ROCKINGHAM — An entrepreneur and philanthropist who got his start in Richmond County, Leon Levine, passed away Wednesday at the age of 85.
Levine was born in Wadesboro in 1937 to Harry and Minnie Levine, the youngest of four children, according to the timeline at the Leon Levine Foundation website.
When Levine was 12 years old, he stepped up to help his mother and brother Sherman at the family department store, The Hub, in downtown Rockingham following the death of his father.
He graduated from Rockingham High School in 1955 and attended the University of Miami — but was forced to return home after eight weeks due to allergies.
The following year, he and Sherman purchased Union Craft Co. in Wingate. Levine took morning classes at the local college and ran the factory in the afternoon.
In 1958, Levine married Barbara Leven of Chicago and the couple went on to have three children. She died from breast cancer in 1966 at the age of 27.
He married again in 1978, this time to Sandra Poliakoff of Anderson, South Carolina, and they had one daughter in 1981. His first daughter, Mary Ellen, died in 1987 at the age of 25.
Inspired by a chain of stores in Tennessee that sold items for less than $1, Levine opened the first Family Dollar in Charlotte in 1959 at the age of 22. The chain went public in 1978, with 180,000 shares going for $14.50 each.
Family Dollar opened its 1,000th store in Belmont in 1984 and opened nine stores on July 28, 1993 — all designated as No. 2,000.
Levine retired in 2003 and began the Leon Levine Foundation. The same year, he was inducted into the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame.
By 2020, the foundation had awarded $300 million in grants.
Over the years, Levine received many accolades:
- The Bronze Award from the New York-based publication Financial World
- The Order of the Long Leaf Pine
- the Jack Callaghan Cornerstone Award, presented by Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont
- World Citizen Award by the World Affairs Council of Charlotte (with wife Sandra)
“Leon Levine spent the first eighteen years of his life in Rockingham, and that’s always been a point of pride for us,” said current Mayor John Hutchinson, adding that Levine “never forgot his Richmond County roots.
His generous gifts to Richmond Community College and to Discovery Place Kids are an investment in local education and the future, and they have been instrumental in assisting Rockingham with its downtown revitalization.”
Gene McLaurin, chairman of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, was mayor of Rockingham during the fundraising for DPK.
Some money had already been secured when McLaurin and others went to Levine to ask for a contribution.
Instead of offering money outright, McLaurin said Levine issued a challenge: he would make a gift of $2 million if they could match it by the end of the year.
That was in April.
McLaurin said that was a “great way to really get us motivated.”
Later in the year, McLaurin said he saw Levine at a function in Charlotte and told him, “We’re close.”
“He just smiled and said, ‘You’ve got to get to the finish line,’” McLaurin recalled.
During the opening of DPK, McLaurin arranged for Levine to visit his childhood home on Randolph Street. It was Levine’s first time inside in more than 50 years.
In 2021, Richmond Community College dedicated its downtown campus as the Leon Levine School of Business. The South campus of Central Piedmont Community College was previously named in his honor in 2002.
Last year, the Leon Levine Foundation made $175,000 in contributions to Samaritan Colony. The foundation has donated to Our Daily Bread.
“Mr. Levine … has been very generous to our county in many ways,” McLaurin said. “He’s left a legacy here that we’re really proud of.”