My mother-in-law lived six blocks from Charlotte’s Park Road Shopping Center for more than four decades, and spent 24 years working at the old JCPenney store there without, in my recollection, ever mentioning the name Porter Byrum.
Byrum, the center’s owner for many years until its 2011 sale, liked it that way. The reclusive lawyer and land investor kept his name out of the press and public eye for decades as he bought and sold huge amounts of land across the Carolinas.
But few have left as big of a legacy as Byrum, who died in March at 96.
This week, Wake Forest, Queens and Wingate universities announced that they had received $70 million, $35 million and $35 million, respectively, from Byrum’s estate. That follows previous donations from the sale of the Park Road center netting the three schools $40 million, $20.9 million and $20.9 million, respectively.
Here’s the math: Byrum gave three North Carolina universities more than $220 million — with an intended use of scholarships for students needing financial aid. He also gave Wake Forest $10 million previously, according to the Winston-Salem-based university. People wonder how private colleges can stay afloat given the concern over high tuition — it’s called remarkable generosity from folks like Byrum.
He benefited from similar support when he attended Wake Forest, because preachers’ kids got free tuition back in the day, and his dad was a Baptist minister.
Jeff Siegel, who runs the annual Carolina Renaissance Festival in Huntersville, met Byrum in 1993 when he was looking for land for his 8-week event. Byrum had owned the property since the ‘50s and agreed to lease about 250 acres to festival organizers, then sell it to an investor group led by Siegel in 2011.
“He told me that the area had lots of subdivisions, shopping centers and industrial parks, but this was a creative way to use open space that made a lot of people happy,” Siegel says.
Byrum bought and sold property throughout the Carolinas and was a partner in an aircraft parts and leasing company. He could be cantankerous and, like most real-estate owners, didn’t enjoy paying property taxes. Annoyed with Mecklenburg County’s valuation of the Park Road center, he moved it into his foundation with the intention of donating it to the three universities in 2011, Siegel says. When the center sold, Columbia, S.C.-based Edens paid much more than the county’s assessed value.
While he owned lots of land around the region, Byrum’s life was centered around the Park Road center. He kept his office there in the back of the site, and he lived within 2 miles on a 5-acre plot in an upper middle-class neighborhood near SouthPark shopping center. While he didn’t attend Park Road Baptist Church, across from the center, he hired a pastor from there, Allen Laymon, to work for his organization as sales and marketing director for many years.
Many people were surprised that his alma mater only received half of his estate; the expectation was that Wake Forest would get it all.
But people familiar with Byrum say he had mentioned a minor tiff with Wake Forest over a previous donation, and that he was impressed with the vision of former Wingate President Jerry McGee and his Queens peer, Pamela Davies. Byrum was a former law partner of Charlotte lawyer Robert Burris, whose father was president of Wingate from 1937-53.
In any case, hundreds of students are benefiting from Byrum’s giving.
“His intent was to earn every penny and give it all to charitable causes,” Siegel says. “He told me his father said, ‘Whatever you do well, pursue it.’ And he said I’m good at making money and I’ll give it all away when I die.’”