Sarah Walkup Belk Gambrell
April 12, 1918 – July 30, 2020
Sarah Walkup Belk Gambrell, of Charlotte, N.C., beloved daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, and aunt, died at the age of 102 on Thursday, July 30, 2020. “Mrs. G.” was born in Charlotte on April 12, 1918, the second of six children and only daughter of the late Mary Irwin Belk, an educator and homemaker, and William Henry Belk, Sr., founder of the Belk department store organization based in Charlotte. Sarah grew up, quiet and shy in a household of boisterous brothers, preferring to retire to a window to read instead of engaging in their competitions. Their home on Hawthorne Road was a constant gathering place for their enormous and close extended family of great uncles, aunts, and many many cousins. Her love of and devotion to family, and the inclusion and remembrance of each and every one, was a lifelong priority.
Sarah attended Charlotte public schools before spending a year alone, at about the age of 14, at a Boston, MA hospital to treat scoliosis. It led her to become independent and self-reliant. In one of her first acts of defiance, she refused spinal surgery against the wishes of her doctors and family. And despite its lifelong crippling effects, Mrs. G. took scoliosis in stride as she did any obstacle.
Sarah graduated in 1939 from Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA. Against the wishes of her family, she followed in her father’s footsteps to become a merchant. Born 2 years before women won the right to vote, Sarah entered the workforce at a time when women were expected to marry and have families, or become teachers, nurses or maids. She had other ideas and began her career in retailing in 1947 at Belk. She loved business and was an avid advocate of the business principles she learned from her father.
Shortly thereafter, Sarah moved to New York City to create a place for herself within the family and the Belk business at the New York Belk buying office, the epicenter of the company’s merchandising. When she was not given an office or desk, she quietly set up work in the lobby. After a considerable period of time, realizing she was not leaving, she got her office. She went on to coordinate the company’s women’s wear and cosmetics businesses for Belk store buyers at hundreds of stores across the South until her health prevented her attendance. Mrs. Gambrell developed and maintained long-standing relationships with Belk employees and retirees both during and after her career. She was a tireless advocate for women and the important role they played in the growth and success of the Belk organization and the community.
In 1952, Sarah married investment banker Charles Glenn Gambrell, another southerner, from Belton, SC. Their two-career, 30-year marriage in New York was ahead of its time. They inspired and were inspired by each other and loved each other devotedly. In 1960, Sarah and Charlie, aged 42 and 58 respectively, became first time parents. Charlie was always proud to be the oldest father at his college and business school reunions. They were active parents, including their daughter, Sally, in all aspects of their life, at a time when children were to be “seen but not heard.” At the age of 80 Sarah became a grandmother. She died the devoted and beloved grandmother of her own 4 boisterous grandsons, not unlike her own brothers. When asked for advice by her daughter on how to handle the activity and energy, she’d smile, and reply “I have no idea” and quietly enjoy their exuberance.
In 2015, after the sale of her beloved family business, Sarah focused her efforts on the modernization of the Gambrell Foundation. This meant transitioning from the two-woman team of Sarah and 89 year old secretary, Polly Davis, and their legal pad system to her current staff of 6. Much has been written about her extensive business, community and philanthropic accomplishments: she was a shrewd and highly respected businesswoman, and a tireless community leader who could drive a hard bargain to support the causes she believed in. But it all stemmed from her deep faith in God, her belief in the goodness of people, and a lifelong commitment to supporting and creating change in her community and the world. She knew firsthand the frustrations that came from limited thinking, prejudice and fear. She believed in bringing people together, connecting people to ideas, and creating broad shared support to address problems in the community and in the world.
Until the end, Sarah was a passionate lifelong learner. As a child she would sneak out the window to keep reading on the rooftop by moonlight. At age 100 she started following the NBA. For some reason known only to her she cheered for the San Antonio Spurs. When asked why this sudden and late-life interest in men’s basketball she remarked, that maybe it was about time. And about the Spurs? Why not?
At past family dinners and celebrations, Sarah took to reminding her family, and grandsons in particular, that she was a rebel. She hated labels: she was not elderly, she was NOT retired, and she did not think she was at the end of life. She was “a person of independent thoughts.” And she chose to define for herself her reality and her beliefs.
Mrs. G. is survived by her daughter Sally and son-in-law, Brian Bridgford; grandsons Charlie, Cooper, Christopher and Caleb Knight; sister-in-law Kat Belk-Cook; nieces and nephews: MC Pilon; Bill Belk, Irene Belk Miltimore, Marilyn Belk Wallis, Carl Belk, Tommy Belk, Paul Belk, Connie Belk, Jay Belk, Mary Belk Melton, Margaret Belk, Tierney, Katie Belk, Tim Belk, McKay Belk Sr., Johnny Belk; many many cousins, and the many people who felt she was their family too.
Due to the Covid Pandemic, her funeral service will not be open to the public. It will be live-streamed Wednesday, August 5th at 10:00 AM EDT. http://www.myersparkpres.org/funeral
In lieu of flowers, donations to The YWCA affordable housing initiative.
The service will be private due to the covid pandemic, however, your may view the service at www.myerspark.org\funeral at 10 am Wednesday, August 5
Sarah Walkup Belk Gambrell
August 5, 2020
From Joyce Mims, former chair, World Service Council YWCA
On behalf of the World Service Council YWCA, we express our gratitude for the life and leadership of Sarah Gambrell. Sarah was one of our most distinguished members, an exemplary volunteer, wise leader, gracious hostess, kind mentor, and treasured friend.
Driven and sustained by her faith, she was a strong supporter and advocate of programs that promote the economic, political, and spiritual welfare of women and girls worldwide. Sarah's passionate concern for gender equality and the rights of women has made our world more just, more humane, more friendly, and more beautiful.
We all are blessed for having had Sarah in our lives.
Blessings to each of you who knew her and gratitude to her visionary family for sharing Sarah with us.
August 5, 2020
On behalf of the World YWCA Board and Staff, we would like to express our deepest condolences for the loss of Ms. Sarah Walkup Belk Gambrell, YWCA leader and World Service Council supporter.
Sarah was a remarkable woman and did not let obstacles hold her back on achieving her goal of following her father’s footsteps and entering the same profession as him. She accomplished that in a time when women were not expected to aim to anything else apart from marring and building a family.
As a woman ahead of her time, she understood the crucial role women played in her family business and tirelessly advocated for more opportunities for them. She did not give up, even when others did not believe in her or took her seriously, serving as an example of perseverance and endurance for many other young women.
As a determined and enthusiastic community leader, Ms. Gambrell measured no efforts to support the causes close to her heart. She was is a role model in living a commitment to affect change in her community through hard work, faith in God and belief in the kindness of people.
All of her accomplishments in business and philanthropy did not shy her from being a lifelong learner taking up new hobbies and having new interactions with those surrounding her – evolving decade after decade!
Her strength and resilience are inspirations and her benevolence and contributions to the YWCA were innumerable and significant, including her 50 plus years of support to the YWCA World Service Council and the International Building Fund. Her passing is a great loss to the worldwide movement, but her legacy is great. We will think of her and her legacy each time we see the harp statue in the garden of the World YWCA, which was donated in her honor by the YWCA of Central Carolinas.
May the good memories, love, and life shared with her husband, children, cousins, friends and grandchildren console her family friends, and keep her bound to them forever.
August 4, 2020
As a devoted member and leader in the YWCA locally, nationally and globally, Sarah Gambrell was a member of the YWCA World Service Council for over 50 years, and served as a member of the Executive Committee. Her financial guidance was always welcomed, and she had a specific passion for the International Building Fund that assisted YWCAs in countries around the world to have a meeting and training building that supported developing girl and women leaders in villages, towns and countries. She will be very much missed but we will continue to remember her wisdom.
August 4, 2020
We shall miss you Ms Sarah! It was a pleasure caring for you, till we all meet again in Heaven.
August 4, 2020
I have so many memories of Aunt Sarah - personal, family and business. She was always engaged and really cared. We have 4 daughters and she has been a role model as a philanthropist, business leader, and great Aunt - asking the kids to come visit, sending birthday cards and graduation gifts.
She was a strong supporter of the family business. When Johnny, McKay and I began running the Belk, she encouraged us thru the ups and downs and asked good questions. She defended the smaller stores and had a keen interest in childrenswear, which could sometimes be overlooked in a department store. She kept us on our toes but we felt the love. It’s the passing of a generation and we’ll miss her.
August 4, 2020
I had the opportunity to meet Mrs Gambrell at a function or in passing over the years. No too long ago, I was one of her nurses and visited with her at her home. What a delightful and forward thinking woman still involved with the Charlotte Community. My condolences to her daughter and family. Mrs Gambrell was a remarkable woman!
August 3, 2020
So sorry to hear if the passing of a great lady. I was her nurse for awhile and in that short time. I enjoyed listening to her stories and the great wisdom she shared. Sleep peacefully Ms. G
August 3, 2020
We will never forget Mrs. G and Sally! The kindest of Mrs. G helping Keith make application to law school when he was a young Charlotte police officer; the trips to the train to take she and Sally back to NYC; the dinner she hosted one evening when she wouldn't let us take her to dinner. It's been some time since we last spoke, but we will never forget such a grand lady and the help she so readily gave to others. She lived a great life indeed! All our best to Sally and the family! Keith and Patty
August 2, 2020
Godspeed, Sarah. Your legacy is secure, and our gratitude is immeasurable.
August 2, 2020
Sarah will be missed! I enjoyed caring for her on weekends. May God bless and keep the family❤
Tamika Lowe, RN
Mary Lou Davis
August 1, 2020
My love and sympathy to the Belk/Gambrell families and Sarah's many close friends. Sarah and I first met around 2012 at Novant's Wellness Center where we both were doing cardiac exercise on the newstep machine. I enjoyed exercising with her and our chats. She was such a kind, enthusiastic person and I enjoyed our brief friendship. We also shared a birthday, April 12th.
Rest in Peace, my friend and thanks for your inspiration!