Remembering Joe Taylor and Belk Harry
By Elizabeth Cook
SALISBURY – Joe T. Taylor Jr., who led Belk-Harry when it was a driving force in downtown Salisbury, died Saturday at a Florida hospice. He was 94.
“He kind of surprised us,” said son Joe III on Monday. “He took a pretty fast downturn.”
Taylor had been in good health until he slowed down in the spring, his son said. He stopped driving a car but was delighted when the family gave him a golf cart in June.
But the decline continued. Taylor entered a hospice about six weeks ago and died peacefully on Saturday.
A native of Statesville, Taylor began his retail career at the age of 10 as a check boy at Efird’s, briefly. He worked at J.C. Penney until he completed high school and served in the Navy during World War II.
Taylor started working for Belk’s Leggett stores in Virginia, and he moved to Salisbury in 1964 as assistant manager of Belk Harry in the 100 block of South Main Street.
Rising soon to the store’s top spot, Taylor had a no-nonsense style of management. “He was strictly business,” said Nancy Biggers, who headed human resources operations for many years under Taylor’s leadership.
“He was a good boss. He was a good merchant,” Biggers said. “He was fair to the people and fair to the employees. He knew how to make money for Belk.”
Those were the days, Biggers said, when each Belk store had its own buyers. Taylor went with buyers to New York and Atlanta to select merchandise for Salisbury shoppers. “He had a good eye for it, and he listened to the customer,” Biggers said.
He insisted on good customer service, she said.
During Taylor’s tenure, Belk Harry became one of the chain’s most productive stores per square foot. He saw the store through big changes, including a fire in 1977.
When consumers gravitated toward shopping malls in the 1970s, Belk followed in town after town, and Taylor was eager to do the same. “He was all for a bigger store, a better store,” Biggers said. “He worked desperately for it for years.”
Salisbury was slow to follow the national trend away from downtown shopping.
In the late 1970s, Cadillac Fairview proposed developing a mall that would extend from downtown to near Town Creek, where Office Depot and Kmart are now. “We thought we had the perfect solution,” Taylor said later. But city leaders were less enthusiastic. After the city sold a key parcel to Kroger, the idea died.
Leo Wallace finally put together the deal that led developer William Barnett to build Salisbury Mall on U.S. 70 in 1986. Taylor, part-owner of the store, had already retired after 40 years with the Belk operation.
He went on to be active in establishing the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center and was inducted into its Hall of Fame. He bought the old Wiley School, paving the way for it to become apartments for the elderly. He and wife Wilburn donated the old Hudson-Miller-Tatum VFW Post on Brenner Avenue that became Salisbury Academy’s temporary middle school.
Taylor was active in several community organizations during his Belk career, as well. He served as president of the Salisbury Symphony, the Salisbury-Rowan Merchants Association, the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and the Sales and Marketing Executives Club. He was on First Union’s board of directors and was an associate trustee of Livingstone College. He also was active in United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club and the Rowan Technical College advisory board.
The Taylors moved to a retirement community in Cypress Gardens, Fla., in 2007 to be near son Joe III in Ponte Vedra Beach. Their other son, Robert, had passed away the year before at the age of 57.
At a farewell party before their departure, local business and community leaders gathered to thank the Taylors for their contributions to the community.
“We appreciate our history, and we don’t take for granted the people who came before us,” said then-Mayor Susan Kluttz.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole sent her good wishes in a letter read by Margaret Kluttz, her state director.
Paul Fisher, chairman and CEO of F&M Bank, said that when he went to work at the bank, his father said the Taylors were “a very fine couple.”
Taylor downplayed the accolades. “We’ve done nothing,” he said, and added that he felt he was standing among “a bunch of giants.”
The funeral service for Joe Taylor has been tentatively set for 1 p.m. Friday at First Presbyterian Church of Salisbury. The family will receive friends immediately following the service at Lewis Hall. Following the reception, the family will attend a military burial at 3:30 at Rowan Memorial Park Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to First Presbyterian Church, 308 West Fisher Street, Salisbury, NC 28144.