Duke Kimbrell, who worked his way up from sweeping floors in a mill to become an iconic Gaston County textile executive, died Wednesday at his home. He was 89.
Ranked by Textile World Magazine as the second-most influential textile executive in the 20th century, Kimbrell led Gastonia-based Parkdale Mills to becoming the world’s largest spun yarn manufacturer during the second half of the century.
Parkdale began operating in 1918 with one plant and the backing of a group of Gastonia investors.
Kimbrell got a part-time job at the plant as a teenager and rode his bicycle to work. He swept floors, ran errands and did other jobs all over the plant. By 1961, he was named vice president. Five years later he was named president and in 1967 became chairman.
In the 1960s, Parkdale opened its second plant in Gastonia and by 1992 was operating 18 yarn spinning plants in the U.S. Today, Parkdale has 29 manufacturing plants in the U.S., Central America, Mexico and South America.
Kimbrell – who was named after Duke Power Co., where his father worked as an electrician – was also well known as a philanthropist who made major contributions to such causes as Gaston College, the local hospital, Gaston Day School, Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden and the Boy Scouts.
“Duke Kimbrell did more for this area than all the rest of the philanthropists,” said lifelong friend Bill Lawson, 89, of Gastonia. “He was a real leader and a real innovator, always ahead of the pack. He traveled overseas and looked at the newest technology and brought it back to his operation.”
He described Kimbrell as “a man of absolute integrity.”
“If he told you something, you could take it to the bank,” Lawson said.
Another lifelong friend, Gaston County commissioner Joe Carpenter, called Kimbrell “an icon who will be missed.”
“He accumulated great wealth,” Carpenter said. “But I was most impressed that he shared it back to the community.”
Kimbrell had served as president of the American Yarn Spinners Association and board director for the National Cotton Council and the American Textiles Manufacturers Association.
In “The Textile Heritage of Gaston County,” historian Robert Ragan wrote that Kimbrell was “perhaps the most noteworthy success story in modern American textiles.”
Ragan said Kimbrell had “immense versatility” and related naturally to others whether they were mill employees or “customers in a New York City skyscraper, or business owners in their board rooms.”
“In talking with him it is clearly evident that of all the qualities of success, determination – a Herculean determination – has always been paramount in his character,” Ragan wrote.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete and will be announced by McLean Funeral Directors in Gastonia.