Interviewee: Leo Wotitzki
Interviewer: Vernon Peeples
Date: May 5, 2000
P: Leo Wotitzki at his home on North Shore Drive in Charlotte Harbor, Florida, May
5, 2000. Leo, while I know a great deal about you and your past, the purpose of
this interview is to record a lot of memories of your total life, beginning as early, I
guess, as you can remember. So, I will start out by asking you when and where
were you born?
W: In Punta Gorda, on May 19, 1912, in the old Sandlin house on Red Esplanade.
P: And that house is still standing.
W: It is still standing.
P: Do you remember anything of any particular importance, other than your birth,
that was occurring about that time?
W: Well, I was pretty significant. [Both laugh.] No, except that my parents had lived
over a store that my dad had inherited from his father down on Marion Avenue,
and it burned in, I think, 1910, and they moved over to the Sandlin house where I
was born while they were having a home built on Gill Street in Punta Gorda. I
was about two weeks old when they moved over there. I do not remember much
about living in the Sandlin house.
P: So, you do not remember much about the waterfront view of the Sandlin house.
W: No, I sure do not.
P: The names of your parents, both your father and mother?
W: Edward Wotitzki, and my mother's name was Celia Hart Wotitzki.
P: And you had one sibling, a brother.
W: Frank. He was born October 8, 1916. Like me, he is still navigating. He lives next
door to me.
P: What does he do now?
W: That is not easy to answer. He is a lawyer, of course. He has retired, really. He
operates his boat, about a forty-two-foot boat. He comes by the office everyday
for coffee. He is always pretty active. He belongs to both yacht clubs here and is
fairly active in both of them. Other than that, I do not know what. His wife is not
well at all. She has Alzheimer's, and he has a considerable burden there.
P: Leo, your grandparents both came to Punta Gorda at an early date, and I know
that you know something about where they came from before they were here.
Can you tell us something about that?
W: My mother's parents moved from Philadelphia to Savannah, Georgia, during the
Reconstruction right after the Civil War. I remember, for example, my
grandmother telling us on numerous occasions how she shook hands with
Jefferson Davis one time. Then, they came on to Punta Gorda, must have gotten
here in about 1887, 1888. My dad's parents came from New York. They all came
from Europe when they were quite young. But, they (my dad's parents) came
from New York and went to South Carolina. For what reason, I'll never...
[Break in interview]
W: ...Where were we?
P: You were speaking about your dad's parents.
W: Oh yes, they came to South Carolina, and my grandfather on my father's side
must have been a very considerable entrepreneur. He started out there with a
pushcart. He did not speak very good English. That was red neck country where
it was easy to get killed, yet he was very successful there. He planted rice. What
in the name of hell he was doing that, I do not know, but my dad said he did and
was successful. That was along the east coast, I guess, in South Carolina, and
they all got malaria and had to get out of there. They had seen, I guess, the
brochures at the railroad published about opening up Florida, trying to get people
P: Do you remember the name of the town in South Carolina?
W: I think it was Walterboro, but I am not positive. I should know.
P: And your grandfather's name?
W: It was Jacob Wotitzki.
P: Now, get back to the railroad.
W: Well, they loaded everything they had into a boxcar including themselves,
according to my dad's story, and came to the end of the railroad line, which was
Punta Gorda, [to] a place some of us are fairly familiar with called the Y, where
the tracks divided out on the south side of town. He was quite a fellow. He
became a successful individual here. They arrived here, I would guess, in 1886
or the early part of 1887 because he was one of those, I believe, who attended
the meeting when the group decided to incorporate the town of__ as Punta
Gorda, and that was in 1887. He was very successful, much more successful
than my dad ever was.
P: Leo, let me digress a little bit and go back to Jacob Wotitzki and his ancestors.
Do you recall where they came from in Europe?
W: Yes and no. The borders of those countries moved around because they were
always in war with each other. I am quite sure Prague, which would have been in
Czechoslovakia. My dad said that he could speak a little Czech, whatever that
was, but that is where they came from. My mother came from probably what is
now Poland, and her father came from Germany. He was an interesting
individual, too. He was fifteen years old, and he came over here by himself. He
had some relative somewhere, and he joined the Army, I guess probably to get a
job or something. He wound up out in the Middle West fighting Indians.
P: His name was?
W: His name was Gus, Gustav Hart. Who was the American general that got
everybody...the Indians killed a whole bunch of them... Custard. He was at some
fort or camp or something in North or South Dakota and happened not to have to
go out the day Custard went out or I would not be here. That is a kind of
interesting sidelight on his life. I brought on the Masonic __ and I looked on
the old charter that was issued in 1890 something or another, and I see he
signed it. So, I know somebody was there who signed his name.
P: You mentioned Jacob Wotitzki participated in the election to incorporate Punta
Gorda. Do you remember any stories about that?
W: Sort of indirectly, I guess, Vernon. With K. B. Harvey who was, I guess, the
ringleader in that group, they all walked to...
P: Pine Level.
W: Pine Level. I cannot remember any names. They all walked to Pine Level to file
whatever papers were necessary to incorporate Punta Gorda. That was quite an
accomplish too, I guess. More than that, though, I do not recall.
P: There is a delightful story you told me about your Grandfather Jacob Wotitzki
about when he was arrested.
W: Again, he was kind of a controversial figure anyhow, and apparently he liked to
go swimming. Out on the waterfront in Punta Gorda, there were not many people
around. Somebody had him arrested and said that he was swimming nude.
When they tried him in the municipal court, he said he was not nude, what they
saw was the top of his bald head. He was cleared of that charge of indecent
P: Do you know where your Grandfather Wotitzki's store was in Punta Gorda?
W: Yes. That is the one that burned and chased my mother and father out __
corner right across the street from where the professional center is on Marion
Avenue. The professional center is 201 Marion. That would have been 301
Marion Avenue. There is a carwash there now. Sort of diagonally across the
street from the Johnson building, which housed the first clerk's office.
P: Now, your Grandfather Hart's store?
W: It was down on Red Esplanade on the water. It was kind of a hardware general
merchandise. He supplied the commercial fisherman who were around here. He
had a dock built out into the bay where they could tie up there boats, called
Hart's Dock, but that one, like everything else around here, burned down without
any insurance. There was a fellow by the name of Demry who had something to
do with the port. He had an office upstairs, I guess, in that building, and
somehow they set the whole thing on fire and burned my grandfather out. At the
same time, it burned the Punta Gorda Herald, which was located right on that
corner, I think about where the Pepper House is. That is the corner across the
street on Red Esplanade. But, that burned, the Punta Gorda Herald burned. That
was, of course, started by my uncle and aunt. He sold it in 1901 to A. P. Jordan,
but we started in 1893, I believe it was. I do not remember the date. Pretty
difficult time for him and my aunt. Then, they rebuilt there on Cross Street. Do
you remember. Well, Vernon will remember delivering groceries over there to my
aunt. She did not hesitate if she wanted a pound of butter or a couple of eggs to
call the grocery store on the corner and tell them to rush down there with it.
P: Now that you mention your aunt, Laura Wotitzki, who married Kerby Seward,
you have mentioned to me before about the problems that marriage created in
W: Well, first of all, my family was Jewish. My dad's father was not very enthusiastic,
to put it mildly, about her marrying Kerby Seward, one that did not bother much
about any of it, I do not think. He was a Baptist, I think. So, when he died, which
was a very sudden death-he had some kind of a cerebral hemorrhage or
something-he left everything to my dad. My dad set my aunt and her husband up
in business, and he wound up his life working for them after his second store
burned without insurance.
P: You mentioned, of course, the ethnicity of your family being Jewish. Do you know
what problems that caused to either of your grandparents in their early life in
W: It did not seem to cause very much, if any at all. A lot of nasty remarks and stuff
like that, but dad always had a story to tell those folks. I am not going to tell some
of them right now. Pretty scurrilous. But, no, they never caused us any trouble,
really. I got elected with the legislature, in spite of all of that. I always have been
a little bit outspoken.
P: Were these the only Jewish families in Punta Gorda?
W: Yes. There were no others that I can recall. A kind of interesting thing, it seems
that in each one of these small towns, there was one Jewish family. I do not why
they came along. I guess they got a monopoly on business somehow. But, in
Arcadia, there was the Rosen family, and one in Fort Myers. Each one of these
little towns had one Jewish family. There were not many of us, though.
P: In the case of your Grandfather Jacob Wotitzki, who was very successful, do you
know what he could attribute that success to?
W: Just plain drive. He was a self-starter. For example, he went down to what is now
Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island and homesteaded a substantial part of that
island. I do not know how he got there. He went down on a sailboat, I guess, and
the mosquitos were so bad on that island that a person could hardly live. I simply
do not know how he did it, but he proved up his homestead and owned that
property when he died, and my dad proceeded to lose the whole thing. For
example, when he started-I have other people tell me this-when he opened his
grocery store, grocery and everything else, he would go out with his horse and
wagon all over town taking orders for groceries. Then later on, he would fill all
those orders and drive around and deliver them later in the day. Sort of like your
dad, Vasco Peoples, with a grocery store delivering groceries to the fisherman,
for the fisherman down to the docks. That is another whole story, too.
P: Was it Jacob Wotitzki who started the trading down the coast, all the way to
Chokoloskee and over to Miami?
W: It was. He had a sailboat. Probably sailed from Europe, I do not know, but he had
a sailboat called Molly Oar. He and a crew of one periodically sailed down the
west coast, from here down through the Keys, on occasions, and around, I think,
to where Miami is located, trading with the natives. Kind of a remarkable
individual, I am sure. I never did know him. But, he was successful. My dad also
ran that thing for awhile. His crew was a fellow by the name of Oscar Black. You
may have seen him, Vernon. Captain Black. They would go sailing down there,
trading. My dad told me that one time they went into where Everglades City is
now. It was kind of a place where some outlaws were hanging out. For some
reason, they began shooting at them. They, I guess, got out of there, but he was,
oh, Alterman and those outlaws that robbed banks, some of them were down
there, I guess.
P: Alterman and the Rice brothers.
W: The Rice brothers. They escaped from all that somehow. He probably was
having a few drinks along the way, to make it easy to He did tell me,
though, on one occasion they sailed all the way around to where Miami is now,
and the water was so shallow there that they had to row. They had a rowboat
that they rowed to shore. He, I guess, had a few drinks or something. Anyhow,
he said he wanted to sleep in a barn. When he woke up, he had a diamond stud.
Now, why he ever had that, you know? He said that was gone. He did not know
who took it, and he never heard of it again. But, they were pioneers, and I do not
know how they survived. Some of those things were right spectacular.
P: I believe there is a story about your father and Captain Black and bad weather?
W: Oh yes. He said they ran into, probably, a hurricane when they were sailing back
north along the coast. He said it looked like they might sink. Captain Black got
worried and said, the Lord's good and the devil ain't bad, and he kept saying that.
They did all kinds of weird things. He said that they captured a few sea turtles by
jumping overboard. I do not know how they did it or what they did, but he told me
about it. Anyway, they were interesting people, I am sure. Unfortunately, I did not
record anything of those stories that they told me. I suppose that some of them
probably were adorned a little bit with poetic freedom, but there was a lot of truth
in them also.
P: Now, your father grew up in Punta Gorda.
W: Yes. He was, I think, ten or eleven years old. He was born in 1876. That would
have been 1886 or 1887, so he was ten or eleven years old when they got here.
My aunt, I think she was a little older than he was. She was probably twelve or
thirteen. And he grew up here.
P: What education did he have?
W: My dad? He went to the Citadel in South Carolina and was there, I think, for
about three years. He got sick, again with the...there must have been a lot of
mosquitos around or something. He came back, but he always kind of proud of
that. He said it was the West Point of the South.
P: What education did your mother have?
W: She graduated only from high school in Philadelphia and went to a business
college in Philadelphia and learned to do shorthand and typing and that sort of
thing, which was a pretty good skill to have back in those days. She went to work
when she finished all that, and she was just, probably, a teenager, for Horn and
Heart Arts. That was a restaurant chain. They had these automats, they called
them, where you go in and put a quarter in a slot and get a piece of pie and that
sort of thing. She worked for them for several years and then came down to
Punta Gorda to visit her aunt, Mrs. Goldstein, and met my dad. They were
married, I guess, the same year, whatever year that was. [In] 1908, I think, they
were married. I know they went up to Tampa and spent their honeymoon at the
old Tampa Bay Hotel, which is now the University of Tampa.
P: You mentioned the Goldsteins. Tell us who they were.
W: Well, what was his name? Anyway, he was the brother of my grandmother, my
mother's mother. I cannot tell you really how he came to be here, but he was one
of those who arrived very early, opened a store. I think that the furniture store
that he opened was right there where Peoples' IGA was for a number of years.
He had a son, Harry Goldstein, who was another good story.
P: A lot of good stories about Harry.
W: Yes, and most of them are true.
P: His name was Efrom Goldstein, and her name was Frederica?
W: Her name was Frederica. Yes, I guess that is what his name was. I cannot
remember for sure, Vernon, but I think that is correct. There was considerable
family of them. They grew up in New York. Again, my grandmother told me one
time that she remembered the streets of New York being decorated to record
that morning, black drapes and stuff, when Lincoln was killed. I am not sure
about the time frame about those things, but she was there then.
P: Which one of your grandmothers spoke German?
W: I never did know either of my dad's parents. My mother's mother spoke Lord
knows what, according to my mother. She said her father told her not to listen to
the way her mother spoke because it was so bad, that it was a mixture of Hebrew
and German and goodness knows what else. He came from Germany. I do not
think he had a whole lot of formal education, but he was a pretty bright fellow. He
did not want my mother and her sisters to learn to speak whatever language that
was that his wife was using when she lapsed back into whatever the original
language was. As I told you, she came from, probably, Poland.
P: Do you remember any of her quotes in her language?
W: Some of it was a little bit scurrilous. I remember one of her daughter's (one of my
aunts) name was Jeanette Hackinburg. Her husband, my grandmother did not
like, and I remember being up there one time visiting when he tried to tease my
grandmother. He said, Grandma, you are in your second childhood. She said,
well, __ you are in your second jackasshood. That was one of the more mild
things that she would say.
P: Is she the one that had a statement about the field marshals?
W: Yes. That was when we would get smart or disagree with her pretty strongly, she
would say da Lieber gut aud sie forgessen bafelt maschal su machen, which
was German for the good Lord forgot to make a field marshal out of you, trying to
tell her what to do. She was quite a character. She was a rather handsome
woman, but apparently her formal education lacked a lot.
P: When your parents got married in Punta Gorda, was your father in the mercantile
W: Yes. He took over my grandfather's business when he died. I think I mentioned
that my mother and father were married in 1908. I am trying to say that he died in
1910, but it was before they were married. It was 1910 when that hurricane came
through here and near about blew everybody away.
P: When did you first attend school.
W: 1918, and neither of you remember that. 1918, Punta Gorda. Ms. Norma Pepper
was the teacher.
P: What was the school and your classmates like at that time?
W: Well, the whole school was in one building. Vernon, I suppose that building-
though you saw that in your lifetime-was on Cater Street. The whole school from
the first grade through the twelfth, all the students attended that school. I am
trying to think of some of the folks that were in my class, but it begins to get
vague after how many years, seventy, or more than that.
P: How long did it take you to learn to read?
W: I was almost born reading, I guess. Ms. Norma Pepper, was she living when you
P: I knew her.
W: Ms. Norma Pepper taught the first grade. She started all of us off. I remember
she got after me one day. I guess I was a little amorous. I kissed some little girl
standing by me in line when we were having spelling. She [would] have spelling
bees. She got after me about that. I think it was __ I guess I continued it, the
rest of my life almost. But, it was a real small school, and everyone knew
everyone else. The town was small. Gosh, there were not 1,000 people in the
P: You had a rather brief musical career.
W: Yes. Harry Goldstein was my mother's first cousin. He was a violinist, and he
was good. He was a real fine musician, because his mother beat the tar out of
him if he did not practice. So, my dad decided I was going to be a violinist, too,
and they bought a violin about so long and he agreed to teach me. It did not go
too well. He just could not stand it, I think. I practiced a little bit. That was when I
learned I needed eyeglasses. I could not see, so they took me to see an eye
doctor. What was his name? I know where he lives, out in Solana. I know it real
well, but it is just like the rest of the names. It has escaped me. He said I needed
glasses, though. When I was in the first grade in school, in 1918, I started
wearing glasses, and I have been wearing them ever since. You know, that pair
of glasses was in the garage behind my mother's house. I left the darn things
there, and I should have taken them. They were about that big around. I must
have had to squint my eyes to see through them. That was long ago.
P: Do you have any memories of World War I?
W: Yes. I remember when they used to sell what they called liberty bonds. I did not
understand what the war was all about much, but Harry Goldstein's wife Sophie,
I remember, came up to see my mother about buying a liberty bond. I just have a
recollection of that, and one other thing. I was walking down to my dad's store,
and there was a musical group. I think they were promoting the sale of bonds in
the street. I stopped to listen to that, and somebody made a speech. I got the
impression that the Germans were about to attack Punta Gorda. It scared the life
out of me, and I ran down to my dad's store to get protection. That would have
been, what, 1918, I guess, 1917. Those are about the only recollections I have of
that period of time.
P: What did you do for recreation during those early years?
W: There was not any problem with it. You could go down and go crabbing, go
swimming, play baseball out in the yard. There was a tennis court. To the extent
that I am never very sympathetic when I hear talk about kids do not have
anything to do. They got to have somebody to take care of their recreation. Well,
we never had any trouble that way. We had some errands to do and some jobs
to do, but there were plenty of activities for kids. A little older, we would go
camping. Had a good time. We were not outlaws either. We did not do anything
particularly bad. Probably stole a few watermelons and stuff like that, but that
was to be expected.
P: Were you active in the Boy Scouts program?
W: Yes. You used to have to be twelve years old to get in, and I just could not wait. I
got in, joined the Scouts, and finally became an eagle scout. I have a grandson
now who is trying to do that. I had my old eagle scout badge-my mother had
saved it-and I gave it to him. I said, now when you get one of your own, you can
give me that one back. But, that was a good period of time. The scout master,
the first one that I dealt with, was a fellow by the name of Hadley. He was a
teacher in high school, and his wife was a teacher. In fact, she taught me in the
seventh grade. Again, we would go out there. We did not have any formal camps
and all that kind of stuff. We would just go. I remember camping one time up on
Peace River there where they have the old phosphate mines. We were
swimming out there in the river, and it was deep. Boy, it was deep. An alligator
came and stuck his head up right close to us, and we all went ashore right away.
P: Albert [W.] Gilchrist, who lived in Punta Gorda, was governor of Florida from
1909 to 1913, and I know that your family had some contact with him.
W: Yes, my mother was his secretary here and, I guess, could have gone to
Tallahassee, but she did not.
[End of Side 1 Vol. 1]
W: Some character, whose name I do not recall, according to my dad, came up to
his store and threatened to kill him. I do not remember who he was but, anyway,
he said he was going down the street to get a drink and come back and kill him.
So, my dad went and borrowed a gun from somebody, a rifle, a waited for the
fellow to come back and, I guess, got the drop on him, told him if he does not get
away and run, he was going to kill him. Well, he disappeared, according to my
dad's version of the story, whatever that might have been. It was probably true.
Hold it, now, I remember a little more about it. He said that fellow came up there
and did some shooting. My dad was in the store, and this guy shot holes in
tomato cans around him and, boy, that stuff was running down on him. Then, he
was going back down the street and come back and kill him, kill my dad, and dad
got that gun from somebody next door and that was the end of that saga.
P: Let us proceed with that a little bit. There was a man named Doc Silcox, who
was a merchant on Marion Avenue.
W: Yes, that was also at that early time. He was, I guess, a self-proclaimed dentist,
among other things. They also elected him, or hired him, to be town marshal. He
had a new uniform, apparently, with some brass buttons and a fancy hat and the
whole bit. My dad and a friend of his by the name of Rogers, they were young
bucks and they decided that they did not like Silcox anyhow and that, that
uniform was just too good for him, so they got a shotgun and loaded it with bird
shot. When Silcox came down the street, they shot him. They punctured his
uniform, [and] Silcox was trying to catch them so he could kill him. They escaped
from him, but then later, they locked Rogers up in the old callaboose. A
callaboose was an interesting place. It was a little frame building that had a cage
in it that they locked people in. It had a peaked roof. I remember it. I do not think
you do, do you?
P: I do.
W: Okay, and have a little cord. Anyway, they locked John Rogers up in there. He
wanted to get out, so my dad was going to help him. He went and got a ladder up
there, and he propped the roof up. Somehow, he got out of the cage and got out
through the roof and escaped from the prison that way. You know, there was
plenty to do around here in those days. [All laugh.]
P: Was your father active in public life?
W: Kind of outspoken. Yes, he was Charlotte County's first supervisor of registration,
registration officer. He was appointed when the rest of the officers of the county
were appointed when the county was created in 1921. He once ran for county
judge against Judge Trebue.
P: S. F. J. Trebue.
W: S. F. J. Trebue. He probably would have been elected, but one of the lawyers in
town, Waltmeyer, I believe it was, found the statute required the supervisor of
registration, according to my dad's story, to resign. A person would have had to
be out of the office of supervisor of registration for some period of time before he
could run for another county office. Why, I do not know. I guess they figured he
had too much control over the voting district. My dad had not resigned, so he had
to drop out of that race. That was the extent of his formal political career. My
mother and I used to help him. He used to copy the voting list Those books
are around somewhere, I guess, some of them are. We used to help him copy
the books over so they could send them out. I think he kept the originals, or
something, and they sent them out to the precincts when there was going to be
an election. For whatever reason, he copied those darned books. I know that.
P: When you went to high school, do you remember anything particular about that,
when you graduated and what activities were generally available?
W: I graduated in 1929. All of sixteen of us so it was kind of easy, I was the
valedictorian of that class. I had to make a speech, which the principal, A. E.
Riley, wrote for me, and I recited it. I knew it by heart. The high school, well,
there were not many people in it. It was a small group of folks. There were
sixteen in my class. I remember most of them. Daniel McQueen, who was later
county agricultural agent here and one thing and another. Bill Johns, I do not
know whether you remember him, but his sister Louise married Sheriff Lipskin.
It did not last very long. She was about a third his age. A story about Lipskin, too.
He never said anything. He was the most silent man. We thought that he must be
devastating to crooks and criminals. The only time he ever shot a gun that I know
anything about was one night he had a little too much to drink. There was a little
lunch stand across from the arcade building and Maxwell's Drugstore down on
the east end of Punta Gorda. He went in there and shot a couple holes in the
ceiling and scared everybody to death. That was the only time I ever heard of his
firing a gun, but we thought he was devastating to criminals. Anyhow, getting
back to high school, I was just trying to think. If I remember correctly, there were
probably three of us out of that group of sixteen who went to college at all.
McQueen went to NC State, and I went to the University of Florida, as you well
you know, Vernon. Lawrence Cowling, I do not know where he went to school
[but] I believe he went. I do not think anyone else did. Maybe one or two of the
girls in that class took nurses' training, which was about the only thing girls could
find to a career at all back in those days.
P: Leo, earlier you mentioned about the hurricane of 1910. There were some
others, [like] the hurricane of 1921 which flooded Punta Gorda.
W: I remember that very well. There was not very much wind in Punta Gorda.
Apparently, the hurricane blew up off the coast and just backed water up here.
We left home in a boat. Fortunately, the water never did get into our house, but it
was splashing against the floor. You could hear it. Wallace Marbly came. He ran
the drugstore down the street. He came polling a boat up there, and we got into
the boat. He polled it down to the old S_ Hotel. My dad's store was in that
hotel building. We sat on the porch and watched the tide come up. Somebody
had an automobile-there were not many in town-across the street, and we
watched the water go up on the wheels on that thing. There were boats going up
and down Marion Avenue, power boats too. The day after the hurricane, I
remember seeing a power boat tied to a post down where U. S. 41 crosses
Marion Avenue. It was an old building. There was not any U. S. 41. That was a
railroad street, King Street. A boat tied there. I never did know how they got that
boat out and moved. It certainly did not float away.
P: All right. Now, the hurricane of 1926.
W: That was a real hard one. That sort of tore things up. It blew the water out of the
harbor. It kind of flooded back in afterwards, but my recollection about that is
that, mostly, while it did not do any harm to our home, Jim Cooper, who ran
Cooper's hardware-well, he ran it [but] he did not run much of anything-he came
up to our house in the middle of the night and called my dad. He said, you better
come on down. He said, this storm is blowing the front door of the store open.
That was Seward's store. My dad said, all right. Anyhow, Jim Cooper left. My
dad got dressed. I thought I better go with him. I was thirteen years old or so. We
started, and we walked down toward the store. The wind would come in gusts,
and you had to hold on to something. It was that hard. Pieces of roof and metal
would go sailing across. It was kind of scary. Now, we went down there and we
got to store. The door was open, and Jim Cooper and some more drunks were
standing there in the door enjoying themselves. They just wanted him to come
down there. My dad had one of these old straw hats. I do not know if you ever
saw a __ straw hat. You see them, puff warmers, on the stage sometimes.
He had one of those. Jim Cooper pulled that off my dad's head. My dad was a
little fellow, and Jim Cooper was about six feet three. He got that off of my dad's
head and threw it out in the middle of the street. A gust of wind hit it, and I am
sure that hat must have gone seventy-five miles an hour right down the middle of
Marion Avenue east, and I do not think it has been seen since. I do not believe
anyone was killed around here in a hurricane. Very few people ever have
suffered that kind of loss here, like they did around Lake Okeechobee and places
like that at other times.
P: The next significant hurricane is the one I think you are referring to, in 1928 when
so many people drowned around Lake Okeechobee.
W: Also down in the Keys, I think.
P: Do you remember how that affected Punta Gorda?
W: I do not recall any particular effect. We had the storm, but by the 1926 standard,
it was not a very bad storm.
P: 1921 was a big year in Punta Gorda, the year that the first bridge was opened,
and that was the year that Charlotte County was created.
W: I remember they had a fish fry in Punta Gorda. Of course, if you had a fish fry,
you had mullet. They did the same thing in 1931 when the second bridge was
opened. The railroad ran special trains down here to bring people from all over.
Everybody wanted some mullet at the fish fry. There was a considerable
celebration. I do not remember too much about it because I was just nine, ten
years old. I do remember when the county was created-I was in the first or
second grade in school-when there was an event of some significance like a fire
or something, the old ice plant whistle would blow, the steam whistle. The ice
plant also ran the generators that furnished electricity in Punta Gorda. That thing
went off on November 11, 1918. We were pretty excited, and my teacher said the
war was over. That, I remember. Getting back to the hurricane thing, that was
about it. And the bridge opening, the one in 1931 which was ten years later, was
quite a thing. The new bridge was named the Baron Collier Bridge, and Baron
Collier was here. The governor, who was I believe Doyle Carlton [1929-1933],
was here. There were thousands of people in Punta Gorda eating those mullet.
P: When you graduated from high school and went to the University of Florida, that
was a pretty big experience.
W: It sure was. Really, I do not think I had ever been to Gainesville before. I was
sixteen years old when I graduated. I remember the county ran out of money
during that spring. They had to close the schools a month early, and I was afraid
that was going to disqualify me from going to the university. I had to work most of
my life for one thing or another. I worked for the newspaper for $6 a week and
stuff like that. Anyway, I got admitted, and it came time to go to Gainesville. My
dad and mother had a, what, 1925 Dodge car, and they drove me up to Lakeland
to catch a train. I do not know why I could not have gotten on it here. Anyhow, I
got on the train at Lakeland and went to Gainesville, where I had never been. I
did not have a dormitory room or anything. But, a fellow in Arcadia, Orwell
Rosen, had recently graduated from the university and belonged to a fraternity
up there. He gave them my name, gave me their address, and said, you go by
there, they will take care of you. Well, I did not know what a fraternity was or
anything else. When I got to Gainesville and got off the train, there was not a
darn sole around the station. I did not know where I was, and it must have been
at least a mile out to the university from down there on West Main Street in
Gainesville. I was looking around trying to decide what to do, and everything I
owned was in a little old trunk. Some student came along. He said, would you
like a ride to the university? He said, I will take you out there for $0.50, which was
about what I had. I said, yeah. He had a Model-T truck. It was not anything, just a
couple of seats. We tied my trunk onto the back of the thing, and I sat with him.
We went out there, and I had that address. I remember it now: 1410 West
University Avenue. We drove up out there. I did not know a soul in the world. I
did not know a thing about it. Rosen, I think he had told somebody that some
weird freshman was coming up there. I sort of went in, and I said, I was told to
stop. He said, well, come on in. I lived there for four years. I wound up being
president of the thing. That was an experience, the University of Florida.
P: How did you finance that first year?
W: I had saved enough to get by one year. After that, I ran out. I was trying to take
pre-law down in the arts and sciences college, AB. I ran out of money, but I had
a chance. The state was giving scholarships, a competitive exam. I took the
exam and won a scholarship in the teacher's college. I about as much desired to
be a teacher as I would have today to be an astronaut, but I figured an education
was an education, no matter what, so I took it. It paid $100 a semester. By that
time, I knew enough people. I had a job waiting on tables in the boarding house
up there for my meals, and I got elected treasurer and house manager for the
fraternity and I got my room rent-free. I was one of the wealthier students around
there my second and third and most of my fourth year at the university. Anyhow,
that is how I became a schoolteacher. That was a good experience.
P: What subjects did you do the best in, and which ones did you do the worst in?
W: I liked to study. I had a major in math, a major in science, and in English. I got a
life graduate state certificate which qualifies me, if anybody would give me a job I
guess, to teach school today. It has English on it. I never taught English, never
undertook to do that, but I taught math, as you well know, and most of the
sciences in high school. Those were the things I enjoyed. Languages, I could not
manage them too well.
W: No. I took Latin. The reason I did that was my dad wanted me to be a lawyer, and
he said a lawyer has got to know the Latin. Well, if it required a good knowledge
of Latin, I never would have made the grade. That was about the end. I had to
take a language when I was a freshman at the university. For some reason, I
signed up for French. I will never forget that professor. His name was Brunet. He
walked and he looked like he was coming apart. He was the most uncoordinated
fellow I ever saw. He would come in and say something in French, and I did not
know what he was talking about. I do not think anybody else did. There was one
student in that class. He was Florida's first All American football player.
P: Dell Vansickle?
W: Dell Vansickle, yes. He sat on the front row, and another fellow who was a friend
of mine forever from Fort Myers, taking pre-law, was sitting on the front row, and
I was sitting on the front row, and none of the three of us knew what was going
on, really, but we had to have that course. I guess the professor knew it because
we all passed. Dell Vansickle was a handsome young man. After he left Florida,
he went out to California and got in a movie. He was a stunt man or something. I
do not believe I ever saw his name up on anything, but he made his living out
there for years. __ lawyer in Fort Myers. He is dead too now, but he was a
real nice guy. He was an uncle of John Shepherd. I do not know whether you
know Johnny Shepherd. Do you know Johnny? His uncle, I guess his father's
brother-I do not know, it may have been his mother's brother-anyway, he was
an awful nice fellow. He and W. A. Shepherd were partners, and Johnny joined
that firm later. He is now retired, I believe. His brother got to be a Presbyterian
preacher, I believe it was. We can get off into Lee County here in a minute.
P: Your freshman English class? You had to write papers of some kind?
W: Yes, we did.
P: What I am thinking about, now, is one of the better students in the class who
became the editor of the Tampa Tribune, James Clandenin?
W: Oh yes. He left there. He went one year. He was a great writer. We used to have
to write stuff all the time, and the professor would read the better ones. He never
read any of mine, but he used to read Clandenin's. He left Florida and went over
to Clearwater and worked for that paper. Then, he went to the Tampa Tribune.
Yes, I never would have thought of his name in 100 years, Vernon, but I sure
knew him well. There were some interesting people in those classes, but I it is
hard to recall them right now.
P: He was the one who coined the words porkchopp gang," which they use
frequently to describe the more conservative members of the Florida legislature.
W: Yes. When I was there though, Vernon, mostly we were called the small county
block. I think that after I was gone, they inherited the name of the porkchop gang.
P: Now, your military education?
W: Oh yes. We had to take ROTC. It was mandatory in those days. You had to have
two years of it. I was out in the field artillery. It was a very interesting thing. The
uniforms they gave us were World War I uniforms. We learned to drill, but then
we had to learn to ride horses. It was horse-drawn. That was before they had so
many vehicles. That was kind of interesting. The first year when we were
freshman, we had to ride the horses that pulled the guns and the caissons. Of
course, some of us would get to sit on the caisson-that is the ammunition
carrier-and they did not have any springs on them. They were wagon wheels
and they would just shake your teeth out, but that was better than riding those
horses. We had to ride the __ horses and follow orders. They were all hand
signals, which I never did learn to understand. I always tried to avoid getting on
the lead horse because the fellow on that had to know which way to go. We had
a mess out there on that drill field every time we had a drill. I remember one time
when we were learning to ride, we took a ride one time out behind the Gainesville
Country Club. We were riding along and a limb struck my cap and knocked it off,
so I stopped and got off the horse to get my cap. In the meantime, all the rest of
the company had gone ahead. I got on, and that horse started off. I could not
control him. I could not get my foot over. I could not get up in the saddle, and [it
was] a big horse. I finally got on him, and when we arrived, Captain Barkow had
the whole company in a big circle. A big bush was in the middle, I remember.
Here I came, totally out of control, flat on my back on the top of that horse. The
horse just wanted to get with the rest of the horses. That horse jumped over all
those bushes, and I was still on the top when he landed. Just about broke up the
whole thing. Everybody roared. When it calmed down a little bit, Captain Barkow
said, great riding That was pretty much my military experience. I remember
at the end of the second year, you could volunteer if you wanted to, take
advanced military. Well, we were all positive that there were not going to be
anymore wars. That was 1930, 1931. So now, those of you who want to
volunteer and take advanced military over here, and the rest of you get over
here. I got over there, and that wound up my military career. It was interesting. I
remember Captain Barkow had a good-looking daughter who went to Gainesville
High School where I had to practice teaching.
P: The social life at the University of Florida. Of course, at that time, it was for men
only, but I am sure that there was maybe not adequate but there was certainly an
ongoing social life.
W: Yes. A lot of fellows used to hitchhike-and it was not easy to hitchhike, either,
because there were not that many cars-over to Tallahassee, where there were
girls, on the weekend. I never did try that. When we had parties of some kind and
invite girls to come in, everything was very strict. I remember we had a house
party one time, and all the fellows had to move out of the fraternity house and the
girls moved in with, I think, two chaperones. You would not even think of such a
thing [as] they all live together in the dorms today. That was a different world we
P: Now, this was Prohibition.
W: Yes. We had parties. We had a black guy who was the janitor in our fraternity
house. He told us he could get us some beer. This was during Prohibition. So, he
rounded up a couple of tubfuls of beer. We got ice to put in it and went out in the
woods and had us a big party, just the fellows. We could not get any girls to go
with us. They had more sense, I guess. I also remember when the Prohibition
was repealed, right after Roosevelt took office. Before it was repealed, they knew
it was going to be, and there were a couple of places that started selling beer in
Gainesville. Well, the fellows, we would all line up to get a beer. It was just a big
thing to do, drink some beer. It was different. Before that, we drank moonshine,
P: Was that hard to get?
W: No, it never was. That same black fellow used to bring us moonshine. One time,
they got him for doing something, arrested him. A police officer came up to the
house there, said we got this boy of yours down there. I forget what he was in for.
He said, do you want to do something about it? We said, yeah, we need him, he
has got to clean up the house. So, we went in the police car and went down there
and bailed him out. He could not have taken much money because we did not
have much. That was back, that was the highlight of our carousing.
P: Athletics at the University of Florida.
W: Let us see. Clyde Crabtree was the little guy who was quarterback. He was
good, too. He was quite a ball player. Florida had a pretty good team back in
1930, 1931. I remember the stadium was open. We played Alabama and, I think,
lost, if I remember correctly. A fellow who was kind of a star on that team in
addition to Clyde Crabtree was a fellow who was later school superintendent, I
think, and that was __ He got into all kinds of trouble.
P: Floyd Christian?
W: Floyd Christian, and there was one in Manatee County. Floyd was the one who
got into the trouble. I forget what it was, some kind of __. He got his hand in
the wrong money pot or something. But the stadium, I remember when I first
went to games in 1929, there was not any stadium there. Where the stadium is
was a sinkhole, they called it. There were a lot of those around North Florida. It
was just a great big sinkhole with a bunch of bushes in it. They went in there with
mules and scoops and just kept going around digging it out bigger and bigger
until they got it the size they wanted it and built seats in there. That was the first
stadium. I have not been up there in a number of years, but I saw a picture of it. I
mean, you could not even see where the entrance was.
P: How big a role was athletics in the life of the university then?
W: Not very great. The problem, I think, was that, economically, times were bad. You
could not afford to do very much, and the university was small. We had, what,
3,000 or 4,000 students, which was the biggest thing I had ever seen. There
were less than 500 kids in the whole public school system here. I went up there
and that place had maybe 3,000 or 4,000 students, and it was huge. Now, they
got 45,000 and about the same number in Tallahassee.
P: How did you travel back and forth from Gainesville to home?
W: Hitchhiked. You did not have any [other] way. You did not have any money to
buy a bus ticket, or I certainly did not. I remember my first trip back home, I
started hitchhiking and I got down to Micanopy, if you know where that is, right
south of Gainesville. Anybody would be crazy to take a ride to Micanopy, but I
did. Besides that, it started to rain. I stood there for awhile, and J. T. Rhodes-he
spent all his mother's money, and he had a Model-T Ford-he and a couple of
other fellows came by, and they saw me and stopped to pick me up. There was a
rumble seat in this thing, and it was raining. When I got in, they put me in the
rumble seat. Again, it sounded like we were a bunch of drunks, but I never drank
very much. Anyway, they had moonshine they were passing around, and I
needed something to keep from freezing to death. They brought me home. That
was my first trip. That was the only way you could travel. I remember a fellow,
Carroll Lancaster, graduated from high school along about my time. He went to
the University of Florida. He took advanced military, and he loved his uniform. He
came home wearing the whole thing with his sword and his officer's saber. He
was standing out there on the corner to hitchhike back to Gainesville. Somebody
stopped by and said, general, where is your horse? I remember that. That upset
him a lot. Carroll taught school later. He died. Most all of them are gone except
me. I am a comparable survivor, in spite of things.
P: During your last year or two, you were majoring in education and trying to get
through. When you graduated, what did you do?
W: Well, I could not get a job teaching school, and I was supposed to teach two
years or I would have to pay back the $600 I had received. I did not know how I
could ever pay back $600 for anything. So, I went back to work for the Punta
Gorda Herald, where I had worked before. I worked like the dickens for that
whole year. It got me up to $15 a week then, which was not bad money. Most
people did not have anything. I worked there for a year. It got to the point where I
would write the paper, go out and get the news, sell ads, set the type, run the
press, make up the forms, the whole works. I earned my $15 a week real good.
Anyway, the second year I was out, I was offered a job at Crescent City, Florida,
teaching all the math and science in that school. [End of Side 2, Volume 1.]
P: ...after graduating from the University of Florida, and then you went to Crescent
City to teach school.
W: I taught there for one year. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out some way
to make a living. I taught in Crescent City, and that paid me $85 a month for eight
months and I had to live in a boarding house. It was rather interesting there, too,
because two little old ladies ran that place. The school board ran out of money
during the year and I did too, and I could not pay for my room and board. I told
them, I said, now, I do not have any money, but if they ever pay me, I will pay
you, if I ever get any money, I will pay you. But, I cannot. I do not have any
money. They said, well, we are going to trust you. By the end of the year, they
got up some money and paid us. I did not go back because in the meantime, the
second year, there was a vacancy in the school here in Punta Gorda. The first
year, I tried to get a job here, they would not hire me because I was from here.
The second year, they gave me the same job I had at Crescent City, teaching all
the math and the science. I taught all that the next year here, and then the
second year I started teaching here, I had taken a civil service exam, thought,
well, I would go to work for the government and make my fortune. So, in the
winter of 1936, I got an offer of a job in Baltimore setting up the Social Security
system. So, I went up there. That job paid $120 a month. It was all right, but it did
not require very much intelligence. I had to write code numbers on all these
Social Security registration cards that people had to fill out in those days. I can
recall, out of all those millions of cards, they had them bundled in groups of, I
think, about 500. I ran into a package to code of cards from Punta Gorda, Florida.
It was just unbelievable. I was there for awhile, about six months. At the end of
the time, our job was to file those cards. I imagine they are still looking for them if
they have any interest in them because they had rented a lease space there in
Baltimore, by the acre really. I never saw so many filing cabinets in all my life,
and they piled these cards up on trucks that you pull around. We did not know
what we were doing. You open a drawer and throw them in. I read in the
newspaper later, after I had been back for a long time, they were having trouble
finding those things. I could not imagine that they ever were able to find them.
We did not know anything about filing or anything. I had a telegram from the
Punta Gorda Herald, that if I would come back they would pay me $35 a week. I
thought, well, that is better than what I am doing. So, I got on the train and came
home and went to work for the Punta Gorda Herald for $35 a week. They could
not pay it every week. Sometimes, we would take it out in trade, like somebody
would bring some chickens in there, or all sorts of things. I worked there until the
war started. They would not have me in the service because I could not pass the
physical. They ran out of teachers at the high school. That was in 1941, I guess,
1940, 1941. So, I went back and taught. That time, what did they pay me? $101
a month, I think.
P: Let us go back to Crescent City for just a moment. Do you remember anyone
whom you knew then, or taught, who comes to mind?
W: I cannot think of any names, but every now and then, they have a reunion up
there of various classes. Somebody has my name on the list, and they send me
an invitation. I always write them a letter and tell them I cannot come. I probably
would not recall any of them. I lived in this boarding house. It was called The
Gables. It had been, I guess, an Antebellum home, maybe. A fellow who lived in
the room right down the hall from me was a single Episcopal minister up there.
He was a nice fellow. He and I got to be real good friends. On Saturday night
when he would get right down to where he had to get his sermon ready, he and I
would go down to the drugstore and buy a couple of cigars and come back and
go up to his room and smoke them. We had a bottle of whiskey and we would
have a drink of that, and he would do his sermon. He used to bother me about
coming to church. Finally, I went one Sunday night, I remember, and he called on
me to take up the collection. He was a nice guy.
P: Wasn't there one student who later became a lawyer as a member of the Florida
W: Oh yes, he was a senior that year in high school, Ray Earle. Ray was a bright
guy. He lived across the street from the high school. I first sort of noticed him,
aside from the fact he was a bright kid, we had these Jewish holidays which I
never did bother with, particularly, but one of them, Rosh Hashana or Yom
Kippur, he was out of school that day. He came back with the excuse and I said,
well, I should have been out too, I am sure, but I did not feel like I could do that.
We became good friends. I talked him into going and joining the fraternity I
belonged to at Gainesville when he went over there. He became, I think,
president of Florida Blue Key. A real good lawyer. He was the partner of John
Matthews, who was a member of the senate. Well, there was a father and son,
John Matthews, Jr. Ray got a job while I was still in the legislature, and he came
over to Tallahassee. He was working for one of the governors. I guess they still
do it. The governor always had some people reviewing bills coming through to
see if he needed to veto them or if he should sign them or whatever. Ray worked
for __. He was really bright. You know, he retired from the Supreme Court, got
to old to stay, and went to work for Holland & Knight. To follow that a little bit,
when we had that case against the city of Punta Gorda, a class action case, we
had to have some good testimony about attorney fees. So, I called up Ray. Oh
yes, he said, I can do that for you. We sent them up the file and he sent down an
Affidavit, and it worked like a charm. But, he was the most distinguished one. I
understand they had a parade up there, and he was kind of an honored guest of
some kind at that parade three or four or five years ago. I have not been in
Crescent City in a good many years. The principal of the high school was a sport,
too. He liked to play around. His wife, I think, had some sort of a mental problem,
I believe. He may have had, too. I remember he asked me one time to-I do not
know why he trusted me-he said, let us go over to Daytona, which was not too
far from Crescent City. I had a date with somebody, one teacher, and things went
from bad to worse over there. I cannot even tell that story. He was a nice guy,
though. He was a little upset. I did not stay there that next year because I was
offered a job doing what? That was when I first taught in Charlotte County, I
P: Leo, your first venture in elective politics was when you ran for school
superintendent in 1936.
W: That is correct. That was kind of another interesting thing. The teacher who won,
I was teaching in high school and she was teaching in the room next to me, Sally
Jones, she had taught me in the sixth grade. The superintendent, whose name
was Paul Eddy, had resigned to go to Tallahassee to work for Colin English, so
there was a vacancy. I do not know what the job paid, probably at least $200 a
month and I was making $101, so I decided to run for county school
superintendent. Sally Jones did also. If I had any sense, I would have known that
she was win, but it turned out not to be a bad idea. I went all over the county and
called on all the people and made all the speeches and did all those things and
still lost, and it was just a good blessing that I did. It would have been terrible to
be in a position like that. That was in 1936, and that was when I went to
Baltimore, I guess, and stayed up there about six or eight months. Decided I
would never be president, from that location, and I came back to work for the
P: Let us look for a minute at politics in 1936. They still had the poll tax.
W: Yes, that is right, Vernon. That is a good story, too. You had to pay $1 a year poll
tax in order to be allowed to vote, and people were really poor. I remember going
to a house out in the western part of the county. I knocked on the door, and when
I went in, there were two or three chairs in a room with two women and a child.
That was all. I talked to them about voting for me, and they could not anymore
pay the poll tax. The husbands were commercial fisherman who were on a limit
of, I guess, 100 pounds of mullet a week. They got $0.03 a pound for them, $3 a
week. At any rate, the poll tax simply disenfranchised lots of people. I remember
a couple of fellows came to see me. They said, we can get you some votes but
we got to pay the poll tax. I said, how much, across? I forget what it was, $5 or
$10, but I knew they were lying to start with. They were going to stick the money
in their pocket and go get something to drink. I said, well, I am sorry, I just cannot
afford it. Let it slide, but that is the way the situation was. People were simply
poor, that is all. All of us were, but we did not know we were deprived because
everybody else was in the same condition we were. It was a rough time. At any
rate, I did not get elected, thank goodness.
P: It was politics, though, that was very personal.
W: Oh yes, there were not any real philosophical issues. She wanted a job, for
example, and so did I, period.
P: And this was all really in the Democratic primary.
W: Oh yes, there were no Republicans, which was sort of a blessing because when
you had the primary, it was all over. After that 1936 election, though, I lost, of
course, in the first primary. The second primary, they asked me to work on the
polls, at one of the polling places. A fellow by the name of Harry Gregors came
into vote. I looked on the book, and he was a registered Republican. I said, Mr.
Gregors, there are not any Republicans on the ballot, and you cannot vote. Why
can't I vote? I said, because you are a Republican and this is a Democratic
primary. He said, I always have. And I do not doubt it, but I would not let him
vote. He sure was mad with me. It was a different world. It did get kind of
politically nasty, though, when I ran for the legislature the first time. If it had not
been for Vernon's father, I would have gotten beat. His father, Vasco, and I and a
fellow by the name of Frank Smoke, Sr. ran. Smoke was employed by the
Babcock interests. They had the Babcock Florida Company and all that. Vasco
was eking out a living over at the grocery store, had not been here very long,
really. I was working over at the Herald. We had a kind of a more or less benign
sort of race up through the first primary. Smoke almost beat Vasco and me, but
Vasco got eliminated and decided to help me. I finally won by four votes, and he
got them for me. It was a group of fifteen people he got absentee ballots from for
me. There are a lot of stories in connection with that. You do not want to go into
any of that right now. Just before the second primary in that election, so I could
have a Democratic party, which was the only thing there was, I decided to have a
rally, a political rally, in the circuit courtroom here. It was presided over by Earl
Farn, who was trying to be a friend of everybody so he really a friend of nobody.
We got up there to speak, and our's was the only race that the people came out
to hear anything about. Frank Smoke said, well, you ought to speak first. I said,
no, I am not going to speak first. Your name starts with S, mine starts with W,
you speak. We got to arguing. Earl Farn was jumping on in, you know how he
did. Finally, I kept going until I knew that Smoke was so nervous he was shaking
all over. He had his speech on some little three by five cards and he was jumping
all over. I said, well, I believe I kind of got him. So, I agreed to speak first. I knew
that the Babcocks were not popular, just because they were successful mostly, I
guess. The old squire Babcock, one of the clan, he was not a very friendly fellow
but there was not really any harm in him, a great big guy. I saw him sitting in the
balcony up there in the courthouse, and I said, you know, I have been told that
my opponent is being supported and backed by the Babcocks. Now, I said, I
cannot believe that because there is a squire up there in the balcony and I would
not wish him off on anybody. Well, it just brought down the house. Everybody
was laughing. It does not sound very funny now, but it was then. They had been
spreading rumors around, or trying to, to the effect that I was some kind of a
foreigner or something, so I said, you know, somebody has been saying that I am
a foreigner of some kind. I said, my family has been here since the town started. I
said, if there is a foreigner in the race, it must be my opponent. He came down
here from Georgia during the river state boom and just stayed on. Well, that
brought down the house again. Between that speaking and Vasco's help, I won
by four votes that time. But, that got kind of personal then. It was not long after
that, old Frank Smoke got a job as chief enforcement officer for the state Game
and Freshwater Fish Commission. He went down to La Belle and Hendry County
and got drunk and was driving along some road there, and he stopped and left
the motor running, just stopped out in the middle of the road and passed out. He
had a partial bottle of whiskey and a pistol on the seat beside him, so they picked
him up and put him in the pokey. I did not know about this but the next morning-
this was long after I had served in the legislature-he got bailed out. I think Otto
Fry and Earl Farn went down and got him out. The next morning, I guess it was,
about daylight, he came to my house, Frank did, and he said, Leo, you got to
help me. I said, what is the matter. He told me and he said, if the governor hears
about that, he is going to fire me. Now, the upshot of it was that I went to
Tallahassee. Earl and Otto went there to La Belle to settle the case somehow,
and I went to Tallahassee and talked to Millard Caldwell's man, his executive
assistant up there. This guy said, well, if the governor finds out, he will fire him.
I said, well, you are not going to tell him, are you? He said, no, I am not going to
tell him, just tell him to be careful. We saved Frank's job. Another time-if we get
into my political stories, we will go on and on-the sheriff, Fred Quidinaw, who
weighed about 250, 300 pounds, he was allowing Bolita, which was the Cuban
gambling game, to operate in Charlotte County. I do not know, they threw the
Bolita, I think, once a week, and there was always a huge crowd out in that __
section, out near Ward's Bar. It stirred up a lot of turmoil, and somebody
reported that to the governor's office. That was also to (I cannot recall that
fellow's name). He was the one who knew about it. I did not know any of this at
the time. I just happened to be in Tallahassee. I went into the governor's office
and this fellow said, how well do you know the sheriff? Well, I know him real well.
He said, well, you better tell him something for me. I said, what is that? He said, if
he does not shut down the Bolita, the governor is going to throw him out of office.
I said, well, I certainly would be glad to do that. So, I drove back home and went
over to Fred Quidinaw's house. It was at night. He was already in bed. I went
over there and said, Fred, you better shut down the Bolita. He said, why? I said,
because they know about it in the governor's office and they are going to throw
you out if you do not. He said, how much do they want? I said, they did not say
anything about wanting anything, except you better shut it down. So, he did.
Along about the same time or immediately after that, a fellow by the name of Max
Wayne Whidden, who was the Bolita man around here, came to see me. In fact,
he was parked out in front of my house when I went home one evening, late. I
said, Max, what do you want? He said, well, I think you are a friend of ours. Well,
yes, so what do you want? Well, I think you are entitled to be paid as much as
the sheriff and the chief of police. I said, how much is that? He said, $100 a week
or something, $125. I said, well, to tell you the truth, I am not going to touch. I do
not want any of your money. Well, you got to take it. I said, no, I do not, I will not
do it. I was running for re-election and he kept insisting, so I finally took it. It was
in an envelope, sealed up. Every week, he would bring me one of them. I would
take them down to the newspaper office where I was working. A. Jordan was the
head of the paper, and I told him what I thought it was. I said, I have not counted
any of it, and I do not know what is in there. I do not want to know. You keep it.
So, he did. When the election was over and I won, I called up Max Wayne
Whidden. I said, come over, I need to see you. He came over, and I handed him
all those envelopes. I said, I do not know what is in these envelopes. You
brought them to me, but you take them and go with them. That was the total
amount of bribery I had in my political career.
P: Let us go back to 1938 and that campaign. Your opponent in the second primary,
I think, had a problem of falling asleep in opportune locations.
W: Oh yes, that was the truth. That was the driven truth. Are you at all familiar with
Punta Gorda? There is a banyan tree down on the waterfront near the motel. My
opponent, Frank Smoke, drank too much, and he lived about 200 feet from there.
Well, he did not quite make it home one day, passed out under that banyan tree,
on the leaves there. Nobody bothered to give him any assistance. They just kept
riding by and looking at him. A couple of my strong supporters came down to the
office and said, do you want to go see Frank Smoke, and they told me. I said, no,
I would not go near that place. But, I said, I do not care how many other people
do. So, they increased the crowd. It took all that to win by those four votes.
P: What motivated you to run for the Florida House of Representatives?
W: Well, I kind of got interested in politics back, I guess, when Tom Butler served in
the House. I think he ran because Earl Farn euchred him out of a job of county
attorney, appointed by the county commission. So, Tom ran for the legislature
and passed a local bill making the office of county attorney elective, which gave
Earl a lot of trouble trying to stay in office. I talked to Tom during that period of
time. I said, Tom, I would like to go to Tallahassee. Well, he said, there is nothing
I can give you. He had a secretary he took up there. I began to be interested in it,
and I was working on the paper there. I would get the political news. That is what
caused me to be interested in it. J. T. Rose, later on, ran and served one term
and got a job with the state, and there was a vacancy. I said, well, something to
do, I will try it. I did not have any political agenda, really, at the time. I just was
interested in serving. I do not believe I had ever been to Tallahassee.
P: Do you remember any local or state issues that were involved in the campaign?
W: I seriously do not. The problems that we had were simply that there was not any
money in 1938. The Depression simply was not over, and it was sort of a matter
of survival. That is what it amounted to. Very little happened during that session.
A fellow by the name of Fred [P.] Cone was governor [1937-1941]. He was an old
fellow, probably near about as old as I am now, but he was in bad health. He had
a heart attack. He had a brother by the name of Branch Cone, who had his hand
out. Fred Cone just vetoed everything that was passed, nearly. His predecessor,
David Scholtz [1933-1937], had gotten the Florida Highway Patrol started for the
first time. Fred Cone closed it down. It was not restarted until Spessard Holland
became governor [1941-1945]. That was sort of the environment that we were in.
It was just a matter of dealing with a few local issues and trying to pass an
appropriation bill, which just did not have much money in it. That was about the
way it was.
P: What was your impression of the WPA and the other specially created federal
agencies to help relieve the economic conditions of the Depression?
W: Well, you know, they were ridiculed a whole lot, but they did a lot of good and
they kept people from starving to death. For example, in Charlotte County, they
rebuilt the seawall on the waterfront. They did a good job. It is still standing. The
original one had fallen in. They built a building which is no longer there, the old
community hall. They did a lot of road construction and that sort of thing, and
they gave people jobs that paid them enough money so they could keep body
and soul together. It was just a terrible time. My mother worked for awhile in the
distribution office where they provided, I guess, welfare baskets of food to
people. It was awfully hard. I do not think, unless you lived in that era, that you
could visualize it. So, my $101 a month, I was all right. It finally got to be $35 a
week, some weeks. I remember when I worked for the newspaper, FDR became
president and they passed the first wages and hours law. When it was held to be
applicable to newspapers, they had to raise my pay. The minimum pay then was
$0.30 an hour, I believe it was, which was a considerable increase in pay. I
remember A. Jordan said, I do not see how we can do that, support that, and he
was probably being truthful. I cannot paint you a picture, really, of the
circumstances that people were living in, how near this country was, perhaps, to
just rioting. I do not know what they would have rioted about. Food riots, maybe.
It was awful.
P: Do you remember what the government gave away to people, in terms of
foodstuffs or bedding or whatever it might have been.
W: I should. I saw enough of those packages. They had all sorts of things, staples
like potatoes and I do not know what, Vernon, cured meats and some clothing. It
was not much. I remember the old man Gibbs, who ran the pool room here for
awhile, lived out north of Cleveland, out on Joe Washington Loop Road. He
told me they just threw out that food package on the road. I said, what? Yeah, not
good. I thought, you old fool. Some people were that way. But, if FDR had not
come along and had not done some of the things that were done at that time, our
system of government could have collapsed, I think.
P: What do you recall about the __ planning project, or the efforts to do away with
the mosquitos, or the sewing room?
W: Boy, they did have a sewing room and the mosquito control. That was operated
in Charlotte County by our friend Charles F. Johnson. His job was to get
mosquitos killed. They did dig a few ditches so the tide water could get them into
the mangroves and out. But, his job was..he killed them by feeding sides. Filled
them up with sawdust mixed with oil and drop that in them ditches and things so
there would be a continuous layer of oil on the water. It would choke the
mosquitos to death. That was his deal. He was real proud of that, it seemed to
me like. He was one of our first environmentalists.
P: 1939 would have been your first legislative session. How did you get from Punta
Gorda to Tallahassee?
W: I had a family car. It was a 1933 Plymouth, I think. I drove up there. My secretary,
attache, was the daughter of Emily Johnson, the chairman of the county
commission. In fact, she was a senior in high school, and I was teaching her. He
asked me to take her up there. They needed all the help they could get. So, I
took her. She made the same as I did, $6 a day, for sixty days. But, I had
mileage for a round trip. They counted the mileage from Punta Gorda to
Jacksonville and across to Tallahassee. It was farther that way, and I got $88.60
for that. I will never forget, my total was $448.60, plus a sheet of $0.03 postage
stamps every day so I could communicate with my constituents, most of whom
did not care anyhow, I guess, because I did not use many stamps. I really do not
remember a whole lot that occurred of any substantive nature during that
P: In 1938, during that legislative session, what was the overall mood of the people
and of the legislature?
W: The attitude was just one of trying to survive. There was not much philosophical
debate about anything except hunger. In the legislature, I am trying to think.. it is
so hard to remember names. The Suwannee River music_ ...
[End of Side 1 Vol. 2]
P: __ at his home in Charlotte Harbor on May 17, 2000. It is a continuation of the
earlier interview that we did with him a couple of weeks ago. Now, I know, Leo,
we covered a lot of the first part of your life the first time, but I am going to just
mention some names to you and these will be mostly from earlier time, just so
that we have some idea as to what your recollection is of these particular people.
The first one would be Doc Silcox.
W: I never knew Doc Silcox, but I knew a lot about him because my father knew him.
He called himself, I think, some kind of a dentist. I doubt he had any education
much of any kind. He also had a job as city policeman in Punta Gorda, and they
bought him a new uniform with brass buttons and a policeman's hat and all kinds
of things. My dad was a young fellow at that time. He and another fellow by the
name of John Rogers decided that Silcox just was not entitled to look so pretty,
so they waylaid him one night and fired a load of bird shot into him with his
uniform and then, of course, ran. He was going to kill them, but somehow he
never did. Rogers later got put in jail, but I think it was for another offense of
some kind. My dad got him out. He was put in jail in the callaboose in Herald
Court in Punta Gorda. It was an old round kind of a frame building with a cage in
the middle that they put the prisoners in. It had a peaked roof on it. Vernon may
have seen that old thing. Anyhow, my dad got a ladder, he told me, and climbed
up there and pushed the roof up, and somehow Rogers got out of the cage and
then climbed out through the roof and escaped. That is sort of my recollection of
old Doc Silcox. He had some sons, not all of whom were admirable really. Some
of them were all right. Orlando Silcox was a painter. Adam Silcox worked for the
railroad, I guess. He had a truck, and he carried whatever it was, shipments,
around town. He later turned it over to Harry Blazer, who later turned it over to
Thurston Leffers. Then, the whole thing disintegrated.
P: Is Doc Silcox the individual who had the store on Marion Avenue who sometimes
would take a rifle and shoot down the street that your father...?
W: I believe that is correct, but I do not specifically recall that. There was a lot of
threatening going on, but nobody ever was able to hit anyone else with this firing.
P: Kerby Seward.
W: Of course, he was my uncle by marriage. He married my aunt, my dad's sister. I
do not know much, really, about his background, except that his father was once
county school superintendent for old Manatee County. When the county seat was
Pine Level. He used to visit whatever schools they had with a horse and buggy
through the woods. I know about that. But, Kerby Seward, lots of stories about
him, and most of them are true. He learned to be a printer and a writer and
worked in various places typesetting, some on daily newspapers up north
somewhere in Ohio. About 1895, I guess, he came back here and started the
Punta Gorda Herald, and he married my aunt. My dad's father was upset about it
because he was not Jewish, and that was a terrible thing. But, they made it for
about sixty years together. But, he started the Punta Gorda Herald, and it was an
important undertaking. He had a partner, whose name I cannot remember
offhand, to start with, but he set all the type, did all the thing I did later when I
worked for the Punta Gorda Herald, set all the type, got all the news, sold all the
advertising. Had a motto on the front of the newspaper, which said, In God We
Trust, All Others Cash. They sold the paper. They had a subscription at $1 a
year. When I started working there, it had gone up 100 percent. It was $2 a year.
I guess he did a pretty good job, but the paper burned. Fire started in a two-story
frame building across the street that housed one of my grandfather's stores, Gus
Hart. That burned, the paper burned, everything in it pretty much was destroyed.
It was about a year later, I guess, when he was able to start it up again. He ran it
until 1901, or 1902 maybe, when it was sold to the Jordan family, a fellow by the
name of A. P. Jordan, who was an old newspaperman from up in Georgia
someplace. He had also been in Leesburg, Florida. That family continued, pretty
much, to control the Punta Gorda Herald through the boon years of the 1920s.
During that time, a fellow by the name of Paul Garrett came to Punta Gorda from
Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, and he bought a half interest of the paper and retained
it until he died in 1935. But, the Jordans continued to control it. I worked there
from about 1927, when I was in high school, off and on until 1950, when I went to
law school at the University of Florida. An interesting experience and one that I
would not take a lot for, although when I started working there, my salary was $1
a day, six days a week from morning until night.
P: Switching to a more recent era, Judge W. R. Roberts, the county judge of
W: Well, Charlotte County's first judge appointed by the governor, Governor [Cary
A.] Hardee [1921 to 1925] when the county was created was a lawyer by the
name of Steven F. J. Trebue, who was a nephew, I believe, of the founder of
Punta Gorda. He was a very well-educated fellow. He was a graduate of
Washington & Lee University. After his death, whichever governor it was-I do not
remember anymore-before I went to the legislature I am sure, appointed Judge
W. R. Roberts. Now, he did not have any education much of any kind, but he was
a nice old guy. He had a lot of kids. He had one son and a whole bunch of pretty
daughters. Judge Roberts continued to serve as county judge for quite a number
of years. There were a lot of events that took place while he was county judge.
For example, it seems that when they counted the ballots after an election and
before the canvassing board met to do the official whatever they do, he seemed
to have control of the ballots. I can remember in 1940, when I was a candidate
for re-election, my opponent was a lawyer in Punta Gorda by the name of Bill
Sinclaire. Now, that is a whole story in itself, but I was not quite sure what Judge
Roberts might do about those ballots. It looked like I had won pretty well, but I
would drive by the courthouse to look in the window and one night I saw Judge
Roberts and Bill Sinclaire sitting in his office. That scared the stuff out of me,
when actually nothing happened. Judge Roberts was a common old cracker. He
spent a good deal of his life down in Cuba. His wife was a Cuban. I can well
remember my last experience with him. While I was in the legislature, prior to
every session after the election, there was a kind of informal caucus and
entertainment thing for legislators, in various places. This particular time, it was in
Tampa. It was after Judge Roberts was no longer county judge. He had been
defeated by a fellow by the name of Lawrence Robinson, who was weird, and
who died fairly soon [after]. At any rate, I was in Tampa for this caucus. It was at
the old Tampa Terrace Hotel. I was walking along the street in front of the hotel
and ran into Judge Roberts. At the time, he was living with one of his daughters
in Tampa. I visited with him a few minutes. I said, Judge, there is a big party
going on inside here, and we got a dinner and all kinds of entertainment. I said, I
tell you what, why don't you go with me? Oh, he said, I would just love to do that,
but I got to tell my daughter where I am. I said, well, come on. We went in there
and we got on the phone and called his daughter, and I took him to this party.
The old fellow really enjoyed himself. After it was over, of course, he departed,
and I never saw him after that. He died, I guess. I do not think he lived very long.
That is sort of my recollection of Judge Roberts.
P: Paul Eddy.
W: Paul Eddy worked for the Punta Gorda Herald during the latter part of the real
estate boom of the 1920s. He just did not fit the mold, though, of Punta Gorda
and Charlotte County. He came from somewhere up north, I guess, but he
worked for the Herald. The Herald was going downhill like everything with the
Depression coming on. He decided to run for county school superintendent. I
think he withdrew when he was going to get beat, and he went up to Tampa and
worked as a reporter. He wrote an aviation column for the Tampa Tribune. He
was married to a young woman, whose name I cannot remember now, but she
lived in Nocatee. She was a nice gal. He left Tampa, though, and went to
Tallahassee. The latter part of his life, he worked in the state Department of
Education up there. I do not know whether he was there when he died, or not.
That was Paul Eddy. He and I did not get along very well, just because I am kind
of a cracker type, and he was called a Yankee. It just did not work. That was the
year Sally Jones beat me for school superintendent.
P: All right. Let us talk about Sally Jones.
W: Sally taught me when I was in sixth grade. She was a member of an old cracker
family. She had three brothers, Charlie and Ferg and Neli (Cornelius). They
were all right people. Sally was the only one who had any formal education to
amount to anything. She went, I believe, to Florida State College for Women,
FSU. I do not know whether she ever finished at that time or not, but she taught
the sixth grade in Punta Gorda. Prior to that, though, she had taught down in
Chokoloskee. You might know where that is. It was pretty primitive, too, when
she taught school down there. Later on, she taught in the high school at the
same time I did. In fact, her room was right next to mine. When Paul Eddy got out
of the way in a race for superintendent, he got out of the way, really, because
Sally decided to run. I thought, gosh, here I am making $101 a month. I bet you
superintendent must make as much as $200. So I said, well, I will run. It was kind
of presumptuous for me to do that because she was popular with the people, but
I ran. We worked real hard and got beat, which, really I guess, was one of the
more fortuitous things that ever happened to me. It would have been a terrible
thing to get to be a political hack, living...oh, that would have been awful. But,
Sally was all right. She was good to us when we were kids. I remember one time,
a bunch of boys, she went out camping with us, slept out in the woods. I do not
know why she ever did that. But, she was a nice person.
P: Matt Wigs.
W: Well, Matt was part of the contingent from the coast of North Carolina that started
coming to the west coast of Florida in the winters back in the late 1800s and
early 1900s to do commercial fishing, when they could not do it, I guess, up
there. So, he was one of that North Carolina group. Uneducated but a good
citizen. A rough-talking guy. A lot of stories about Matt. He got elected, for
example, to the county commission. He did a lot of good things, too. The county
was trying to build some roads and streets, and he would go out and supervise
construction and do all sorts of things. He was actually in the marine repair
business. He had a place on the old city docks. One of the stories I have told a
lot of times, he told it to me and I sure it is true. When he ran for re-election to the
county commission, he was not your ordinary campaigner, politician. One of the
folks from down on Pine Island Road and the lower folks came to see him in his
boat repair place and said, Mr. Wigs, I am going to vote for you and so is my
wife, but, you know, my wife is not going to be able to get to the polls. Matt said,
why not? Well, he said, she needs a pair of shoes. He said, can you help me? He
said, get out of here, you so and so, said, she is your wife, you buy her the
shoes. And he threw the guy out. It was kind of interesting because his place of
business was up here. It had some scats going up pretty high off the road. I do
not know why it did not kill that Anyway, that is a picture of him. Matt also
liked to do skeet shooting. He was an all right guy. Vernon's father was chairman
of the board of the county commission during much of the time Matt was on the
board. That was a unique organization. There was Vasco, back when I
knew what really was going on, and Matt Wigs and a fellow from Charlotte
Harbor here by the name of Wes Vickers and another one by the name of Carl
Far, from out at the Englewood area. He was a pretty bright fellow. Who else?
Shooby Locklear, whose virtue was not great, but he was all right. But, Vasco
ran the thing. County attorney was Earl Far, who had been accustomed to
running everything until Vasco got to be chairman. He made Earl shut up, which
was quite an accomplishment. I always liked that. I was working for the
newspaper most of that time, and I would go over there. They did not have
anything like an agenda for those meetings. They just went over there. My
brother's present wife was a clerk of that court during that time. She would bring
in a list of whatever she thought needed doing, and that was the agenda for the
day. But, I would go over there to cover the meeting, which was always
entertaining. Every time I would come over there, Matt would say, why you little
so and so, what do you want? I would say, why you snaggletooth old so and so,
this is what I want. That is the way it went. Kind of an informal thing, but those
guys were conscientious [and] they worked hard. They had nothing to work with,
they had no money, and they did a good job for the county. Vasco did the best
job of anybody during that era because he did a great deal towards getting some
roads built in this county. They were an interesting lot. I remember one time. It is
kind of hard to relate times, but I was in the legislature anyway, and Vasco
wanted to have a little meeting about the compensation that the county
commissioners were receiving. At that time, the legislator from the county
controlled it. I just introduced a local bill and passed it, and that was it. So, we
had a meeting. It was in the back of Vasco's store. It was the whole county
commission and me, sitting on some feed sacks back there. They told me that
what they wanted to do was to raise the pay of the county commission from $50
to $75 a month and to give the chairman $100. I said, well, I will do that. So, I
introduced the bill and passed it, and I never heard, nobody ever reacted to it. It
was a different economic era, a different time, but it was all right. It was a good
P: Now a non-political personality, George W. Gatewood.
W: He was, I believe, a Methodist preacher, an itinerant country Methodist
preacher. He lived here for many years. I do not know a whole lot of his
background. He came from upcountry, up somewhere. He wrote things. He wrote
a couple of books, sort of, that my friend A. Jordan who ran the Herald rewrote
and edited and printed for him. He was an interesting individual, too. He
conducted church services out in the country for folks. I do not remember where.
He and I were pretty friendly. He used to come over to the Herald office and visit,
but I do not remember a whole lot of detail about him. He was the father of some
interesting folks. He was grandfather to Hugh Adams. He was father to Hugh's
mother, of course, and lived here quite a few years until his death.
P: All right. Now, switching from personalities, how would you describe your political
philosophy and your association with the Democratic party?
W: Pretty Democratic. I do not know, if you had to classify me, it would be pretty
easy, I think. You would say liberal, but that has to be defined because the
Republicans like to say that liberals are people who want to throw away all the
money. I define it as making government serve the people. Education, health
care, the environment. If those things make me a flaming liberal, that is what I
am. I have never been one who favors just throwing away money for the fun of it,
but I have never been against levying taxes when it was necessary to do it. It
seems to be the philosophy today among the prevailing group of politicians that
are taxes are bad. Well, I do not think so. I do not think that there is anything that
we spend our money for that buys anything greater than the freedom that we
have and the education that we have and the associations that we enjoy, and
that is paid for with tax money. There is nothing that we buy, in my judgement,
that is even equally important. That is sort of my philosophy in a nutshell.
P: What do you remember about Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he first became
W: I remember his speech, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The New
Deal. I remember his acceptance speech when he was first nominated. I think it
was in Chicago. He flew out there in an airplane, and that was just unheard of in
those days. I am sure he gave his acceptance speech there. But, it was a great
one. Of course, he followed Herbert Hoover [1929-1933], who presided over a
disaster. This nation when FDR became president, I think, was as near to
revolution as it has ever been, or as any nation has ever been without actually
reaching it. People were hungry. There were no jobs. There was nothing. It was
awful. And he made things happen. He, I guess, was probably our greatest
president, maybe along with Lincoln, who saved the nation. I could go on about
him a lot __ I started to go to his second inauguration in 1936. At the time, I
had been teaching school here. I had taken a civil service examination and was
offered a job when they were setting up the Social Security system, offered a job
in Baltimore. It paid $120 a month, and I was making $101, I believe it was,
teaching in Punta Gorda. So, I quit in December of 1936 and went to Baltimore
for $120. It was not exactly a wise decision, of course, because it cost more to
live in Baltimore than Punta Gorda, and my money began to dissipate. Anyway,
while I was there, it was during that winter, and it was during the spring of 1937
when they had the inauguration of FDR. I planned to get on the train and go
down to Washington from Baltimore. Well, the day of the inauguration was
freezing cold with sleet and snow and stuff, and I thought, well, I'd better stay
alive. So, I did not go. I do remember that.
P: In 1938, you ran for the state House of Representatives.
W: That was an interesting campaign, 1938. Three people ran for representative. I
had just been bit by the political bug in 1936 when I ran for school superintendent
and got beat. I had never been to Tallahassee, but I decided to run. Vasco
Peoples, Vernon's father, ran. He had not been here but a couple of years
P: Since 1933.
W: It had been that long? And, the third candidate was Frank Smoke, Sr. I worked
pretty hard. I do not think Vasco did much, except run his store. I do not know
what Frank Smoke did, but he almost beat Vasco and me both in the first
primary. I do not remember what the vote was, but it came close to having a
majority. I beat Vasco out, not by much, and Vasco decided to help me for the
second primary and really was responsible for my being elected because I won
by four votes and he made contact with a group from the Grove City/Englewood
area. I think they were show people who were traveling. He got absentee ballots
to them and got their votes. I am quite sure that I would have lost had it not been
for those fifteen votes. The campaign itself was pretty interesting because Frank
Smoke was kind of different. He did not have any business being in the
legislature for sure. But, he worked for the Babcock Florida Company at that
time, and they were the only people that had any money. So, somehow with their
support, or somebody's support, he got all these votes. Well, he decided that he
had won after the first primary. That turned out to be his fatal mistake because I
worked even harder and had Vasco's help, and we beat him. He started
celebrating, and I think I told you the story about that. Did I tell you the last time
about the public speaking engagement that we had?
P: Yes, you did. Leo, were there any real issues in the campaign, or was it
essentially a campaign of personalities?
W: Personalities. Except that behind the scenes, although I did not realize it I guess
at the time, there was a movement led by the Dupont interests to substitute
other levies and eliminate taxes on real estate. They elected to keep Harris
Wood, who worked for them. He got elected to the Speaker of the House. I am
sure that was a motivating thing, but it was never talked about in the campaign.
In fact, I did not realize it until I got to Tallahassee, but beyond that, just
personalities. That is how it was the first time. Other things arose in the
P: Now, this was the Alfred I. Dupont Estate that you are referring to?
W: That is correct.
P: When you arrived in Tallahassee in the spring of 1939 for your first session, what
was your reaction?
W: Well, I had only been there once before, right after the election when I won.
There was a fellow who lived here by the name of Charlie McClain. He had a job
as a kind of a straw_ for the state road department, the road maintenance
thing, and he was about to be fired for whatever reason. He did not have any
money, I guess. Fred Cone was firing people. It got to be such a thing that they
wanted me to go to Tallahassee and save his job. So, he and I and his daughter
Florence, we went to Tallahassee, and I was going to go see the governor about
this important position. Well, the governor had [suffered] a heart attack. Fred
Cone was the governor. His brother Branch, who was not noted for walking the
straight and narrow, was his executive assistant. I went in there to see him. He
kind of snarled at me. I did not have too much courage back in those days, I
guess, but we saved Charlie McClain's job and came back to Punta Gorda. That
was my first trip to Tallahassee. That was in the old governor's office. I do not
know if you ever saw that one, Vernon. It was in the old Capitol. Go in the front
door and turn to the left and down at the end of the hall. It was not a great suite
of offices like later. Then, when I went to Tallahassee, I was very fortunate when
I first went there. I had been working and was working for the Punta Gorda
Herald. I was what you call a stringer, a correspondent to the Tampa Tribune,
AP, and anybody else who would let me. So, I walked up into the House
Chamber when I first got to Tallahassee, and the Tallahassee correspondents for
the various news services and newspapers were having some kind of a meeting
up there. I just sort of walked in and started visiting with some of them, told them
I was kind of a country cousin of their's, and we got to be real friendly. There was
Malcolm Johnson. I met him at that time. He was a young reporter for the
Associated Press, working with another fellow I knew real well. Another good
friend of mine from the Tampa Tribune, two of them from the Tampa Tribune,
and Florida Times Union. I cannot recall the names of these folks. They were
all my friends almost forever. Alan Morris, was later chief clerk of the House,
worked at that time for the Miami Herald. I met all those folks on that first
occasion, and it was pretty fortuitous because we just became real good friends.
When things were about to happen they were concerned about or something,
they would come tell me about it. It was pretty great. Another thing that was
interesting, too, my desk was on the left side of the House, second row back, and
there was a table next to the Speaker's rostrum up in the front of the House. That
was the press box. There were usually, oh, about half a dozen reporters there.
[End of Side 1 Vol. 3]
W: That was my initiation to the legislature. There were some other people who were
extremely helpful to me. I met a fellow by the name of Charlie Rosenberg,
whose family owned the Rose Printing Company that did all the state printing. He
was helpful to me. The legislature was largely rural, of course, it was controlled
by the small counties. We had nothing like one man one vote in those days, so
that if you stood for something and got a little support from what we called the
small county block, later called the porkchop gang, you could accomplish some
things. The large counties in the state just had very little influence. The largest
three counties had three representatives each, Dade, Hillsborough, Duval. There
was another one. There were more than three.
P: Polk and Pinellas.
W: Yes, Polk and Pinellas had three representatives each. The next group had two,
and all the rest of the counties had one. So, Dade County, even at that time,
must have had 500,000 in it with three representatives. I represented Charlotte
County, which had maybe 5,000 people in it. My vote counted just as much in the
legislature as one of those representatives from Dade County. If you really
wanted to be fair about things, that was not fair, but it stayed that way until the
U. S. Supreme Court changed the law. But, the small county people, the
legislators, all one party and all of that. But, it seemed to me like most of the folks
were pretty conscientious about things. We had very little money to work with,
almost none until a few years later when I helped pass the sales tax. We did a
few things, but not much. The first session I was there, Fred Cone was still
governor. All he did was veto stuff. Governor David Scholtz just before that had
started the Florida Highway Patrol. Fred Cone shut it down. Just almost nothing
happened, I guess, that first session, but I got a pretty good education. Then, in
1940, Spessard Holland was elected governor, and World War II was on the
horizon. Spessard really led Florida out of the, I guess, middle ages. For
example, the counties had issued millions of dollars in bonds for the purpose of
building highways through the counties. Most of them were parts of
thoroughfares through the state, like U. S. 41 and roads like that. Spessard
Holland proposed that the state take over all those road bonds that the counties
could not pay, nobody was paying taxes, and that they being funded from
gasoline taxes. That was perhaps one of the most significant things that
happened in that era, but there were a lot of others. For example, a lot of public
health legislation. The military moved into Florida in 1940, thousands for training,
and there were all kinds of problems with venereal disease and I do not know
what all so that Holland proposed a lot of public health legislation. I cannot
remember the events, but I remember some things, like he proposed increasing
the price of automobile tags. Governor Holland did. I was opposed to that
because it was hard enough to pay for the ones we had. I was talking to a fellow
from Punta Gorda by the name of Alton Moore, who was a friend of the
governor's, and I said, I am going to get up and have something to say about
that. Well, he went and told the governor. I guess the governor got hold of the
Speaker, who was Dan McCarty in 1940. I stood up the whole debate, waving in
the second row, you know, which looked right in the Speaker's face. He would
not recognize me. He would not let me [speak]. I was waving my arms, I would
yell, and he did not pay any attention to me. They passed the bill, and I voted
against it. That is the way it was.
P: In 1939, what entertainment was there in Tallahassee?
W: Well, Rose Printing Company put on a barbecue. There was not very much else.
We had a reception at the governor's mansion. There was not a whole lot. I
cannot even remember anything special.
P: Was there any problem with Leon County being officially dry?
W: Oh no. It was officially dry, but you could sit on the front porch of the Floridian
Hotel and look to your right, right across the street, to the side of a building there
to people going in and buying a bottle. When we would go out to eat, we would
probably take a bottle along and put it down under the table. There was always
plenty of booze, all the years I was up there. I guess by the time my session was
over, my big lower right desk drawer was full of whisky bottles. Somebody was
always giving me one. We had some legislators, though, who did not have much
to take on. They would try to drink it all up.
P: What do you recall about lobbyists, generally speaking, in those early legislative
W: They did not have a whole lot of influence. They did not have any money.
Nobody had any. I guess some did, but I cannot at this point even think of one
who really did much of anything. Somebody, maybe, from one of the
departments downstairs in the Capitol would come up to talk about some bill that
they had, but as far as an army of lobbyists is concerned, it did not exist. I never
heard of any such thing as the kind of money that has been in circulation since.
You know, the campaigns of the legislature, when you were running for election,
there was no local radio. Nobody hears any radio. You put a little ad in the paper
once in awhile and go around the county. It cost me a couple hundred dollars to
run. If it had cost much more, I could not have run, anyway. But, that was the
way back then. I do not think I ever had any contributions. I may have had some.
P: When you needed more information about a bill, who did you consult?
W: It was pretty hard to do. You would just have to go to the chief clerk's office and
look in the bill. There was no source of information other than the newspaper
people, the press. They sort of kept up with what was going on. If you needed
any information other than that, that was the only place. Of course, there was
created later the thing called the legislative reference bureau, headed by an old
friend of mine from the University of Florida, Sherman He sort of invented
by himself, I think. He probably had some model from someplace. He would do
brief summaries of the bills that were introduced and circulate them around. That
was the very first, but that was toward the end of my time there, I guess, probably
1947. Maybe it was as early as 1945. I do not know. I was there when he was
drafted and hauled off to the service, so that would have been in about 1944 or
1945. It must have started after he came back.
P: How about legislative humor when you were in session?
W: There was a lot of that, just a lot of it. That kept life from getting too boring. I do
not remember which session it was, but as an example, there was a fellow from
Orange County, a representative by the name of Tyn Cobb. He fancied himself
to be a reformer in the area of elections, but he was a nuisance. He just bothered
everybody, a pest. Anyway, this was during the war. He introduced a bill to take
the names of the presidential elector candidates off the ballot, a perfectly
sensible thing to do, but this was during the war and he was a nuisance. So, that
bill was coming up for debate one day. I went over to the other side of the
chamber to talk to my friend, Archie Clement. I had prepared an amendment to
kill the bill, strike out the enacting clause. I said, Archie, do you want to go along
with this? He said, oh yeah, sure. I got up and introduced my amendment and
made a speech about patriotism, [that] here we are fighting a war to give people
the right to vote and this man is trying to take away the right. Perfectly stupid.
Then, Archie got up with black humor, pointed his finger and said, Tyn, you are
a good man but you are running with the wrong crowd. None of it made any
sense, but his bill was slammed down with a roar in the House. It was just out of
pure ornery-ness, but that is the kind of humor that we had.
P: Was there any newspaper reaction to that?
W: The only one I can recall [was from] Carl Handlin, who was editor and publisher
of the Fort Myers News Press. He thought that bill ought to be passed. I guess as
soon as it got down there on the wire, I got a telegram from him. He said, have
you lost your mind? I wish I had that telegram. I do not know what [I did with it.] I
told him why we did it after the session was over, the next time I saw him. He
said, have you lost your mind?
P: Where did you live in Tallahassee during a legislative session?
W: At the residence of W. V. Not. It was an Antebellum home on West Main Street.
I had a great big room which Vernon occupied with me for awhile at one time.
My room had one of these four-poster beds in it. It was probably built before the
Civil War, just like the house was. You had a have a footstool to get up on the
bed. If a person fell out of that bed, it would kill him or something. Vernon did not
get to sleep on that one. He had a cot on the side. But, the home was interesting
because it was owned by W. V. Not, who had been state treasurer for years and
had been nominee for governor and was defeated by a fellow by the name of
Sidney J. Catts [Florida governor, 1917-1921], who ran against the Pope and the
Demon __ I do not know what all he ran against. Everything was terrible. But,
he beat Not. Anyhow, I enjoyed living there because a lot of times I would come
in, he would be sitting on the front porch or someplace and we would stop and
visit. Another thing, too. A senator from Fort Myers, Jim Franklin, Sr., lived up
there. One of the more able people who was fairly ineffective because of the tone
of voice that he spoke in. It was kind of a strange thing. He always sounded as
though he were snarling when he spoke, and he was not. Anyway, he lived up
there, and he and I, late in the afternoons, used to sit up there and have a drink
in his room. He would have one drink and I would have one, and we would sit
there and visit. We got to be real good friends. I know that years later after we
were both out of the legislature, after I was out of law school, a vacancy occurred
in the circuit judgeship. He called me from Fort Myers and he said, do you want
to be circuit judge? He said, I can get you appointed today. I said, I guess I would
kind of like to, but I cannot do that. My brother and I are trying to start a law
practice, and I will have to turn it down. But, we were that friendly. I had an
opportunity then to be circuit judge. Before that, I had an opportunity to be
appointed county judge. When Lawrence Robinson died, Holland was governor
and Ralph Davis was his executive assistant. I had been helpful to the governor.
That was at the beginning of 1941. Ralph called me from Tallahassee and he
said, we got a vacancy down there in the county judge position. He said, if you
take it, you can have it by noon today. I thought, I am not a lawyer. I think it is
ridiculous. No, I do not want to be county judge, but I appreciate it. So, I have
had an opportunity to be a judge twice, and I missed it.
P: Well, when you were first elected, do you recall how many members were in the
House and how many women and how many blacks and how many Hispanics?
W: Yes, I sure do. Ninety-five white men in the House and thirty-eight white men in
P: And all of one political party.
W: All of one political party, the first session. Then, we got what's-his-name from
Orlando, a Republican.
P: You got a Republican elected from Orange County in, that was maybe, 1943?
W: I think it was 1943. I remember it was such an unheard of thing that there was a
movement there to deny him his seat, which the House has the constitutional
right to do. It is the sole judge of the qualifications of its members. I got up and
made a speech, like a fool. I said, he cannot do any harm. There is only one of
him. Just leave him alone, or words to that effect. He did retain his seat. He was
totally ineffective, but since then I have thought I probably poisoned the well, or
let him poison it.
P: During your first few sessions where you had Governor Cone and Governor
Holland, were these people that, as a legislator, you got to know personally? Did
you feel like you knew those two governors on a personal basis?
W: Oh yes. I did not know Governor Cone real well because he was pretty much out
of circulation, but Spessard Holland, I knew real well. For example, one
weekend-I think it was a long weekend for some reason-I was going to come
home. I guess I was in the governor's office. For some reason, I happened to tell
him that. He said, well, I am going to Bartow. That was his home. He said, the
patrol is going to take me down there. He said, why don't you ride with me? So,
they shuttled us all the way down, and he sent me on down to Punta Gorda.
Yeah, we were really very friendly. I had another experience with Spessard
Holland, for example, when he was governor. It is another story, but it is kind of
interesting. There was an issue of Punta Gorda municipal bonds, $30,000 worth,
which was a pretty good sized issue, way back when it was issued. Those bonds
were found in a defunct bank, over at First National Bank, stuffed on top of the
vault. The bank building had been bought by the mother of a local lawyer, Lamar
Rues. I do not know how they got in circulation. Do not ask me that. At any rate,
those bonds were in circulation and it was apparent that the city was going to
have to pay them, but they were actually a duplicate set of bonds. The defect in
them was not apparent, but I found out later what the defect was. They were
supposed to have facsimile signatures on the interest coupons. They signed
them all, so they said. At any rate, they were a duplicate issue of bonds. This,
again, was before the 1941 session. The city was receiving one-third of the
county's share of racetrack revenue. It was, I do not know, a few thousand
dollars a year, but it was significant. They were getting it under what was called a
population bracket bill, which was about to go out of business, for whatever
reason, and they needed it to be reinstated. I remember they had a big meeting
at the Chamber of Commerce. A representative from the Krummer Company
was there. They were the bond people.
P: Where were they from?
W: Orlando. R. E. Krummer Company. I believe the representative who was there
was a fellow by the name of Les Brown, who was the father-in-law of Buck
Brandon. Anyway, they demanded, and they had a considerable group [with] the
city council and all of that, demanded that I pass a local bill reinstating that
division. I said, well, I will do it, provided first that, that $30,000 worth of bonds is
turned into the city at no expense, no cost. Somebody paid a little money for
them. There was considerable turmoil there. I said, well, I am simply not going to
do it. I will divide it between the school board and the county commission. This
$10,000, $15,000, $20,000, whatever it was a year, was a considerable amount
of money. $30,000 was a lot of money for the city. It is hard to realize now. They
spend that much by mistake. But the pressure, boy, you cannot imagine. I had
two bills drawn. One was to divide it up three ways, and one divided it between
the school board and the county commission. I just sat on the thing, and I kept
getting telegrams and demands and all kinds of stuff. Finally, I think right almost
at the end of the session, I had a call from A. Jordan-he was the manager of the
Punta Gorda Herald, the principal owner-he called me and said, Earl Farn
brought me in a bunch of bonds. Did you count them? He said, yeah, $30,000
worth. I said, how about the interest coupons. He said, they are all there, I
counted them. I said, what are you supposed to do with them? He said, I am
supposed to give them to you. I said, I tell you what, A., you lock them up in the
safe, and I will pass that bill for them. That is the way the racetrack money got
restored. Again, you talk about sums of money like that and it is insignificant
today, but it was quite a significant factor in the economy at that time.
P: Leo, when you were first elected, the process in place for selecting a Speaker?
W: I must have told you most of my stories. In 1938 after I was elected, we had a
caucus of the House. It was right outside of Tampa. I stayed in Tampa, and I will
never forget it. I guess we nominated Harris Wood to be Speaker. No, we did
not at that time. It is hard to remember. At any rate, the representative from
Hardee County was a barber. His brother was a Methodist preacher here in
Punta Gorda later. A fellow from not La Belle but down on the lake there was
caucus chairman or whatever. He was presiding. He was a banker.
P: Elbert Stuart?
W: Elbert Stuart, yes. Elbert was presiding. This fellow from Hardee County, I will
never forget. They called the rules of the House, and for some reason, we
used some proxies. Those who held proxies for somebody, when that person's
name was called, they would say, here by proxy. Well, this poor fellow from
Hardee County had never heard that word before, so when they called his name,
he said, here by proxy. It just broke up the meeting. Things like that. But, the
Speaker was nominated and, in fact, elected at a caucus the night before the
legislature convened in 1939. That was G. Harris Wood. He was a great fellow.
As I told you before, he worked for the Duponts, and they expected him to get rid
of real estate taxes. After the session, they either fired him or he quit, and he
went to work for the Consolidated Land Company, which was pretty well-
controlled by the Treadwool family in Arcadia. He lived down in De Soto County.
As a matter of fact, he had an emergency appendectomy at the Arcadia Hospital
and died there. A fairly young man. He was able, just a great person.
P: Did there seem to be any __ of any special interest in the selection of the
W: Could have been, but I saw no signs of it, unless G. Harris Wood's selection was
influenced by the Duponts, which was very probably. But, nobody ever bothered
me about it. They did not think I made any difference anyhow. I probably didn't.
P: What you were speaking about, I believe, were the Democratic caucuses when
they were nominated, and then, of course, the election was the night before.
W: Yes, that was it. There was not any other party to have a caucus but, you know, it
was not a one-sided thing. The divisions were pretty vigorous. The debates were
sometimes tough and mean, but they were not on political lines, mostly. They
were on philosophical lines, what you stood for, which is not always true today
P: In the House, you had ninety-five members, and you had some number of people
who were the significant leaders, however many that might have been. I am sure
they were clearly identifiable, as to who had the power and the influence and who
W: Yes, that is true. They were a fairly limited number. Of course, the Speaker was
Harris Wood during that early session. There was a representative from
Jacksonville, a very able guy. At one time, the lawyer partner of Jim Franklin in
Fort Myers. I cannot recall his name, but he was a very good representative
and exerted quite a bit of influence, mostly because of his ability. At that time,
who were the leaders in the House that first session? A fellow from west Florida.
He was a former Speaker and had come back. Again, I cannot recall his name.
He became a circuit judge later.
P: E. Clay Lewis.
W: Yes, Jr. The rest of us were mostly new members, but some of them pretty
quickly became pretty outstanding, like Dan McCarty. Fuller Warren was there,
but Fuller was full of conversation mostly. He made good speeches, though. Who
else? Of course, Archie Clement. These fellows, it was pretty early in their
careers. It was kind of a whittling out process that sort of began about that time. I
cannot remember any of the others right now.
P: What relationship was there between the House and the senate?
W: It was all right. We used to fuss at that some, but we got along.
P: Did one branch seem to be more liberal or conservative than the other?
W: No, I would not think so then. Everybody was conservative. You pretty much had
to be because we did not have any money to deal with. There was no such thing
as, for example, what are now called turkeys getting on the appropriations,
getting on the committee and all. Now, because there is money, you can get
projects inserted in the appropriations for your area on occasion, especially if you
are in good graces with folks. Well, there was not any money anyhow. As a
matter of fact, during all those years I was there, I never aspired to be on the
appropriation committee because it looked to me like all they did was suffer,
trying to put together a budget with no money.
P: The proxy system of committee voting?
W: Yes. That, I understand, was eliminated along the way, but I thought it was very
effective. One example of it occurred in 1949. I was chairman of the education
committee in the House, and during that session, a bill was introduced under the
sponsorship of the Florida Bar to require all applicants for admission to the bar to
take the bar exam. Prior to that time, a graduate from an accredited Florida law
school was automatically admitted. That bill was introduced. I did not pay any
attention to it. I was not a lawyer at the time. But, I began to get frantic phone
calls. I got one from Dredon Far, who is just retiring now, and Elmer Friday, who
is a retired circuit judge. They were saying, do something about that; if we have
to take the bar exam, we may never get admitted. I thought, well, maybe I could
help them. I got up one day, and the bill had been referred to a judiciary
committee, which was a proper referral. I moved to refer it jointly to the
committee on education, which had one lawyer on it. The motion prevailed. I had
to call a meeting of the committee. The Florida Bar folks, gosh, most of them
from over there in the senate were over there beating on me all the time about it,
so I thought, well, I better get some arrangements made. I went around and saw
all the members of the committee and got proxies and got them to pledge if they
came to the meeting they would vote to kill the bill, all except one, the lawyer on
there. He was a lawyer from Pinellas County. A nice guy. He said, I cannot do
that, they will kill me. I said, well, it ought to have one vote, you vote for it. We
had this public hearing on the bill, and the halls of the Capitol were absolutely
jammed with law students that we had to restrict their time, so much time for
each law school. They could select their speaker, and then the representatives of
the bar. All that got through and called with a vote. Everybody was there. I still
had the proxies in my pocket. Called the role around the committee, and
everybody voted no except that one lawyer who voted aye. I adjourned the
committee and started out the door. I remember a couple of those guys from the
senate collared me and said, you did that. I said, I did not do anything, [but] it
must have been have been a lousy bill; you could have gotten more than one
vote for it. So, it died. Fortuitously, it served me well because in 1950, I was
defeated for re-election in the House and went to law school. Then, the 1951
session came up, and that bill was introduced again in the legislature. The law
students unanimously elected me to go to Tallahassee and do something. I went
over there, and the first person I met when I went upstairs in the Capitol was
John Allison, who was a lawyer from Tampa. He was doing the lobbying for the
bar. He looked at me and he said, I know what you are here for. I said, what? He
said, the diploma privilege bill. I said, yes, how is it doing? He said, well, we are
taking care of it. I said, what are you doing? Well, he said, anybody presently in
law school gets admitted automatically, and it is only those in the future who will
have to take the bar exam. I said, thank you very much, give me a copy of that.
He did, and I went back to Gainesville and I was kind of a hero. I had not done a
darned thing. I did it all two years previously. Anyone who has been in public life
and all, Vernon, me, you wind up with a bunch of plaques. I have one relating to
that. Last year, I guess, the relics of my law school class had a meeting in
Gainesville at Homecoming time, and they docked a kind of an informal
resolution and had a plaque made commemorating the fact that I got them all
admitted to the bar. I think there were a lot of people admitted. You know, there
was Miami. The law school at Miami was a disaster in those days. They had
classes in theaters. Anybody could go to law school down there. That is what
caused the thing to start with. Anyway, that is a long story...
[End of Side 2, Vol. 3]
W: ...kind of an infamous sort of an activity, always somebody preying on the
poorest folks around. These people would advance people who were in need
money against their salaries. They would lend them a few dollars and take back
all of it, taking assignment of all their wages. It was a pretty terrible thing. I guess
in an effort of some sort to alleviate the problem, rather than just put them all in
jail, they passed the small loan act-I forget the name of it now-which allowed
42 percent interest, which was urged by these people to be just wonderful. Well, I
was supporting legislation to kill the salary buyers' thing and, at the same time, to
reduce the interest rate at the small loan companies could charge folks. It is,
again, hard to recall details, but it seems to me the salary buyers thing, we got rid
of them, but the legislation to reduce the interest the small loan companies could
charge, we did not get anywhere. I recall going before the committee on banks
and loans, and Elbert Stuart, I think, was chairman of the committee on banks. I
made my presentation. He said, go on, Leo, now, are you all finished, before
we kill it? That is what happened. I did not get anywhere with that one. But, that
is kind of a short synopsis of the thing.
P: Right. Another major issue was no fence legislation.
W: That sure was. By 1939, the pressure, I guess, was on quite a bit to get cattle off
highways. Some of the counties were passing local laws, but it was thought to be
death to you if you voted for one of those fencing laws. I can recall in 1939, I
voted against two or three of them, just because I did not have any better sense.
But, I came home and I got to looking around Charlotte County, and I got re-
elected. I announced that Charlotte County had to get the cattle off the roads and
I was going to pass the local law-that was before there was a statewide law-and
I was invited to a meeting of the Charlotte County Cattlemen's Association. Now,
that was an interesting meeting. Let's see, Prazelle, the Babcock interests, the
Reihold family, they were all there. They told me, now, we do not want you to
pass the fencing law. I said, well, I am going to, but I will make a concession: you
will have six months to fence up. Well, they said, if you pass one, we do not want
it to penalize us if the cattle get out and kill somebody. I said, it is going to have
teeth in it, too. I must have been crazy. I do not know. Anyhow, the air just flows
around me. I went up to Tallahassee and passed the darned thing and got
elected the next time, so I guess it was all right. But, after I passed the thing,
when I was up for re-election the next time, an old lady at Charlotte Harbor-I say
she was an old lady, but she was not as old as I am now; nobody is-she had
always voted for me. Her husband made moonshine, and I forget what she did.
Anyway, I went to her house, knocked on the door, and she said, I am glad you
came by here, I am going to vote against you. I said, why? Well, you just about
starved my cow. I said, why did I do that? Well, she said, I could let her graze
around, and now I got to tie a string around her neck and keep her penned up. It
is terrible. I said, well, I sure am sorry but I tell you what, I am going to run two
years from now and you will be over it by then. Maybe you will vote for me that
time. But then, when Fuller Warren was elected governor [1949-1953], that was
kind of a key aspect to his program, to pass a statewide fencing law. It was part
of the business of bringing Florida into...get it out of prehistoric times, I guess.
P: When you were considering the local bill requiring fencing, did you receive a
petition from ?
W: Oh yes, I sure did. I had two of them. After I went to Tallahassee, during the
course of the session, I got a petition. I do not know how many names. A bunch
of people on there against it, wanting me to vote against it. It wasn't but just a few
days I got another one for it, and it had about the same names on both petitions.
That is another thing. I wish I had some of that stuff, but I just let it all get away
from me. That is a true story. It was the funniest thing you ever saw.
P: While we are on cattle, I have to ask you about Representative Joe Peoples
from Glades County.
W: Well, Joe Peoples, Sr. and Joe Peoples, Jr., I served with both of them. Uncle
Joe, well, I was quite young. I do not know how old he was, but it was not long
before he died, at any rate, in 1939. But Old Uncle Joe, his seat was right next to
mine in the House. He was a huge man. He was an interesting old fellow, too. He
would come to Tallahassee and, for example, he would get his fingernails
manicured. I do not know why he did that, but he did. And he would put his false
teeth in, but then when he would smoke a cigar (and he smoked a lot of them),
he would take his teeth out and put them in his pocket and he would eat most of
that cigar. You know, he would run it back and He was sloppy and he
would bite it off and [makes spitting sound]. And his seat was next to mine, and I
would have to dodge it. But, he was interested in only two things. One was
canals and drainage, and, of course, cattle, and the other was Lake Okeechobee
fishing. Anything else, what would happen [was] if there was any bill affecting
those things, he would poke me in the ribs, and he was a big guy. He near about
killed me. He would say, now, lookit here, Leo, you with me on this one? Oh, yes
sir, I am afraid not to be. And I would vote with him. But, if it was anything else
that I might be interested in, he would say, lookit here, Leo, how are we voting on
this one? So, I always had a vote on the things that were important. He and I
were good friends. Uncle Joe died, it must have been, soon after that session. I
remember going to his funeral-I do not think you were there-in Arcadia. There
was such a huge crowd there that you could not get in the funeral home. They
had a speaker outside. Somebody sang Home on the Range, I remember. But
then, his son, Joe Peoples, Jr., was elected to the House. Joe ran into a problem
because his house was located over in Hendry County. Was it Hendry?
W: Well, he was elected from Glades, but his house at that time was located...
W: Highlands County, that is correct. Well, what they had to do was move the county
line, rather than move his house, and that happened. Joe Peoples, Jr., well, he
was the same kind of character as his father. His father, I think, had actually
served a little time in the pen for branding the wrong cattle, but nobody held it
against him. He was later tax collector, I think, of maybe De Soto County. At any
rate, Joe Peoples, Jr. sort of followed the same course that his father had, but
[there was] kind of a memorable thing that he did. There was a piece of
legislation that was sponsored by a guy from Palm Beach County. I can see
him, but I cannot recall his name. Something about Lake Okeechobee or
something he was against, and he was chairman of the committee. This Joe was
chairman of the committee. It was right at the end of the session, and he got the
bill, had it in his desk, and would not call a meeting, and they were putting the
pressure on him. So, one day before the end of the session, I came in and his
desk drawers were all pulled open and empty. Joe was nowhere to be seen.
What he had done, he packed up everything, including that bill, and went back to
Glades County. Oh, there was an uproar around there. This guy over on the east
coast tried to pass a copy of the bill. Well, you cannot do that. You have to have
the original bill. Whatever the bill was, I do not remember anymore, but it failed to
P: That was a real pocket veto.
W: It was. He stuck it in his pocket and left. But, Malcolm Johnson again. Malcolm
came over to me. I had shut the desk drawers. He said, anything in his desk? I
said, no, go ahead and look. He said, no, I would not touch it. Oh, I said, here,
and I opened the drawers. There was not anything in there. But, Joe was another
one. He used to come see me occasionally over here. He got into all kinds of
trouble which is irrelevant to this story, but he died with a brain tumor. His family
fought, and his wife stole everything from the kids. It was a terrible thing. You
went to the funeral, I think.
P: During your tenure in the legislature from 1938 to 1950, a continuing controversy
involved commercial fishing...
W: Yes. As far as we were concerned here, it was generally a controversy between
Lee and Charlotte Counties. The only industry we had here that gave
employment to people was the commercial fishing industry. There were tourists
in the wintertime, but commercial fishing was just about it. The folks down in Lee
County-there was a long history of this sort of thing-were forever trying to restrict
and limit commercial fishing, in favor of sports fishing. The problems got to be
pretty mean. The Fort Myers News Press and its editor was forever pounding on
Charlotte County, not getting anywhere because they could not get their bills past
me. There were pressures here in Charlotte County. I know the 1939 session, for
example, there was big turmoil about commercial fishing in Alligator Creek. There
was the Alapachee Lodge that belonged to Luke Calder, a wealthy fellow. They
got all heated up because the commercial fisherman were going up the creek
there and sanding it out or something. It got to be a pretty heated thing, so I got
hold of one of the meanest, nastiest commercial fisherman you ever heard of, a
fellow by the name of Jim Jones. I said, you all do not need to fish way up in that
creek, do you? He said, no, not really. I said, why don't we make a compromise?
Let's pass a local law stopping fishing at some point in the creek. Well, they
thought of a place called the Devil's Elbow. Why that is, God only knows. I do
not. He said, we will not fish above the Devil's Elbow. Well, I passed the local bill
prohibiting commercial fishing above the Devil's Elbow in Alligator Creek in
Charlotte County, and everything settled back down peacefully. It was different in
Lee County. The Lee County line pretty much cut off the mouth of Charlotte
Harbor, so that they had some laws down there relative to net lengths, mesh
sizes, and all sort of things like that, that were not illegal in Charlotte County. But,
if the Charlotte County fisherman wanted to, for example, go over on the Gulf
side to __ some mullet out of the Gulf or someplace, they had to go into Lee
County, and they were forever arresting them, every time they would go across
the line. The controversies got kind of dangerous, I guess, for a period of time. It
antagonized the editor of the Fort Myers News Press against me, among other
things. He helped beat me, too. After that, several years later, I saw Bill Spear. I
think he still may be living, [although] I have not seen him in many years. He
said, you know one thing I did wrong? I said, no, what is that? He said, opposed
you. He said, you should not have been defeated. Well, thank you. Big help.
P: Dean Darling.
W: Oh yes, you know Dean Darling State Park down there. He was one of the
original conservationists, and he wanted to save snook. Well, that was all right,
but then in 1938 or somewhere back in there, there was a real spell of cold
weather, a real freeze. The tide was low, and snook by the millions were
numbed. They just came to the surface. People were out there picking them up,
pulling __ throwing them in their boats. They sold thousands and thousands of
pounds of mullet. Well, his program was to prohibit the commercial taking of
snook. He had this bill up there, and they were going to pass it. I got tired of
fighting it, so I got me a bill drawn to take all of Boca Grande out of Lee County
and attach it to Charlotte County. I caught him up in the gallery one day. I said,
now, here is what I am going to do to you, we are going to take Boca Grande and
the whole works away from you if you do not get away from those snook and
leave us alone. You know, I intimidated him. He left, and I forgot about my bill. I
could not have passed it anyway. That was Dean Darling. I have not seen Dean
Darling since that session of the legislature, whenever it was.
P: 1950, the state of public education in Florida.
W: Earlier than that, I guess, Vernon.
W: The whole thing, and my participation in it and such leadership as I was able to
give to it, started in 1944. The state was providing very little, if any, funding for
public education in this state. It was up to the counties' local school districts.
They had the counties divided up into districts, and if they wanted to raise taxes,
they had to get everybody to vote on it, and people would not. It was a disaster.
So, Holland was about to go out as governor. Millard Caldwell had been elected
and was going in, and Colin English was state school superintendent. They
appointed a group called the Citizens' Committee on Education for Florida.
Except for me, it was a very distinguished panel of people. There was Katherine
Abbey Hannah, who was an historian. She was a university professor at __
We had an executive director by the name of Dr. Edgar Morefit, who was a
genius, and another one by the name of Dr. Johns from the university of Florida,
who was a genius. We had the president of Gulf Life Insurance Company, my
friend Richard Simpson who was Speaker of the House. I wish I had gotten out
those plaques. They had the pictures on them. At any rate, it was a group that I
was real proud to be a part of. Anyway, we met all over the state until 1947 and
devised what was called the minimum foundation program, which really created a
revolution in education in Florida. It is still amazing to me that, that drastic
change in things could have been accomplished all at one time. For example, the
state began to require teachers to have an education. That sounds pretty simple,
but it used to be that any nice little old lady who was good with kids could teach
in elementary grades. Things like that. It provided for massive and huge funds
into the county school systems, allocated to the counties on the basis of a
formula, which was determine their relative ability to support their own schools,
so that the relatively wealthy county was required to pay more of its own cost
than a relatively poor one. For example, Charlotte County per child in school was
deemed to be a relatively wealthy county on the criteria. De Soto County was in
horrible shape, so they got more money per child from the state than we did. In
addition to that, there was created the system which we now have of community
colleges in Florida. That was a feature of the law. The school board members cut
off their salaries and gave them mileage when they went to the school, so they
got it all back there. It was a massive change in direction for education in Florida.
As far as I am concerned, in my whole lifetime, that is the high point. We passed
the darn thing in the House, but I remember, just before it was voted on in the
House, the committee had a final meeting down in the governor's office. I have to
say, the governor was a real good friend of mine. I was sitting right at the corner
of his desk. We were all sitting around in there. He said, there is one thing I am
going to require. The law provided for additional money for capital outlays so you
could build schools and provide other things, busses, provided for $300 per
teacher unit. Teacher unit is the number of students in average daily attendance.
They call it something else now. But, he said, I think that counties ought to do
more. I am going to require, you are going to have to put in there, that the
counties have to come up with an extra $100 per teacher unit in order to get that
money. Well, it just screwed up the formula pretty bad, so I said, you know,
Governor, we got that bill so we are going to pass it, and we can pass it like it is.
He stuck his finger in my face, and he had one about that long, and he said, if
you do, I will veto it. I said, well, that puts a different complexion on it, [and] we
will have to do it like you want it. There is a postscript to that story, too, because
he went out of office and Fuller Warren was elected in the 1951 session. I was
chairman of the education committee again. I got an amendment to take that
foolishness out. Millard Caldwell was back in his law office, and I went over there
to visit with him one day. I said, I thought I ought to come over here and tell you,
we took out that $100 you crammed down our throats. He said, you are making a
mistake. But, that created a demand for a great deal of money. It turned out the
state did not have it. In 1951, Governor Warren recommended a number of tax
levies. One was for a severance tax on phosphate and timber and goodness
knows what all, and they were all killed. There were enough lobbyists around by
that time to begin to kill legislation. Did I tell you all about sales tax thing? At any
rate, the 1949 session ended, and there was no balanced budget and
constitution. They were supposed to balance the budget. You cannot budget for
deficit spending. So, soon after the session was over, a meeting was called, a
secret meeting out of the Sunshine...there was not any such thing as the
Sunshine Law anyway. The leadership of the House and the senate met in an
orange grove down in Kissimmee. The orange grove was owned by a lawyer
from Kissimmee named Kenny Steed, who was the governor's friend. I will never
forget the governor showing up in his limousine out there in the woods, or in the
middle of that orange grove. It was just a little old frame house. I did not make a
note. I should have, but I never recorded the names of those who were present.
My memory fails me pretty much now, but I know it was the leadership of the
House and the senate, Roy Collins, Archie Clement, the chairman of the
appropriations committee who was from St. Augustine, whoever it was, and so
on. But, we sat around there. Every one of us had been, and were still,
philosophically opposed to a sales tax because it was to tax the bottom level of
people more. It was 100 percent sales tax on people with small income. We sat
around there and talked about it, and there was no alternative. So, we decided to
pass a 3 percent general sales tax with lots of exemptions. The governor had run
as an opponent. I remember he said- the statute there-well, do not call that
a sales tax. So, we did not. Section one of the sales tax law is, this act shall be
known as a revenue act of 1949. Nobody would know why that section is there,
except somebody like me. I think, probably, that I am the only survivor of that
meeting, and I do not suppose there is any record of it anyplace, not unless
some other person who was there recorded it. At any rate, the governor called us
into special session. We were there for, I do not know, a while, and we passed
the sales tax. I came home and around all the retail places, they had oatmeal
boxes with slots in the top, or cigar boxes with slots, my name on one and
Governor Warren's on the other, to put the sales tax money in. The next election,
I lost by four votes, but that was not a terrible thing. I had won by four votes the
first time I ran. And, it was a blessing. I did not need to be there anymore. I went
to law school after all that.
P: What was the impact on public education in Florida as a result of the passage of
the minimum foundation act, and particular the funding of it.
W: It created a revolution, just really a revolution. Teacher pay went up. My wife was
a teacher up in Georgia, and she somehow heard about it. She was teaching
home economics. She came to Florida, so I got a wife out of it. The community
college system, and you know what a wonderful thing that is, just blossomed all
over the state. It first started as an adjunct to the county school system. It was an
amendment. Then, later on, it was changed so that [there was] a community
college governing board of some kind that manages it. There was a lot more
administrative control, which, you know, becomes good and bad, but teachers
were paid more decently. I got up to $1,300 that last year. I think that it was the
most important thing that happened in Florida during that era, and one of the
most important things in any era, to this state.
P: After you were defeated, you then went to law school.
W: Yes. I always wanted to. When I first graduated from high school in 1929, I had
saved up enough money to get through one year, and my folks did not have any.
I was taking pre-law. I was in arts and sciences. After that first year, I was out of
my money, and so was the whole family. So, I took a competitive examination for
a scholarship, a state teachers scholarship that paid $100 a semester, and I got
it. I went back to the University of Florida with that $100 and worked for the Punta
Gorda Herald that summer and saved, probably, $100, and I had a job up there,
always doing something. I was house manager for the fraternity and got a room
rent-free. I waited on tables in the boarding house and got my meals, and I had
that $100 a semester. I was living high there at the University of Florida, from
1929 to 1933. I never could go back to law school. Then, after I got out in 1940, I
guess it was, my brother got out of high school, and he went to the university. I
tried to help him a little bit. I did not have much, but I was able to help him. He
had some pretty good jobs, too. FDR was president, and the National Youth
Administration gave him a job. He was kind of secretary/paper grader for a
professor up there. I think he got $0.25 or $0.30 an hour. He got in the business
of buying and selling old gold. I do not know how, but he and a couple of other
fellows went around the state buying up old junk and then reselling it. And, he
had a laundry route. So, he got out. Every now and then, he would go run out of
money, and I would have to give him some, which I did not have much of. So, I
never did get back around to it again until-I went into politics and all-I was
P: After you graduated from law school, you got married.
W: Yeah, right away. I could not let that woman get away.
P: When were you married and to whom?
W: February 22, 1953. I remember that one. In Statesboro, Georgia.
P: And your wife, who is Zena Cox, had taught here during the last years that you
were in the legislature and the last years that you taught in Punta Gorda.
W: Yes. She left here, stopped teaching here, I guess it must have been, the same
year that I was defeated and I was going to law school. [She] got a job in Deland,
and she taught there until I got out of law school and we were married and came
here. I did not have a job. I do not even know how we got home.
P: Your wife was teaching.
W: Yes, and that was about it, too. Well, she was helping her parents, and I do not
know how, but it worked out.
P: And you lived in Punta Gorda continuously since then, and now you have three
adult children. [Will you tell me] the names of your children, and do you
remember what years they were born?
W: I better. Ed was born in 1956, Mary in 1957, and Hal in 1960. As a matter of fact,
Hal is going to be forty years old on the 22nd, and I am going to be eighty-eight
years old the day after tomorrow, on Friday.
P: After you returned here, there was one monumental U. S. Supreme Court
decision, Brown versus Board of Education.
W: Sure was, and it was so right. Did I tell you about my experience about the black
fellow's application to get into the law school at the University of Florida? It sort of
relates to that. Hawkins was his name. During 1949, Hawkins made an
application for admission to the law school at the university. They had no reason,
really, to deny him, except that he was black. It created a considerable uproar. It
was during the legislative session. They had a special cabinet meeting and
invited me to come down there. Roy Collins was chairman of education in the
senate, and I was on the House, and two or three other members. The governor
said, we've got a serious problem here. This black fellow wants to get into the
University of Florida. Should we create a separate law school, or what can we
do? Again, I opened my big mouth, I guess. I said, I do not think you ought to try
to start another law school. I said, politically, what you are going to have to do, it
seems to me, is deny him admission. The supreme court is going to say, admit
him, and then admit him and forget it. You know, there was not an adverse
comment. Everybody agreed, and that broke up the meeting. But, subsequently,
when I went to law school, he had not been admitted. I forget all the ramifications
of that. The dean of the law school, Henry Flynn, asked me one day what I
thought about that and what the students' view was. I said, I do not know. I was
elected president of the student bar association. I said, I will find out. Everybody
studied nearly up in the law library, so I went around the law library asking them
all. I said, what would you do about that? Said, if the guy can pass, let him come.
Said, not going to bother me any. Nobody gave a hoot, completely, unanimously.
I went back down and told the dean. He said, __ I will tell you what I am going
to do. I am going to fix it so there are no names on the exam papers, so they are
all anonymous, just put the social security numbers on so that there is no
question that everybody gets graded fairly. I said, that is fine. But, as you know,
of course, he never did ultimately get admitted there, but it would not have
created one ripple in that place. And I must have talked to nearly all of them, all
the law students. But, that is that story.
P: The integration of the public schools in Charlotte County.
W: I did not have very much to do with that, but Hugh Adams was one of my ex-
students, still is one of my ex-students. He became an appointed school
superintendent. As a matter of fact, that is another feature of the minimum
foundation law which was important. The county school superintendents were all
elected. We fixed in that law so that the office would be made appointive subject
to referenda in the counties. A referendum in Charlotte County said, sure,
appoint him because we had pretty incompetent superintendents. De Soto
County is still elective, I think. Anyway, Hugh Adams was one of the early
appointees, may be the first one, I do not know, to that position. He was there
when, the dates kind of elude me, but early in the...
[End of Side 1, Vol. 4]
P: ...graduated from law school and got married and came back to Punta Gorda,
you entered the practice of law.
W: Yes, sir.
P: And that was in partnership with your brother.
P: Anything special about that?
W: Only that, I guess, he had come back here when he got out of law school in 1940
and opened up a law office, which was a pretty sad case because there was not
any business. He rented a two-room office in the old post office I think
his rent was $3 a month, and his light bill was $1.50. Some months, he did not
take in that much. So, on a part-time basis, he went out and helped Tom Knight
survey. Tom Knight measured lands for the pasture refund program. He did that
awhile. When I went to the legislature in 1941, I took him along as my It
was the most money he had made yet, $6 a day. Well, let's see. He became an
assistant attorney general during that period, too. Sort of, again, the By the
time I came back here, forces were coming back from the war. It was during the
P: I know that you became involved in the community. You had always been
involved in the community. One of the areas was in education, and another
involved in the local hospital.
W: Well, that goes back, I guess, to the time before there was a hospital. A group of
us, including, I guess, the principal, who was W. D. Clement, decided that it was
time that we had some kind of a health facility in Charlotte County. We decided
we would try to get a county-supported hospital of some kind. The issue was put
on the ballot in some election back then-that was before World War II-on not a
binding basis, and people voted it down. It was after the war, when Clement
came back from the service, that steps were taken to try to organize a hospital.
He was the main promoter of it then, and he was a pretty hard-headed ornery
fellow, which I guess it took to get the thing going. They formed a group. I was
not a member of that group. They formed a corporation for profit. Lamar Rose
and J. T. and Dr. Clement and Edwin Roundtree and one or two more and soon
discovered that would not work. They had to get contributions, so they converted
it into a corporation not for profit, a charitable type corporation, and began to get
some money. They got some from the lady in Boca Grande who was such a
P: Mrs. Louise Crownenshield.
W: Yes, Mrs. Crownenshield, and a number of other people, and started building the
hospital as they got money. They built an eighteen-bed institution, which was
really kind of a fire trap, among other things. But, they did it. Some of that old
building is still there, of course, as the center portion of the existing hospital. The
hospital went through a lot of difficult times. Among them was the fact that Dr.
Clement did not want to have anyone exercise any jurisdiction over him or it.
During most of that time, all of that time, very early in the game, I became a
member of the board of directors of the non profit hospital, Charlotte Hospital,
association. While Clement and I had always, since he came to Punta Gorda,
been good friends, we pretty soon came to a parting of the ways because we just
could not put up with what he was doing. Finally, this was long after I was
chairman of the board, we brought in some new, younger, better trained
physicians. Dr. Clement still was recalcitrant, did not want to cooperate with
anyone. He brought the X-ray machine into the hospital, just a board that stood in
the hall. The newer doctors said that his surgery was defective. They seriously
objected to what he was doing, endangering lives, as I understood it. At any rate,
the medical staff recommended terminating his privileges at the hospital which he
had started. That came to the board, and we voted to terminate him. That stirred
up the community terribly, just an awful uproar at that time. I think Vernon was at
that time a member of the board, and at some point in these proceedings, we
had a meeting at his office, Vernon's office. Dr. Clement brought his attorney,
and there was an army of people outside pounding on the door and making
noise. They wanted us to get out or do something. Anyhow, Clement had to stay.
During the course of that meeting, Vernon or somebody had piled up some
metallic stuff in the back of his office, and it fell on the floor and made a racket.
We thought the place was being bombed or something. It was a pretty sensitive
situation, but, really, there was no solution at that time. Clement claimed that the
hospital really belonged to him and another fellow. The basis of his claim was
that when the land was bought for the hospital, he had a provision in the deed
that said, unless the land were used for a hospital and only for so long as it was
used for a hospital could they retain it. If they ever stopped, the hospital would
revert to the seller, who was a lady by the name of Mrs. Carlton. So, out of all of
that, Clement claimed he owned the place and said that we could not throw him
out, and he filed suit against the hospital. It is hard to remember the ramifications
of the suit, but it went through one hearing and the judge threw him out, and he
was out of the hospital. It was about that time that St. Josephs over in Port
Charlotte opened up, and they were delighted to have him. They were delighted
to have anybody who could bring some patients. So, that was really the end of
him, as far as the hospital was concerned. But, the hospital had some other
rather traumatic experiences. We brought in a doctor, name was Reilly, who had
been-I do not know whether he still was or not-a board certified radiologist. We
brought him in to run the radiology department that we had established. He
became so obnoxious. He wanted to run the place. He really mistreated patients.
For example, he would insist that all the patients who needed radiology should be
placed on stretchers or whatever and lined up in the hall early in the morning,
and he may show up at eleven o'clock. Things like that. I am talking about a span
of years, [and] it came to this: we were paying him some percentage of the gross
receipts of the X-ray department, and he demanded that it be greatly increased.
He came to the board meeting-you were there, and maybe your memory is
better than mine-and suggested that he would quit, I believe, unless we agreed
to this. I do not believe I even waited for the rest of the board to say anything. I
said, well, when will you leave? Go. He walked out, and he did not leave, did not
do anything. Finally, we had to terminate his privileges, but when we did, he was
a real rebel rouser. He stirred up the other doctors on the staff, and by that time,
we had quite a number. So, they went on a strike. We were left with Dr. Maxwell
and Dr. Shed and a little doctor who later died, about three doctors to operate
that hospital. We had no radiology, or no radiologist to run the department. Our
administrator was able to bring in a radiologist from Fort Myers periodically to do
that, but he was intimidated away by these people. Of course, litigation ensued
and went on for some period of time. But, Reilly was real trouble. We finally got
rid of him, but it was a pretty terrible experience. In the course of all of that,
though, the members of the board, we were a corporation not for profit, a
voluntary hospital. We were pretty desperate to keep the doors open. Our
administrator, a fellow by the name of Bob Bruce, was very friendly with the
Adventist Church healthy system, headquartered in Orlando. Remitting all the
details, we agreed to give them the hospital if they would continue to operate it,
which turned out to be quite a good decision because they ran a good institution,
they brought in lots of new doctors, [and] they added to the hospital, built a great
deal. Did a wonderful job, actually. Ultimately, here five, six, seven years ago,
sold it, I think, for about $40,000,000 cash, and it is going all right.
P: Leo, do you remember the year that the Charlotte Hospital Association gave the
hospital property to the Adventists?
W: I was trying to think of that, Vern. I have to relate it to something, to some event.
It was when all of those things occurred and we were in just desperate straits, but
I cannot tie it to a date, Vernon. It was quite a long time ago. It must be twenty-
five, thirty years ago.
P: The height of the controversy lasted about a year.
W: I would say so. All kinds of libel suits and you name it, they were there.
P: The hospital was in court on six different occasions.
W: Was it that many? One thing that happened, Reilly and his supporters-and there
were quite a few of them-filed charges with the state board of health, I think,
which had supervision of the thing. I think the idea was to close the hospital
down, if I am not mistaken. A meeting was called in the courthouse in Punta
Gorda for a certain date, and a representative of the state board of health came
down and he was going to preside. Well, one of my then law partners by the
name of Charlie Cheese had an inspiration. He said, let's see __ maybe we
can shut that down. The night before the hearing was scheduled to start the next
morning, he and I prepared a motion for a restraining order, and we took it over
to the courthouse. We knew that Judge Gerald, the father of the present Judge
Gerald, would be here that morning. We stood in the clerk's office until Judge
Gerald arrived, and we told him what it was all about. This crowd of people had
already gathered upstairs in the county commissioner's meeting room. Oh, he
said, is that right? He said, do you have an order prepared? We said, yes sir.
Well, then give it to me. He signed it. We handed it to a deputy sheriff and walked
upstairs to that meeting, or where it was about to convene, with the deputy. The
deputy handed it-we managed a copy-to this fellow from Tallahassee. He had
opened up his briefcase, and he was ready to go. He looked at the order and
read it. He did not say a word and put all his papers back in his briefcase. He
closed up the briefcase and walked out the door. Charlie Cheese and I stood
there just about to explode, it was so funny. All these people were going to kill
me, I guess, and I just would not die. So, that broke up that meeting. It was really
after that event and just the total breakdown of things that we gave the hospital to
P: Who was the attorney who represented the hospital association and the litigation
that we had?
W: The first part of it, it was Jim Franklin, Sr. Again, I was a lawyer, but I was
chairman of the hospital, and I did not feel like it was appropriate. That was when
John Hathaway represented Clement, who was going to own the place. Jim
Franklin was a good lawyer, a very good lawyer. He lost a lot of cases. He was a
state senator. He lost a lot of arguments because of the way he spoke. He spoke
like he was snarling all the time, and he really was not. He was a very good man.
Anyhow, he won the case and through them out. That was another aspect of
that. Interesting __
P: I know that you were involved in supporting several school bond issues, as the
leading advocate for them, and you were involved in the chartering of two
different banks. One was a savings and loan. Certainly, you were on the Edison
Board of Trustees and served as chairman of the Edison Board of Trustees in
Fort Myers. And, you certainly played a key role in the getting the land
contributed by Charlotte County for the Charlotte County campus of Edison.
Certainly, you were involved to the fullest extent possible in the effort to create
Florida Gulf Coast University, and you now serve on the foundation board.
Another activity was the organization of the group that built the professional
center, which is on Marion Avenue today, certainly one of Punta Gorda's finest
additions for professional offices. I think you have been involved in about
everything of a positive nature in Punta Gorda and Charlotte County throughout
your entire life. You have seen a lot of change.
W: Gosh, yes. I was just looking in some of that stuff that I had written. When I was,
I guess about, five years old or so, every afternoon, my mother would get me all
cleaned up and dressed up and walk me to the corner of Marion Avenue there by
the Methodist Church. Had a telephone with a crank on it. Call my dad and tell
him to watch out for me. She would put me on the street to walk to his store. I
would go down there. The street was not paved. It had been paved with oyster
shells to keep wagons from sinking in. I walked down there, and he would take
me across the street to Mobley's Drugstore for a nickel ice cream cone. That is
one of my early recollections. It is so different now.
P: How has the population changed?
W: Well, it has changed, of course, in numbers dramatically, and it has changed in
outlook, background, philosophy, everything. We were all country people, small
town, friendly mostly. If we were not friendly, we were mad. Today, of course, we
are, relatively speaking, a large area with many fewer interpersonal relationships
throughout the community. That would be about the difference, I think, Vernon.
P: What do you see for the future of Charlotte County?
W: Well, if we get rid of all the Republicans, I think it would be a pretty good
county. Seriously, I do not see anything but good. Things just have to work
themselves out. It seems like somehow, the innate decency of people kind of
comes to the surface. Sometimes, you get pretty discouraged about how long it
is going to take, but it does.
P: Is there anything I should have asked you that I have not?
W: Probably. I cannot think of it, Vernon. When I get that stuff straightened out the
best I can, you may want to look through it.
P: I would love to do that. Well, it has been a very pleasant experience having the
opportunity to interview you for Florida Gulf Coast University in our oral history
project, and we thank you.
W: It has been kind of fun. My remarks have not been very well-organized.
P: Well, it is all there.
W: My thoughts scattered all over.
[End of Interview.]