Claudia Watkins Belk, a pioneering lawyer and judge and the wife of one of Charlotte’s most prominent mayors, died Wednesday. She was 79.
Belk, who went on to another life as a philanthropist, was the wife of former Mayor John Belk, scion of the department store chain. Their 1971 wedding made the social pages of The New York Times.
Claudia Belk was one of only two women to graduate from UNC’s law school in 1963. She opened her own practice at a time when few women were in the field and later served as assistant clerk of Mecklenburg County Superior Court. In 1968, she was elected district judge, becoming one of the county’s first women elected to public office.
“She was sort of a pioneering spirit,” said John Ingle, a friend who once chaired the county Democratic Party. “It was not a commonplace thing to see a lady in law and in politics at that time.”
Belk was later honored as one of Charlotte’s Outstanding Career Women in law and government. Central Piedmont Community College’s Claudia Watkins Belk Center for Justice was named in her honor.
Born the daughter of a tobacco wholesaler, Belk grew up in Durham. She went on to Hollins College, where she was able to study abroad in Paris.
“I think that forever changed her view that women should have global experiences,” said longtime friend Susan Jamison.
After law school, Belk returned to Charlotte and opened her own practice. In 1968, the year she would be elected judge, she attended a reception at the Democratic Women’s Club. There she met a man long known as Charlotte’s “most eligible bachelor.” John Montgomery Belk was CEO of Belk department stores. He would be elected to the first of four terms a year later.
In 1971, Claudia Watkins carried a bouquet of white orchids into the Durham church where she and John Belk were married. In 1973, she gave birth to her only child, Mary Claudia.
In marrying the mayor, she joined not only one of the city’s most prominent families but took on a partner with an oversize and dominant personality.
“It was no small feat to be John’s counterpart and she did it beautifully,” said niece Sally Belk Gambrell. “It was kind of like a made-for-TV match: beautiful district court judge marries city mayor.”
Belk was active in numerous causes, including the Arts & Writing Foundation, the CPCC Foundation, Daughters of the American Revolution, Queens University of Charlotte and North Carolina Nature Conservancy.
When CPCC named its Justice Center for her, school officials cited her passion for causes big and small.
“This (honor) is most fitting,” said Brenda Lea, director of the college’s foundation. “She’s a great leader and a champion for what she thinks is right. She’s always eager to do things she a has passion for.”
Another tribute has yet to break ground. In 2014, the Belk family gave a gift to Novant Health Foundation Presbyterian Medical Center to support the construction of the John M. and Claudia W. Belk Heart and Vascular Institute on 4th Street.
The funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, 2501 Oxford Place. The family will greet friends following in Oxford Hall. Interment at Elmwood Cemetery will be private.