by Kathy Blake
HUNTERSVILLE – For Torrance Banks, the memory of his mother’s funeral is unspoiled. The Canadian Brass arrangement of ‘A Closer Walk with Thee’ is still fresh in his trombone and there is no sorrow.
Instead, Banks, 60, is full of stories, episodes from his childhood and recent tales about this woman who was his mother, Margaret “Belle” Banks, of Huntersville, who died April 12 and for whom the Huntersville Brass band gave a rowdy postlude that weekend at Huntersville Presbyterian Church.
“I could talk about her forever. She had charisma. She filled up a room,” Torrance Banks said of the petite lady with gray curls who left an ample trail of accomplishments in her 92 years. “She filled up this huge house. When she laughed, everyone knew who it was.”
Belle Banks, who seemed to make every civic club, local newspaper and music ensemble her personal stomping ground, left an inventory of friends and admirers who may argue some of her beliefs but agree on her passion for the community.
“She carried herself with such grace and, well, love. She said what she thought and wouldn’t mix words,” said Charles Morrow, the director/conductor of the North Mecklenburg Community Chorus, which Belle Banks founded in the 1970s with her late husband, Richard. “She was straight-forward. Her bigness was in her talent and how she spoke and wrote. She was the First Lady of North Mecklenburg.”
Banks had a passion for independence. She left home, in Coatesville, Pa., at 18, waiting tables from California to New York and helping build and inspect ships during World War II.
She also had a passion for family. She met Richard Banks in Wilmington, Del., during the war, and he moved her into the big house he inherited in Huntersville, the 15-room, four-floor Cedar Grove estate on Gilead Road.
It would become the Banks’ Tara, and she would spend her life restoring the brick home and welcoming travelers and visitors – after insisting the place take on indoor plumbing.
The Rev. Vern Dodd, the pastor at Huntersville Presbyterian, remembers his first encounter with her, after Belle Banks invited him for a little come-see at the 1831 mansion.
“She had a wonderful gift of hospitality, the most gracious hostess you could ever anticipate. She loved giving tours of that house,” said the preacher, who gave the eulogy at Banks’ funeral celebration. “On my first visit there as a pastor, she gave me the full tour, even up in the attic, where there were three wooden legs. They belonged to her husband’s grandfather, from the Civil War. I was just relieved to know they did not belong to former pastors.
“She could love across differences. She and I were of different political views, but she and I had a great relationship. She could tell you what she felt, but she would respect what you felt, too.”
Dodd eulogized Banks with two quotes:
“If you’re not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space,” and “It is the start that stops most people in life from using their talents fully.”
Belle Banks, he surmised, “grew old like all of us… but her starter never wore out. She was still making sparks and starting new fires.”
Banks raised two children at Cedar Grove and was a devoted mom to Torrance and his sister, Margaret, who goes by the nickname Chuck.
“She was a fairly fierce person,” Torrance Banks said. “I remember when I was in first grade, I was pretty scared to ride the bus. The principal seemed like a huge giant to me, and I was a timid little boy. He came to me in the bus line and said he’d heard I had been cutting up on the bus, and if I did it again, I would get spanked. I went home and told my mom, and let’s just say she had a very interesting conversation with Dr. Hansil, and the next day he was out there apologizing to me profusely.”
Another time, young Torrance didn’t make the cut at Little League tryouts, so his mom started her own baseball teams. “She started a whole league for kids in the 1960s, organized a whole league so I could play,” Torrance Banks said. “And when I wanted to be a Cub Scout, she started the first troop over at Huntersville Presbyterian Church.”
Belle Banks was a member of the Democratic Woman’s Club and the Mecklenburg Historical Association and the Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation board. She was on the board at Central Piedmont Community College and held offices with the Huntersville Woman’s Club. She worked eight years for the Mecklenburg Gazette and 14 years for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library system. She participated in the library’s annual storytelling festival, moderated book reviews with the Davidson Parks and Recreation Department and annually played as Mrs. Claus, so little children who gathered at the library could hear the magic of Christmas first-hand.
When with the Gazette, she used the power of the press to help others.
“I can remember back in those days, there was only one cop in Huntersville, and he had a speed trap,” Torrance Banks said. “She found out where it was, and she published that, and he came down and cussed her out.”
When she and Richard, who died in 1999 at age 88, founded the North Mecklenburg Community Chorus, they borrowed a curtain from the community college, borrowed some chairs, to be able to hold the choir’s first concert at Torrence-Lytle School.
“The chorus for her was kind of like her child. She was very nurturing, very caring over it,” said choir leader Morrow, who led about 40 chorus members in “Abide With Me” and “Amazing Grace” at Belle Banks’ funeral. “We will miss her, but we know she will live on in our music. Every time the chorus sings, she’ll be in it. Some how, some way, she’ll be in that group.”
Belle Banks managed, somehow through forceful grace, to be in many social circles.
“If it was 12 o’clock, and I was still preaching, I was in trouble,” Dodd said. “She was a passionate Panthers fan, and she had to be home watching the Panthers. One time, she sent a letter to (owner) Jerry Richardson, and a couple weeks later, he sent her two tickets for seats in the owners’ box to watch the Falcons.”
She was a woman who loved to jitterbug with Tommy Dorsey and the big bands, who could still tame a diving board at age 70, who got to see Paris and who would pick a dadgum fight if you tried to beat her at Scrabble.
Her son lives at Cedar Grove now, the fifth generation in the house, and his daughter said she might want to live there someday.
“When you walk into that house, you can just feel history. You can feel it; it’s tangible,” Morrow said. “She made it come alive.”
In Belle Banks’ last weeks, Hospice of Lake Norman had been summoned to Cedar Grove, and family also helped make her comfortable.
“She had a good run of it,” Torrance Banks said.. “She loved her life, and knew how to live. She didn’t just live a long time, she lived well … for a long time.”