Prominent developer John Crosland Jr. believed in trying hard

Prominent developer John Crosland Jr. died Sunday at home after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Prominent developer John Crosland Jr. died Sunday at home after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Charlotte Observer File Photo

When John Crosland Jr. gave $1.1 million for a new, 6-acre Dore School, renamed The John Crosland School, he surprised the late-summer 2012 ribbon-cutting crowd with a revelation.

“I thought it important – really important – to help people with learning disabilities,” he said in a prepared statement. “I have one. I know how difficult it was in the early days in school.”

Crosland, for decades one of the most prominent real estate developers in the state, went on to share his philosophy, which friends say was the secret of his long success.

“Don’t be bothered by what other people will say about you,” he said. “… if you try hard enough, you can overcome anything.”

Crosland died Sunday at home after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 86.

Close friends always called him Red Man, for his high Scottish coloring.

“Red Man recognized that he was not an Einstein,” said Jake Wade, a roommate of Crosland’s at Davidson College. “But he never gave up. He would say, ‘I can handle that job. I’m going to work harder than the next person. I’m going to meet the mission. Get out of the way. I’m coming through.’

“He was my hero.”

Bank of America’s retired leader Hugh McColl worked with Crosland on several projects, including the revitalization of property near the airport.

“John never went off half-cocked,” McColl said. “When he came into a debate, he was well-prepared. He had studied, and he had his facts down.”

Crosland’s father, John Crosland Sr., a Richmond County native, was the son of the second-largest cotton planter in North Carolina. He moved to Charlotte in 1919 and, after several other business ventures, founded the John Crosland Co. in 1937 in a one-room office in downtown Charlotte.

His philosophy: Keep an eye on the books and stay out of debt.

One of Crosland Sr.’s early ventures was Club Colony, a tract off Selwyn Avenue, near Myers Park Country Club. Soon he was building in Myers Park, Plaza Hills and Fair Meadows.

Crosland was born Sept. 20, 1928, to John Crosland Sr. and Lillian Floyd Crosland. He was their only child.

“John (Jr.) grew up in well-to-do circumstances, but he was driven to succeed as though he had grown up in nothing,” said lawyer Jim Cobb, a long-time friend and distant cousin.

“He didn’t just build a great company,” Gov. Pat McCrory said. “He stayed involved with the community and helped make Charlotte the city it is today. He never turned his back on Charlotte.”

Crosland was a born salesman, according to his friends.

Retired Charlotte pediatrician Bo Roddey, another of Crosland’s roommates at Davidson College, recalled how, as a student, Crosland worked as a sales agent for Milton’s Clothing Cupboard in Chapel Hill.

Roddey remembered Crosland standing up after lunch in the fraternity house to announce that Milton was coming to town. Shirts? Ties? Blazers? How many of each did the brothers want?

“There was a lot of kidding about it, but it never fazed him,” Roddey recalled. “That was his start in the business world.”

Another Crosland talent, friends said, was his ability to laugh at himself.

Roddey recalled a trip with Crosland and a few others to the historic Homestead resort outside Hot Springs, Va. The group spent most of its time playing tennis.

“John hit the ball well and looked pretty good on the court,” Roddey said. “But he couldn’t get his serve in.”

The group agreed to give Crosland three serves to their one.

A crowd gathered, according to Roddey, puzzled that one man was allowed more serves than the others.

“It didn’t faze him,” Roddey said. “He was happy to get those extra serves.”

In 1951, Crosland graduated from Davidson College and, in December, married Parker Shackelford. In 1954, after two years with the Army in Korea and Japan, he joined his father as vice president of the company. Five years later, he was elected president of the Charlotte Home Builders Association.

“John goes before boards,” recalled former Observer business editor M.S. Van Hecke, “and he’s red-haired and doesn’t have much of a manner about him. He gradually mellowed over the years – I wouldn’t say he became suave – but he became quite a competent public speaker.”

“He was a gentle giant,” McCrory said.

Hugh McColl and wife, Jane, bought a John Crosland house in Beverly Woods when they moved to Charlotte.

“John gave you a good house for a good price,” McColl said.

“While his neighborhoods were comfortable and affordable,” said Van Hecke, “they lacked architectural styling.”

In 1971, Crosland was named North Carolina Builder of the Year and soon took over as president and chairman of the John Crosland Co. By the time Crosland Sr. died in 1977 at age 79, leaving an estate of $2,249,299, the company had built 6,500 houses.

After two children, Crosland’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1978, he married Judith Elza McClamroch.

In 1980, the average price of a house in Charlotte was $61,000. Crosland realized that many younger families couldn’t afford to pay that much. He decided to build houses that families moving up from their first home could afford.

By the next year, he had bought 250 acres at Park Road and Sharon Road West and built 232 houses in the $45,000 range and 213 houses in the $58,000 range.

“Despite a nationwide housing slump that has cut new-house construction to the lowest level since the Depression,” wrote Van Hecke in 1982. “Charlotte’s John Crosland Co. sold more homes last year than ever before in its 45-year history and made a profit at it.”

“John Jr. was not easygoing,” Jim Cobb said. “Even though a very nice business was handed to him, he was determined to make it bigger and better than his father had.”

More and more, Crosland turned to multifamily housing, and in 1987 he sold the home-building operation to Centex Homes. By July 1999, he named a successor from outside the family-owned business to succeed him after 34 years at the helm. Crosland remained chairman of the board of the company.

At that time, the Crosland Co. assets and property under development exceeded $400 million.

“While the city grew in prosperity, he never turned his back on those in need,” McCrory said. “He really made Charlotte’s Habitat for Humanity one of the role models for the nation. That’s a real compliment to his character.”

In 2007, Crosland retired as chairman of the family-controlled company.

A few years before he retired, Crosland decided to build a community “out in the middle of nowhere in South Charlotte,” according to Van Hecke. “It wasn’t anywhere near any sewer lines, so he set up his own sewer plant, which was not a raving success.

“He told me that sooner or later, it was going to be a hub of activity,” Van Hecke said. “I don’t know why he grabbed hold of that idea, but he certainly did. He was absolutely dead right. He eventually got sewer lines and a lot more. The once-remote area now is filled with shopping centers and upscale neighborhoods.

“When that area – Blakeney – came alive, he was right there.”

Staff writer Karen Sullivan contributed

Funeral Service

A service for John Crosland Jr. will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Christ Episcopal Church, 1412 Providence Road, Charlotte. A reception will follow in the church’s All Saints Hall.

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