Robert Elberson sought to make an impact – but not necessarily create a legacy – with his visionary touch on the local economy and higher education.

But Elberson couldn’t help but do both during his executive years at Hanes Corp. and Sara Lee Corp. and his endeavors with Salem College and nonprofits, according to local officials.

Elberson died in his sleep on Feb. 26 at age 84, according to the obituary on the website of Hankins & Whittington Funeral Service in Charlotte.

“Dad was quiet about his own achievements,” Charlie Elberson, Robert’s son, said Monday.

“Instead, he would say his greatest accomplishments were around empowering others to do amazing things. That’s the common thread that runs through his business career and his philanthropic efforts.”

Elberson became president of Hanes Hosiery Mills Co. in 1968 –– 14 years after he joined the company as a management trainee. He became president and chief executive of Hanes Corp. in 1972, president and chief operating officer of Sara Lee Corp. in 1983 and vice chairman of Sara Lee in 1986. He retired in 1989.

He put his belief in personal advancement through higher education into action by establishing and endowing scholarships at Salem College totaling $5 million. That makes him responsible for roughly 10 percent of its $50 million endowment, according to Susan Pauly, the college’s president.

Elberson grew up in Winston-Salem and attended Home Moravian Church, which is adjacent to the Salem campus. So is the historic Moravian cemetery, where Elberson said his parents are buried. Although Elberson chose to retire in Charlotte, he said in April that he felt “a special connection” to the Salem grounds.

“He was extraordinarily intelligent and extraordinarily humble,” Pauly said. “He said his involvement with the college was never about him, but about how education can make a difference in a person’s entire life.

“He was very reluctant to be recognized in public settings, particularly having our Fine Arts Center named after him” in April, shortly after he provided a $3 million gift to the college’s scholarship endowment. He received the school’s highest honor, the Comenius Award, in part for serving 15 years on the board of trustees.

“We’ve lost a great friend, but because of his generosity, his spirit will always be here,” Pauly said.

In a 1973 profile in Women’s Wear Daily, Elberson was described as having an easygoing manner that a competitor cited as a “Southern coverup for one of the keenest brains in the business.”

In a 1976 Winston-Salem Journal profile of Elberson, eight years into his run as Hanes president, the article described him as “locked in a joint evolution” with the company that produced innovative designs and products.

Elberson viewed himself as a “transitional leader” in the 1976 article. “I want to introduce new concepts to a company not used to them. I’m enough of a bridge to the past that I can get them introduced and get them going.”

Pushed L’eggs brand

Hanesbrands said in a statement Elberson was integral in the development of the L’eggs brand of sheer hosiery.

“The innovation and product quality of L’eggs propelled the brand to leadership in sheer hosiery sales in the food, drug and mass merchant retail channel, a position the brand continues to hold to this day,” the company said.

“As a testimony to lasting legacy of L’eggs, the brand was ranked the No. 21 apparel and accessories brand that women know best in the Women’s Wear Daily Top 100 of 2012.”

As Forbes magazine recounted in a 1980 article, Elberson discovered in 1968 that the company was still relying on department-store sales, even though pantyhose were selling in large numbers in supermarkets and drug stores.

Elberson asked an advertising agency to design a hosiery product with a memorable name and consistent quality that was easy to keep in stock and wouldn’t share a rack with the competition.

The designer, Roger Ferriter of Herb Lubalin Inc., “compressed a pair of pantyhose in his fist and noticed that the package would be an egg,” which he realized rhymed with leg, which could be rendered with a French flair as L’egg. To make sure the displays were always full, Elberson distributed L’eggs to stores on consignment, with Hanes representatives responsible for keeping them stocked.

“A lot of department stores are blaming us for the loss of business to supermarkets and drug stores,” Elberson said in the 1973 article. “But the trends were there. We just recognized something that was already under way.”

‘Venture philanthropy’

Elberson facilitated innovation and entrepreneurship in the nonprofit realm through Reemprise Fund, a foundation he began in 2005 that provides donations through Foundation for the Carolinas.

The fund is described on the foundation’s website as “venture philanthropy,” and it has provided “transformative grants to an array of arts, education and health- and human-service organizations.”

The fund has contributed to the McColl Center for Visual Art, as well as Lifespan, an organization that empowers children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities by providing education, employment and enrichment opportunities. The fund has provided $15,000 to a project that provides microloans to low-income residents for business startups and expansions, and $22,000 to Classroom Central, a local nonprofit that provides free school supplies to teachers and students in six area school districts.

Michael Marsciano, the foundation’s president and chief executive, said it was Elberson’s wish that the bulk of funding for the Reemprise Fund be provided after his death.

“Bob’s thinking, like many things in his life, was ahead of his time,” Marsciano said. “He wanted to provide funding not just for nonprofit partnerships and strategies that can be replicated.

“He also put a great emphasis on risk-taking because he knew most nonprofits are risk-averse by nature. He wanted to provide them with resources to help them break through, and by not being so afraid of failure, they can create something special.”

Surviving family members include a daughter, Ann Lee and her husband, Eric, of Port Orchard, Wash., a son, Charlie Elberson and his wife, Lou, of Charlotte, and his grandchildren, Marshall Hatfield, Joe Elberson and Annie Elberson. There will be a private service for the family. Elberson will be laid to rest in Salem Moravian graveyard.

Bloomberg News contributed to this article

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