Irwin “Ike” Belk is a strong believer in education.
That’s evidenced by numerous donations to colleges across the South, including his alma maters, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Davidson College, just north of his hometown of Charlotte, N.C.
“The main thing to do in life is to educate your brain,” he said while waiting to receive an honorary degree Saturday during Brenau University’s commencement at the Georgia Mountains Center. He said it’s his 26th honorary degree.
Belk noted that he became involved with Brenau because of its wonderful reputation, outstanding president and long history, dating to 1878.
Belk has a long history of his own to be proud of as well. His mother was a school teacher, part of the reason he feels education is so important, and his father founded Belk department stores.
According to the Belk website, William Henry Belk opened his first store in 1888 in Monroe, N.C. He shortly thereafter convinced his brother, John Belk, to join in the effort. And it became a family affair.
Ike Belk said he was 6 years old when his father put him and his brothers to work in the store as check boys.
He went on to get a degree in business at UNC and became head of finance for Belk, giving 60 years of his life to the company.
“My father trained in every one of us that it was a privilege to have a job, a privilege to work, and a privilege to live in the community where you live,” Belk said.
He said it is hard work and good judgment that has made the company successful. He said it’s the largest privately owned department store in the country; it includes locations in Gainesville at Lakeshore Mall and also in Cumming and Buford.
“My father was a brilliant man. I’d love to be half the man he was,” Belk said. Belk’s nephews now run the company.
In addition to hard work, Belk also highly values knowledge of history. He rattles off details about the Civil War, land acquisitions as the United States grew, and histories of cities and colleges in his home state of North Carolina.
In his 90 years, he’s developed some advice for the next generation.
“Read your history. It’s very important — history of Georgia and history of United States in particular,” he said, adding to be proud of your country, work hard to be successful and be religious.
Those things have brought him not only success with Belk but also a marriage of 64 years, four children and nine grandchildren, all of whom have either graduated college or are currently in college.
“If you don’t educate this generation, you will not have a tomorrow in this country,” he said.