Leadership comes natural for Dave Belew

Former Beckett Paper president still involved as he turns 80.

Dave Belew may not know every resident of the City of Hamilton, but he’s working on it.

And even if he’s never extended a handshake in your direction, he has touched your life in some manner, whether you know it or not.

“To me, he is Mr. Hamilton,” said Gerry Hammond, President of the Hamilton Visitors Bureau. “The reason I say that is he doesn’t work in just one area. He’s worked on music, on parks and playgrounds, economic development, city committees. He is so broad in all of the areas he has contributed to.”

If it makes the city a better place to live, Belew is involved. Often times, he’s in charge.

“Volunteering is my No. 1 hobby,” said Belew, who still works as hard at the age of 80 as he did during his 18-year run as President of the Beckett Paper Company, minus the paycheck.

“Hamilton is the size of a community where one person can make a difference,” he added. “And I think we have an obligation to give back. Volunteering is the rent we pay for occupying our spot on this Earth.”

Belew was born in Falmouth, Ky., in 1931 to Leland and Elanor Belew and lived there until 1942 when his father’s work with the Herring Hall Marvin Safe Company brought the family to Hamilton.

He attended Taylor Elementary, Roosevelt Junior High School and Hamilton High School, where he would meet the love of his life, Margery.

“We were just good friends at the time,” he said. “We didn’t really start dating until our college years.”

Belew majored in philosophy at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., while Margery majored in music at the Colorado Women’s College in Denver.

“I graduated on June 8, and we were married July 3,” he said.

In 1954 he accepted a job working for the Rowe and Wyman advertising agency, whose largest account was the Beckett Paper Company.

“I started out as a flunky, making deliveries and dropping off releases,” Belew said. “But it got in my blood. I loved what I was doing and planned on staying there for life, but in 1960 Beckett Paper twisted my arm to come work for them.”

And while the importance of volunteering, giving back and helping people had been instilled in him by his parents, it was reinforced by his new employer.

“They really encouraged people to get involved in the community,” said Belew, who in 1961 began volunteering with the Hamilton Community Foundation, a charitable organization which had been established a decade earlier.

Fifty years and two terms as president later, Belew is still one of the foundation’s driving forces, serving as its only trustee emeritus.

Last November the HCF honored him by not only making him the inaugural recipient but also the namesake of the David L. Belew Legacy Award.

“Dave Belew is an inspiration as an individual,” Hamilton Community Foundation President/CEO John Guidugli said. “He’s one of those folks you look at and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could be more like him.’

“I’m always amazed that he not only manages to be involved as he is, but to be as effective as he is,” Guidugli continued. “He’s not one of those people who just lends his name to something. If Dave says he’s going to be part of it, he’s part of it and he’s going to work as hard as he can to make sure you accomplish your goal.”

It’s that kind of work ethic that helped Belew ascend from advertising manager to company president at Beckett Paper by the age of 42.

But as his responsibilities grew, so did his community involvement.

Among the dozens of organizations he has lent his leadership, service and sweat are the Cincinnati Council for Economic Education, the Boys and Girls Club, the Fitton Center, Hamilton Economic Development Corporation, Hamilton’s Parks and Recreation Commission and the Open Door Pantry.

“It’s not my goal to be busy,” Belew said. “It’s just that I’m involved in so many things that I think make a difference, and that makes for a busy schedule.

“It also makes you a much happier person,” he continued. “An involved person gets to know more about the community and appreciate all of the many things we have.”

Such as music, which has always held a special place in Belew’s life. When he was 6, his neighbors bought a new piano and Belew would spend time there teaching himself to play by ear.

The first song he learned to play was “Pennies from Heaven.”

“When my parents discovered what I had been doing, they went out and bought a used upright player piano,” Belew said.

His dad’s first request was “There’s a Gold Mine in the Sky,” which Dave happily taught himself how to play.

Seventy-four years later, Belew still takes joy in playing the piano every day, and his love of music has led to his becoming a lifetime board member of the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra.

Paul Stanberry, the music director and conductor of the orchestra, has counted Belew among his dearest friends for more than 20 years.

“Dave is the breed of Hamiltonian that is getting more rare as time goes by,” Stanberry said. “He’s a real holdover from the golden age when corporate leadership was the standard of the day.

“If you’re lucky enough to count him among your friends, you’re a rich man,” Stanberry added. “I’ve known about three or four people in my lifetime that I consider to be great people, and Dave is at the head of the list.”

Belew has sung in the choir at his church, Trinity Episcopal, for 57 years and played concerts at the Fitton Center. He and Margery are the benefactors of two music scholarships, one through the HCF and another through the orchestra. And on Nov. 6 he will put on the 20th annual Open Door Pantry benefit concert.

His involvement with that fundraiser began the way so many others have: a friend asked.

“It was supposed to be a one-deal, but this will be our 20th one,” Belew said. “It’s the only fundraiser for the pantry, which is a great organization. I’m privileged to help out.”

In 1975 he started the auction for the Boys and Girls Club. A board member asked if he thought they could raise $5,000, and Belew told him if they didn’t they would stop.

They raised $10,000.

Last year it was $100,000.

One of the more curious listings on Belew’s roster of benevolence is Hillsdale College in Michigan, which sits nearly 700 miles from the William and Mary campus he attended. Yet he has been on the board of trustees there for 30 years.

“I was invited to be a speaker at Hillsdale in 1966,” Belew explained. “I’d never heard of the place, but I fell in love with the school and its principles.”

Every June for 23 years he led a seminar there for Beckett employees and customers. Later he found new reasons for him and Margery to visit when their son, Guy, and daughter, Sally, enrolled at Hillsdale, during which time Dave, naturally, became president of the school’s Parents Association.

On the flip side of the caring coin is Belew’s involvement with an organization that makes perfect sense, one that is quite literally close to his heart.

The local chapter of the American Heart Association has counted Belew among its most valued supporters since he underwent his first open-heart surgery in 1988, which was two years after Margery was diagnosed with cancer.

“It was a wake-up call,” Belew said. “Both of those events were involved in my decision to retire.”

He stepped down as president of Beckett in 1992, then he stepped up his volunteer work, serving as a board member and later the president of the American Heart Association, where his fundraising for the annual Heart Walk has become legendary.

“He’s been our top fundraiser from the very beginning, and he continues to raise more every year,” said Ray Meyer, region director of the Butler and Warren county chapter of the AHA.

Belew solicits donations with hand-written letters and rewards them with hand-written thank-yous. This year he sent out 143.

One year the Heart Walk was held the same weekend as one of his board meetings at Hillsdale. No one would have blinked had he skipped the walk. No one except for Belew himself.

“He insisted I come out and meet him on Thursday and walk the 6 ½ miles with him to verify it for those who pledged money,” Meyer said.

The Heart Walk is held on the bike path that bears Belew’s name, and he counts the decision to extend it among the highlights of his life.

The project was one of five legacy gifts the Hamilton Community Foundation made to the city as part of its 50-year anniversary in 2001, along with the renovation of the Michael J. Colligan Lodge, the creation of Lentil Park and the bronze statue of Lentil on High Street, the building of Foundation Field behind the Booker T. Washington Center and the skateboard facility in Joyce Park.

“Dave Belew was the architect of that entire 50-year celebration,” Guidugli said. “All of those legacy gifts to the community, Dave had a major part in not only identifying, but also working to make sure they go forward.”

Belew himself has continued to go forward, refusing to slow down even after a second heart surgery in 2003. He still exercises every day, tends to his beautiful garden behind his historic home in the Rossville District and plays tennis once a week.

Last month he and Margery celebrated their 80th birthdays, which are just 20 days apart.

“Eighty used to seem ancient, but not now,” he said.

Still, it gives him pause to think about what he has accomplished through the years. And as an avid reader, he has no trouble summoning a quote from Leo Rosten to illustrate why he is who he is and does what he does.

“I think the purpose of life,” Belew begins, “is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have it make a difference that you lived at all.”

Contact this reporter at (513) 820-2193 or jmorrison@coxohio.com.

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