Belk Gym namesake an admired leader, education advocate

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Belk Gym is a bigger, better facility now than when it was first constructed in 1970. One of the oldest buildings on campus, Belk Gym houses recreational and academic opportunities for students.

The 130,000-square-foot structure originally cost the University $3,281,000 to build; in 2014, the facility underwent renovations to accommodate the University’s much-larger student population. The $17.1 million project added air conditioning for the facility and reconfigured spaces for the fitness center and cycling studio.

The Recreational Services Department manages the overall facility, which includes the fitness center and weight room; cycling and group fitness studios; basketball, volleyball and racquetball courts; and academic spaces. The department also programs the group fitness classes, sport clubs and intramural sports activities. Belk Gym also houses the Department of Kinesiology.

Historically, Belk Gym has been an important physical fitness area for students. Affectionately known to some as “The Mine Shaft,” Belk Gym was once home to the Charlotte 49ers basketball and women’s volleyball teams.

In 1977, Charlotte advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament and the men’s basketball team began playing at the city’s two Charlotte coliseums. Today, the men’s and women’s basketball teams and women’s volleyball play home games at Halton Arena.

Thomas Milburn Belk, for whom the gym is named, was the youngest child of William Henry Belk and Mary Irwin Belk. He was born Feb. 6, 1925, in Charlotte, and died Jan. 25, 1997.

William Belk, founder of department store chain Belk Inc., left the business to his children when he died in 1952. A natural leader, Tom Belk served as president of the retail chain. He and John Belk led the company’s growth from discount merchandiser to what became the largest privately owned department store in the nation.

Belk’s attention to details made him an outstanding fundraiser. He led efforts for Charlotte YMCAs, UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Charlotte.

As one of Charlotte’s most admired businessmen and civic leaders, Tom Belk was committed to giving back to the Charlotte community. He served in key leadership roles for a number of civic, educational and charitable causes.

Belk attended Davidson College before joining the U.S. Navy during World War II. He later returned to study at UNC Chapel Hill where he graduated in 1948 from the School of Commerce with a bachelor’s degree. His wife Katherine taught in Charlotte public schools.

Both Katherine and Tom Belk worked to improve education in North Carolina. Together, they rendered consistent financial and leadership support to UNC Charlotte. In 1958, Belk was named a member of the Charlotte Community College Board. From 1963 to 1965, he was a member of the Charlotte College Board of Trustees and later became chairman.

Katherine and Tom Belk’s financial support was among the earliest and most significant gifts that UNC Charlotte received. In 1987, UNC Charlotte awarded Thomas Belk an honorary Doctorate of Public Service degree.

Atkins Library Special Collections contributed to this article.