He made Park Road Shopping Center a neighborhood jewel. Then gave it away.

Wake Forest University presented the Distinguished Alumni Award to Porter Byrum in 2011.
Wake Forest University presented the Distinguished Alumni Award to Porter Byrum in 2011. ©WFU/Ken Bennett

Charlotte lawyer Porter Byrum bought Park Road Shopping Center in 1967, 11 years after it opened as the city’s first open-air center and the largest between Washington and Atlanta.

Under Byrum’s tending, the center became a beloved community fixture where neighbors could find everything from watch batteries to tomato fertilizer.

So it came as a shock when, in 2011, Byrum gave his shopping center away. His gift to Wake Forest University, his alma mater, Queens University of Charlotte and Wingate University netted the universities $82 million when they sold the center.

Byrum, who died Monday at 96, always said he wanted his money to go to students. It did, with scholarships going to hundreds of students at Wake Forest, to which he gave more than $50 million.

The son of a Baptist preacher, Byrum and three brothers had all been able to attend Wake Forest tuition-free. He regarded that education as the turning point of his life.

“My daddy never would have been able to put four boys through college, so somebody ought to pay back that debt,” he said in 2011. “It makes me feel good to do that.”

Byrum, who grew up in Wilmington and Edenton, graduated from Wake Forest’s law school in 1942. He then fought at the end of the infamous Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II, and helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Byrum loved to fish small lakes for bream, not bass., and hunted turkey and deer. But Park Road was a passion. He planted a rose garden and stocked the center with independently owned businesses, continuing to manage the shopping center into his 90s.

“He wanted the merchants to deal with people with honesty, sincerity and by letting the customers be very, very important,” said Allen Laymon, Byrum’s vice president of the shopping center for 16 years. “He worked with all the lessees faithfully, always had an open mind, and would help them when they were in trouble but be firm when he needed to be.”

Blackhawk Hardware, which sits midships in the long shopping center, was Byrum’s pride and joy.

Blackhawk owner Jim Wilkerson recalls his move, in 1992, from a space at the top of the center to one J.C. Penney vacated. He ordered $200,000 in merchandise for the new space but was stumped when the wholesaler asked for a copy of his lease. He hadn’t signed one yet.

Byrum “said he was going to do it, and I’d rather have his word than a signed document. You could take it to the bank, so to speak,” Wilkerson said. “He was extremely fair to everyone and would go out of his way to help somebody who struggled.

“I wouldn’t be here if not for him, to be quite honest with you.”

For 60 years Byrum also practiced law, never charging an hourly fee but billing for the actual help he provided. He also had a 50-year association with Charlotte Aircraft Corp., which sells commercial aircraft parts, Wake Forest said.

Wake Forest got slightly more than $40 million from the shopping center’s sale in 2011. Queens and Wingate each received $20.9 million.

“Queens has lost a special friend and the world has lost a great man,” Queens President Pamela Davies said in a statement. “One could not overstate the impact Mr. Byrum has had on our state, our city and our university. His generosity has transformed the lives of hundreds of Queens students by enabling them to receive an excellent education, and future students will continue to benefit from the scholarships he has made possible. His legacy will continue, but he will be forever missed.”

At Wake Forest, Byrum was a member of the school’s Law Board of Visitors and received the Carroll Weathers Award, the law school’s highest honor, and the Distinguished Alumni Award. He created athletic scholarships in 2001 and in 2007 the Porter B. Byrum Scholarship for law students. He also set up an undergraduate scholarship fund in 1993 to honor his father.

Wake Forest’s admissions and welcome center was named for Byrum in 2011.

“Wake Forest has lost a loyal friend in Porter Byrum,” President Nathan Hatch said in a statement. “His generosity demonstrates his belief that perseverance can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, that education equals opportunity, and that helping others is the key to a meaningful and well-lived life.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender