Cover Story EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Leon & Sandra Levine

Sandra and Leon Levine
Sandra and Leon Levine

Charlotte, NC - By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Their names are associated with some of Charlotte's finest institutions.

Levine Children's Hospital.  Levine Museum of the New South.  And now a new cultural arts campus in Center City named for the Levines.

Thursday night, Leon and Sandra Levine will be honored with the 2010 Center City Vision award presented by the Charlotte Center City Partners.

WBTV sat down with the couple in a rare TV interview.  They told us have some very big plans that could help Charlotte in these tough economic times.

In this recession one of the groups hardest hit has been charities.

When it looked like many local agencies faced the threat of going under the Levines stepped in with seed money two years running.

But it's not just charities who are benefiting from this philanthropic couple.  And they have a vision for much more.

For the Levines, Sandra and Leon, it was perfect timing that brought it all together for Charlotte's benefit.

Some of the Levines considerable investments were maturing at a time when many in the community were really hurting.

"We wanted to do it because Charlotte's been good to us," said Leon Levine.

In December 2008 the Levines helped start the Critical Need Response Fund, seeding it with a million dollars and challenging the community to join them in a campaign to raise money for local charities helping those suffering.

The fund wound up with 3 million bucks.

The Levines and the community did a round two in 2009.

"I hope that what we do is an incentive and example to others," said Sandra Levine.

Their giving goes back decades.  Their charitable foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to these (Leon Levine Science Research Center at Duke University, Levine Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center, Levine Museum of the New South, Levine Campus at Central Piedmont Community College, Sandra & Leon Levine Jewish Community Center) and other institutions.

But of late they've really poured it on, putting the United Way over the top in its recent campaign.

And just in the last week donating 22 and a half million dollars to the new cultural arts campus in Center City and to build a wellness and recreation center at Queens University of Charlotte.

How did they amass their wealth?

It started on Central Avenue in 1959 when Leon Levine opened his first Family Dollar store.

There's still one nearby.  Today, the chain operates 6,600 stores across the U.S.

Levine retired six years ago and told us he's having a great time giving away his family millions.

And it's being noticed.

"We are getting some national attention now," he said.  "Some big givers from around the country are coming to talk to us about what possibly we could do together in Charlotte. And that's been very good."

 He wouldn't tell us who the big names are, but names like Gates and Buffet come to mind.

"No teasers? No teasers. Some of the biggest givers in the country."

The Levines get asked for such a private couple why put their names on so many things?

It's not that they're wanting to be noticed.  They say it's the benefactors who want their names associated with the Levines.

"It's not that we're looking to get our name on everything because if we did that we'd probably request the city council change it to Levineville, North Carolina. But that's not what we're looking for. We are not flashy people. We don't try to appear on television all the time. We're doing this because the fact that we want to get our message out."

Their foundation now has more than $300 million in assets.  Leon Levine plans to leave the bulk of his wealth to the foundation at this death which he said could make it twice the size it is now.

They have a passion for education.  The fact we're seeing cutbacks, teachers laid off concerns them.  It's something they want to put their work into.  They say they like doing things that have an effect on everybody.

Copyright 2010 WBTV. All rights reserved.