Irwin “Ike” Belk, a Charlotte businessman and civic leader who played a key role in creating UNC Charlotte, died Saturday at age 95.
As a boy, Belk spent Saturdays, holidays and summers working in his family’s namesake department store in uptown Charlotte. He would go on to spend his entire business career working at the chain and make his mark as a philanthropist, sports enthusiast and state lawmaker.
As a state senator in 1965, Belk introduced the legislation creating UNCC as the fourth member of the University of North Carolina. He also coordinated the coalition that backed the bill, turning Charlotte College into the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He later served on the UNC System Board of Governors and the UNCC Board of Trustees.
“We have lost a giant figure in the history of our university,” said UNCC Chancellor Philip Dubois. “Ike Belk will be remembered for generations to come not only for his generosity and commitment to the growth and expanding service of UNC Charlotte, but as a hero at the pivotal moment at which we became the fourth member of the University of North Carolina System.”
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Born on April 4, 1922, in Charlotte, Belk was the fourth of six children of department store magnate William Henry Belk, Sr., and his wife, Mary Irwin Belk. His four late brothers included former Charlotte Mayor John M. Belk. He is survived by his sister Sarah Belk Gambrell, as well as his four children and grandchildren.
In 1935, when Belk was 13 he and his father visited several countries in Europe and had their photograph taken at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, where sprinter Jesse Owens starred a year later. Belk long remembered the visit and vowed to be a U.S. supporter of the Olympics.
Also in 1935, he enrolled at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., where his classmates gave him the nickname of “Ike” and he became a competitive track runner.
Belk spent his freshman year at Davidson College and transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill for his sophomore year. After being drafted in 1943, he served in a counterintelligence unit in England during World War II and flew with bombers on hazardous daylight raids over Germany. He was discharged in 1945 and returned to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he graduated in 1948. He married his wife, Carol, who died in 2014, that same year.
Belk’s enthusiasm for running and the Olympics lasted throughout his life. He endowed tracks at 29 schools and colleges, including UNCC and Davidson.
At UNCC, Belk is the largest overall donor to 49er athletics, and the track and field complex on the main campus bears his name, the university said. Three residence halls on campus are dedicated to his children, and he also commissioned or donated more than 25 sculptures around campus.
“Ike was one of the kindest and most generous individuals I have known; his generosity can be seen throughout our campus,” said athletics director Judy Rose. “Our athletes compete proudly in the Irwin Belk Track and Field Center and study in the Miltimore-Wallis Athletic Training and Academic Center. I’m grateful to have been the beneficiary of his loving friendship; his influence within our athletic program will last in perpetuity.”
A service will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at Myers Park Presbyterian Church.
Former Observer reporter Marion Ellis contributed to this story.