’t enjoy it, because I was always being called out for fouls.” Too aggressive? She didn’t think so.
Meanwhile, dance “was my love,” Halton says. Beginning in the fourth grade, she took classes, from tap to ballet to modern. The more challenging something was, the more she enjoyed it. The toughest was a Russian Cossack routine. She had to do the same lusty steps as the boys.
“It was hard. But it was fun,” Halton says. “I’ve probably never been so physically fit in my life.”
She wanted to shoot for a career in dance. But once she graduated from high school, “my father and stepmother wouldn’t support it any more,” she says. In those days, going off to study and audition in New York – which was the main path – was out of the question.
“I was not what my father and stepmother thought I should be,” Halton says. “But that’s all right. We survived each other.”
‘Raised on Pepsi’
One more ingredient in Halton’s upbringing:
“I was raised on Pepsi,” she recalls.
Halton’s grandfather had founded a Pepsi bottling company in Charlotte in 1905, and it flourished. Neither she nor anyone else intended for her to work there, though. On graduating from Myers Park High, she left Charlotte to attend Agnes Scott College in Georgia. After two years there, she got married, had three children and figured she’d never move back to Charlotte.
But in the 1970s, the family business pulled her in after all. At the outset, Halton’s duties included overseeing the company’s advertising.
“I went from the laundry room to the board room,” she says.
There were able people at the company, she recalls, but they weren’t allowed to do their jobs. Business faltered. In 1981, with failure looming, Halton was put in charge.
“It was nothing I ever figured I’d go for,” Halton says. “I had no idea. It was sort of a bolt out of the sky – ‘Now what have I done?’ ”
At the top of her game
She may not have been the only one wondering. For a snapshot of Charlotte’s business world in the 1980s, here’s an anecdote from Jane McIntyre, executive director of United Way of Central Carolinas.
McIntyre, who was elected to the school board in 1987, recalls taking some foreign educators to lunch at the City Club, then a hub of Charlotte business. As the group chatted, one of the visitors pointed out something McIntyre hadn’t noticed: Every other table was occupied by men.
A woman in a prominent position, McIntyre recalls, had to be at the top of her game all the time. While Charlotte was home to female executives in banks and other businesses, she says, only Halton was the head of a name-brand company.
“She had courage,” McIntyre says.
Everyone just had to get used to the fact that the Pepsi distributor had a woman in the corner office.
“People would call and want ‘Mr. Halton,’ ” she recalls. “I’ve had them slam the phone down so hard it hurt my ear. I’ve been cursed out. I would say, ‘Sir, there has never been a Mr. Halton at this company. Now, can I help you?’ ”
While Halton had no formal training in business, she had two things going for her, she says: organization and “a lot of common sense.” Strong executives alongside her helped.
The company gradually turned around. Once it was profitable, her next project was to add benefits for the employees. The list grew to include a 401(k) program, bonuses and dental insurance – including coverage for braces.
“We had a Christmas party one year, and I had just put braces on,” Halton recalls. “Several employees came up with their children and said, ‘Ms. Halton, thank you so much for this insurance. My child now has braces.’ I would say, ‘I do, too!’ ” She opens her mouth in a display-window smile.
“The little ones were so tickled. They thought it was funny – that old lady had braces.”
‘Hang in there’
Halton also set up a charitable foundation. Each year, she says, 10 percent of the company’s profits went into it. UNCC became one of its top beneficiaries.
“Our athletic program would not look like it does today if Dale Halton had not been so generous,” Athletics Director Judy Rose says. It isn’t just a matter of money.
“She’ll fly to tournaments and be there to offer support,” Rose says. “She’ll call coaches, if it’s a rough spot in the season, and say, ‘Hang in there.’ ”
Unlike the typical college donor, Rose adds, she’s not an alum. “That speaks volumes about her.”
Halton’s grandfather set the precedent. He was a supporter of the school, she explains, and when he died, she asked friends to forgo sending flowers and instead donate to a scholarship in his name. Her own interest grew from there.
“I guess my nature has been to be for the underdog, and UNCC has been an underdog all its life,” Halton says.
“It’s young. It’s new. It wasn’t given the advantages I think it should’ve been given. … I think that’s really what got me going.”
What she witnessed at sports events took over from there. Before taking up with UNCC, she says, “I had seen people play basketball, and they’d make faces and grimace and not behave well.
“When I started watching UNCC play … there was a dignity about these guys. They didn’t complain. They didn’t make faces. They didn’t fuss about something. They played the game, and they took the good, and they took the bad. I like that.”
Halton donated $1.3 million to give the basketball team a home: the Halton Arena, which opened in 1996. The amount, reported by the Observer at the opening, equates to about $1.9 million in today’s dollars. And Halton has supported more than sports: Her name is also on a reading room in the school’s Atkins Library. She has endowed academic scholarships and backed study-abroad programs.
“People say, ‘Why do you do so much for athletics?’ ” Halton says.
“It’s not so much for athletics. It’s to help some of these kids who’d never be able to go to college without an athletic scholarship. And there are plenty of them, not just in basketball and football. So I feel like I’m helping the kids get a college degree. To me, that’s very rewarding.”
‘A dancer in her heart’
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who became North Carolina Dance Theatre’s artistic director in 1996, thinks back to a party he attended when he was still getting to know people in town. He noticed that Halton was at home on the dance floor. He thought to himself: Was she once a dancer?
For years, Halton says, she gravitated away from dance performances. She didn’t want to be reminded of what she had missed out on. She finally broke through that after NCDT moved from Winston-Salem in 1990.
“It was hard for me to go to anything until the Dance Theatre came to Charlotte. By then, I realized that I was so old I wouldn’t be performing any more,” Halton says with a laugh. “So it made it a whole lot easier to be involved.”
Halton became one of the NCDT’s most devoted supporters. In the list of business and foundation donors in the company’s program booklet for last season, the Dale Halton Foundation stands in the $75,000-$99,999 group. The sole category above that contains just two names: the Arts & Science Council and Wells Fargo.
Besides helping NCDT financially, Bonnefoux says, Halton has backed him on things that have been good for the group – such as the founding of the preprofessional company, NCDT 2.
“She’s really a dancer in her heart,” Bonnefoux says. “That’s why it’s so easy for her to understand what our needs are.”
‘What a joy it was’
To sum up her unintended business career, Halton says simply:
“I can’t tell you what a joy it was.”
If not, here’s a fact that might help: When she threw a 100th-anniversary celebration for the company in 2005, Halton gave each employee a gift: $1,000 for each year with the company. The total, the Observer reported, was $3 million.
A few weeks later, Halton sold the business her grandfather had launched.
“When I signed the papers ... tears were rolling down my eyes,” she says. “I felt like I was signing away everything I cared about. But it was the best thing to do.”
She and other alumni of the company get together each month to have lunch and “keep up with the gossip” – when she’s in Charlotte, that is.
Halton spends around half of each year near Telluride, Colo., where she savors the mountain scenery, snow and un-Charlotte-like low humidity. After several years away from the ski slopes because of back problems, she’s maintaining a regimen of Pilates, exercise and daily walks aimed at letting her get back in action this winter.
After that, the big date on her calendar is Aug. 31, 2013, when UNCC’s 49ers play their first football game.
The team will be headquartered in the next building to bear Halton’s name: the field house standing behind one of the new stadium’s end zones. It will have more than 40,000 square feet of academic and training areas, locker rooms, coaches’ offices and conference rooms.
Rose recently gave Halton a tour of the construction site. As they looked around, Halton asked: Well, where’s the field house?
“I says, ‘Dale, you’re standing in it,’ ” Rose says. “The view is unbelievable from there, and you do get chills.” Halton’s reaction appeared soon.
“She had tears running down her face,” Rose says, “when she looked at the field house that’s going to bear her name. ... I think it’s more impressive to her than she expected.”