Sarah Belk Gambrell, Charlotte philantropist from Belk retail family, dies at 102

Sarah Belk Gambrell, Charlotte philantropist from Belk retail family, dies at 102
Sarah Belk Gambrell (Source: COURTESY OF THE GAMBRELL FOUNDATION)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Bruce Henderson/Charlotte Observer) - Philanthropist Sarah Belk Gambrell, a prominent member of the Belk department store family, died Thursday in Charlotte at 102, a family spokesman said.

Gambrell was the only daughter of William Henry Belk, founder of the Belk retail chain. She held numerous positions at Belk, including serving on its board and leading Belk’s buying efforts in New York City, according to the Gambrell Foundation.

“Sarah Belk Gambrell spent her career at Belk as an innovator, change-maker and visionary, helping to shape Belk into a beloved and trusted destination for fashion,” Belk said in a statement Friday. “She boldly paved the way for countless female leaders who followed in her footsteps. Mrs. Gambrell is woven into the fabric of Belk and we are proud to honor her memory.”

At her death Gambrell was president emeritus of her namesake foundation, which was created in 1988 “to help bridge the gap of inequities in society, wherever they may exist,” according to its website. The foundation is now led by her daughter, Sally Gambrell Bridgford.

The Gambrell Foundation focuses on education, at-risk youth and “vibrant communities,” according to its website. It does not accept unsolicited grant requests, instead relying on a network of community leaders and volunteers to identify ways to make a lasting impact in the city and region.

“A self-described rebel, Sarah has always held a vision for creating change, leading herself, and charging others to help lead,” her foundation biography says.

In February, Queens University of Charlotte opened the Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for the Arts and Civic Engagement, for which the Gambrell Foundation gave $10 million. The city’s newest performing arts venue replaced the 54-year-old E.H. Little Fine Arts Center and put the university’s seven arts disciplines under one roof.

“Charlotte lost a gem this week with the passing of the brilliant, lovely philanthropist, Sarah Belk Gambrell,” Queens University of Charlotte President Dan Lugo said in a statement.

“As an honored trustee emerita, the mark she left on Queens and the Queen City is everlasting. We are so proud to honor her memory at Queens with the recently renovated Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for Arts and Civic Engagement — which, thanks to her family’s generous contribution, will live out her dream to bring arts to the community and inspire young people to become civically engaged.”

Gambrell served on numerous boards but was especially devoted to the YWCA, at one point serving simultaneously on its North Carolina, New York, national and international boards.

“They’d come to learn and improve their education,” Gambrell says in a video on the foundation site. “So many great women it gave an opportunity for leadership.”

In the video, she urges the Charlotte community to “think of others and their needs.

“We need to learn to value the other person, because they’re important,” she says. “They’re just as important as you are. To know that is important.”

Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas, called Gambrell “a pioneer for women in philanthropy, paving the way for the next generation of female philanthropists and inspiring us all with her generosity.

“On a more personal level, I will remember Mrs. Gambrell as a sincerely kind, caring, sophisticated and cosmopolitan woman. Her legacy will live on through the Gambrell Foundation, which is funding some of Charlotte’s most forward-thinking initiatives.”