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Gateway to Charlotte: For decades, Wingate has been a launch pad for small-town kids

Since its founding as a grade school in 1896, Wingate University has given an educational and cultural boost to thousands of students from small towns throughout the Carolinas. The school has served different purposes for different people: Some students, so green they’d never tasted pizza or heard of sushi, were searching for a glimpse at the world beyond their back door. Others simply wanted a little knowledge to take back home so the family business would run more smoothly or so they could more ably teach the next generation of grade-school students.

For a healthy portion of students, Wingate was a steppingstone to a career just down the road in Charlotte, where they hoped to make their mark in a fast-growing southern city.

Exhibit one is Leon Levine.

Few Wingate students have left a greater legacy on the Charlotte region than Levine, one of the most determined people to pass through the Gate. From the time he owned a bedspread factory while attending classes at Wingate Junior College, Levine was focused on succeeding in business. He ultimately turned Family Dollar into one of the largest retail operations in the country, a multibillion-dollar Fortune 500 company.

In the decades since Levine first stepped foot on campus, Wingate has served as a gateway to bigger things for countless students from small towns throughout the Carolinas. And while opening the door to one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas has provided greater opportunities for students, it has been something of a boon to Charlotte as well. According to a study conducted by Dr. Kristin Stowe’s Economics 413 class, in 2019 Wingate’s 10,000 or so alumni living in Mecklenburg County had an extra $108 million in their pockets, thanks to the earnings premium enjoyed by college graduates compared with people without a college degree. That translates into a $55 million boost to Mecklenburg’s GDP, with 338 additional jobs supported as a result.

Over one-tenth of Wingate alumni live in Mecklenburg County, and of the 36 private colleges and universities in North Carolina, Wingate is the No. 3 undergraduate destination of choice for high-school grads in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties and No. 1 in Union and Cabarrus counties.

Wingate was Levine’s choice when he struck out on his own, and for decades the focused businessman certainly played a big role in boosting Mecklenburg County’s economic fortunes. It's no wonder, considering that his business career started before he was even a teenager. Having worked in his family’s department store in Rockingham, N.C., since he was 12, Levine knew that his future lay in business. By age 17 he’d already been helping out at The Hub for years, running the business in the afternoons while his mother was resting to treat her high blood pressure.

Levine’s doctor wasn’t so sure a teenager needed to take on that much responsibility, telling young Leon that perhaps he needed a diversion from school and work. “I told him that work was my diversion,” Leon says in Leon Levine and Family Dollar: An American Success Story. “I enjoyed working. It was what I wanted to do, what I liked doing.”

By the time Levine enrolled at Wingate in 1956 as a 19-year-old, he was already a business owner; itching to get his business career going, Leon teamed up with his older brother Sherman to buy a chenille-bedspread factory in the town of Wingate. Although he learned a lot on the job, Leon took classes at Wingate in order to flatten the learning curve.

Leon wasn’t class president or captain of the football team at Wingate, but he carried gravitas.

“While maintaining a low profile on campus, Leon was called ‘BMOC’ by his brother, who maintains that he was the big man on campus because he was the only student who owned his own company,” says James Bullock, Wingate’s senior vice president for Advancement.

Leon worked at the factory after classes ended each day, and as he showed later in his career while building Family Dollar Stores into a billion-dollar business, he worked hard. He’d seen his parents put their all into The Hub, and Leon emulated that work ethic.

He refined his approach to business while taking classes at Wingate, learning principles and theories that stuck with him as he became one of Charlotte’s most successful entrepreneurs.

“At Wingate, I was introduced to concepts I’d had an idea about from working at The Hub,” he says. “Hearing them explained in detail in class helped me once I started running a business of my own.”

The bedspread factory was viable but not a fortune-maker. The Levines found a market for the wares produced by their factory, Union Craft Company, but eventually sold the business to move in a different direction. Inspired by a range of discount stores that were opening across the country, Leon decided to sell household items costing no more than $2, opening his first location on Charlotte’s Central Avenue in 1959. His target market was lower- and middle-income families, and he therefore named his store Family Dollar.

Family Dollar expanded steadily, opening its 50th franchise in 1969 and then doubling that number a year later. There are now more than 5,000 Family Dollar stores nationwide, and by 2002 Family Dollar was a Fortune 500 company. In recent years, the Levines have become among Charlotte’s most generous philanthropists; the Leon Levine Foundation provides significant financial gifts to a variety of nonprofits each year. Wingate University has benefited from that largesse: The Levine name graces Wingate’s Levine College of Health Sciences.

Wingate was there when a motivated kid from Rockingham needed a hand to fulfill his destiny in Charlotte (and beyond). And it has continued to fulfill that role in the intervening decades. In the succeeding pages, read about just a handful of the many Wingate grads who have left their mark on the Queen City.