Family Dollar founder and NC philanthropist Leon Levine dies

CHARLOTTE — Family Dollar founder and North Carolina philanthropist Leon Levine died Wednesday, his foundation confirmed to Channel 9. He was 85.

Levine, who shared his fortune with health care, education and community causes in Charlotte, also funded North Carolina’s biggest scholarship programs.

Levine’s name marks institutions across the region, and his legacy is one of unflinching generosity across the Carolinas. The philanthropist spent his life giving back to his community.

Levine was born in Wadesboro in 1937 and graduated from Rockingham High School in 1955. In 1959, at the age of 22, he opened the first Family Dollar Store along Central Avenue in Charlotte with a $6,000 investment.

Levine got the idea after visiting a chain of stores in Tennessee that sold items for under $1. He decided his store would sell everything, from cleaning supplies to clothing for under $2. The discount retailer eventually grew into a Fortune 400 company that was a shopping hub for Americans with limited disposable incomes.

That first Central Avenue store still stands today.

(PHOTOS: The life and legacy of NC’s Leon Levine)

In 1980, Levine and his wife, Sandra, established the Leon Levine Foundation, which is now one of the largest foundations in the Southeast. It supports programs and organizations that invest in education, health care, human services and the Jewish faith.

Leon Levine Foundation endowment scholarships have been created at a number of universities, including UNC Charlotte. The Levine name is stamped on buildings across the Carolinas, from the Levine Cancer Institute and Levine Children’s Hospital to the Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center, the Levine Museum of the New South, and the Levine Center for the Arts.

The foundation says by 2020, it awarded more than $300 million in grants.

Levine’s fortune grew from a small store on the east side of town, but his footprint far exceeds any dollar amount.

‘Improved the lives of countless Charlotteans’

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said Levine had a “profound” impact on Charlotte.

“I’m thankful to have gotten to know Leon over the years, and my thoughts and prayers are with his wife Sandra and his family. As a leader in philanthropy and business, Leon will be greatly missed,” she said in a statement on Twitter.

Channel 9′s Evan Donovan spoke to Mark Price, a longtime reporter for McClatchy. While at the Charlotte Observer, he spent years covering Leon Levine.

“When he created his Leon Levine Foundation, he began actively looking for ways to help. And the end result touched the medical community, the faith community, and countless charities,” Price said. “He fed people, he sheltered people.”

The chancellor for UNC Charlotte, where there’s a scholarship named after Levine as well as a dorm, released the following statement after his passing:

“Leon Levine and his wife, Sandra, have been stalwart supporters of UNC Charlotte,” Sharon Gaber said. “Through their generosity, hundreds of Levine Scholars have had the opportunity to pursue excellence in the classroom, while giving back to the community around them. UNC Charlotte sends its deepest condolences to Sandra Levine and the entire Levine family as we mourn the passing of a man who helped transform education at our University and has improved the lives of countless Charlotteans.”

According to Atrium Health, Levine had a deep relationship with the health system and has had a tremendous impact on its care delivery programs, including two facilities named for him: Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital and Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute.

He was the largest individual donor to Atrium Health Foundation, the health system said.

“Leon’s passing is a profound loss for the Atrium Health family and beyond,” said Eugene A. Woods the CEO of Advocate Health, of which Atrium Health is a part. “He dedicated his life to helping others and, through his major investments, he shaped the way we deliver care at Atrium Health, especially in pediatric and cancer care. For decades, his philosophy was not only about transforming care but also lifting up every corner of our community. His tremendous generosity is felt across the Carolinas today and because of him, there’s a child taking his first steps, a father walking his daughter down the aisle and a neighbor being the first in their family to graduate from college. His legacy will live on for generations to come through the lives he has touched.”

“Leon embodied everything that represented good in the world. No matter where you live in our community, you are likely not far from a charitable organization impacted by Leon and Sandra’s generous support or something that bears the Levine name,” said Armando Chardiet, the president of Atrium Health Foundation. “Leon’s greatest gift is his legacy. The programs and facilities he has supported have truly changed the course of care at Atrium Health. Our teammates and patients will forever feel his imprint on their lives.”

At the Ronald McDonald house in Charlotte, families who once lived there were giving back Wednesday in the same room named after one of its biggest donors: Leon Levine.

“There’s a lot of memories shared in here. There’s a lot of tears shared in here,” said Denise Cubbedge, the CEO of Ronald McDonald House of Greater Charlotte.

“I feel like Leon Levine cultivated a culture of -- we’re not just a funding partner, but we want the organizations we support to be stronger,” she added.

Mark Price said it was clear the couple’s hearts were in their foundation.

“They would watch the TV stations and they would read the newspaper, and when somebody reported on a problem, Leon and his wife and staff would huddle and find a way to help,” Price said.

“When you got money from the Leon Levine Foundation, it was a stamp of approval that nonprofit leaders wanted,” he said.

Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, perhaps the most prominent living Charlottean and a friend of Levine’s for 60 years, told the Charlotte Observer, “He’ll be remembered as really one of the most generous people that ever lived here.”

Local organizations and leaders also shared statements about Levine’s passing:

Queens University memorialized Leon Levine, who along with his wife Sandra, funded construction of a theatre and athletics center on the campus. They also supported college access for dozens of students with a scholarship in Sandra’s name.

“Mr. Levine leaves behind a deep and lasting legacy that will forever touch the hearts and minds of everyone at Queens University,” said Dan Lugo, president of the school. “We extend our deepest condolences to the entire Levine family and our friends at The Leon Levine Foundation and hope that they know that their Queens family joins them in mourning and celebrating the incredible legacy of Mr. Levine.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(WATCH BELOW: UNC Charlotte hosts dance marathon, raises money for Levine’s Children’s Hospital)

Evan Donovan

Evan Donovan, wsoctv.com

Evan is an anchor and reporter for Channel 9.

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