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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Interviewee: Alexander Brest
Interviewer: Sylvia Shorstein
Date: May 5, 1980
S: My name is Sylvia Shorstein and I am interviewing Alex Brest. Today is
May 5, 1980. Alex, tell me where you were born.
B: My parents were born in Russia--they were born in Poland and at that
time, it was under the domination of Russia. I was born in Boston,
Massachusetts in 1894. In 1900, my family moved to West Acton,
Massachusetts, about six miles from Concord. I attended grammar school in
West Acton and high school in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1916 I graduated
from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in civil engineering. In
1917 I entered World War I.
S: What branch of service?
B: In the Sanitary Corps. In 1918, I was ordered to proceed to Jacksonville,
Florida, as camp sanitarian at Camp Joseph E. Johnston. It is now the
present site of the naval air station. I was first lieutenant in the
Sanitary Corps. Our principal duties were water supply, sewage disposal,
and drainage against mosquitoes.
During World War I, I went to work as an assistant chief engineer with the
Florida State Board of Health. From 1920 to 1923, I was assistant
professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida. In 1924, I
organized the Duval Engineering Contract Company. I built many of the
roads and bridges in Duval County and surrounding areas.
S: Mr. Brest, those years in Florida, when you were living in Jacksonville
and before you went to Gainesville, where were you living and what were
some of the activities that you were involved with?
B: I worked with the State Board of Health for approximately a year and a
half, and during that time I lived at the YMCA.
S: Were there any events in those days that you can remember that were
significant in your life or in the history of Jacksonville?
B: Nothing significant. I traveled throughout the entire state of Florida,
visiting various communities and assisting in their problems of
sanitation, sewage disposal, pollution control, and so forth.
S: What were they doing in those days for sewage? What type of sewers did
B: Most of your larger communities, including Jacksonville, were dumping
their sewage directly into the St. Johns River without any treatment. It
did not present any particular problem at that time because the waters in
the river had sufficient oxygen to take care of the pollution. Some of
the inland communities had septic tanks and primary treatment of sewage.
In many cases, for example in Live Oak, Florida, the sewage was piped
directly into sinkholes.
S: How were most of the homes treating their sewage?
B: Most of the homes were treating their sewage in local septic tanks.
S: So you actually did not stay in Jacksonville, you went all over the place?
B: I traveled.
S: Was there anything that you initiated from your own office at that time?
B: We instituted a system of analyzing the water and advising communities on
their service and sewage disposal systems.
S: So from there you went to the University of Florida?
B: Yes. I was a professor there at the University of Florida for three
years. After that I moved to Jacksonville and have been here ever since.
S: In 1924 you started your own company here. Did you do that by yourself,
or was it with someone else?
B: I did it by myself, with one exception. A student of mine at the
University of Florida by the name of George H. Hodges had some experience
in surveying. I realized that it would be impossible for me, a Yankee
from Boston, to start total construction without having some local
representation. Mr. Hodges was invited to become president of the
company, but did not put up a single nickel.
S: Is he still living today?
B: He died about three years ago.
S: So from then on, did you have other associates?
B: No, that was the only associate.
S: The only associate you ever had. Do you still own the company?
B: No, I sold it several years ago.
S: Is the company still in existence?
B: It is still in existence. It is now the Houdaille-Duval-Wright Company.
S: Did anyone else in your family come to Jacksonville?
S: It is just you.
B: My sister came along. She is a retired schoolteacher now, living in St.
Petersburg. She came in about 1960.
S: Did you have a family?
B: Yes. I was married in 1940. I had two sons and two grandchildren. Both
sons are gone. My oldest son was a professor of law at Stanford
University. He had a boy and a girl. My youngest son was a psychologist
in New York City. He was married to a good-looking Jewish girl.
S: They were living up there?
B: Yes. They were both studying for doctorate degrees in psychology.
S: Looks like they were following in their dad's footsteps. Let's go back to
the 1920s again, when you were getting started. I know that you became
involved with many, many business ventures and organizations. How did you
get involved? What were your interests?
B: Rabbi Israel L. Kaplan, of course, was the rabbi at the Temple Ahavath
Chesed. I became a member of the board of trustees and participated and
served in religious activities. I remember we had the first drive for the
United Jewish Fund, and I was the second president. Morton Hirshberg was
the first president. I think our goal at that time was about $6,000.
S: When was this?
B: This would be about 1927.
S: So around 1926, the forerunner of the federation today--the UJA--was
B: Morton Hirshberg was the first and I was the second president of the UJA.
S: Did you help get it started with him?
B: No, Rabbi Kaplan was the instigator.
S: The organizer?
S: Where were the monies going in those days?
B: The money in those days, I think, went to local charities and Jewish
S: Not to national charities or to Israel or out of the country. Was that
during the time that River Garden was getting started?
B: No, River Garden came later.
S: So you would say the money was for needy families?
B: We had some transients who were stranded here and maybe a few Jewish
S: What other interests did you have at that time?
B: Later on, about 1929 when the people of Israel were fighting for their
freedom, there was some confidential guidance to furnish arms to the
underground. In 1940 I became president of the Florida National Refugee
Association. We had taken people who were fleeing from Hitler and settled
them in Jacksonville, Daytona Beach, Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, St.
Petersburg, and all over the state.
S: How did this group get started?
B: There was a national headquarters in New York City. William--I have
forgotten his last name, but he was a bastard child from one of the most
prominent families in New York City--sent a representative down here to
interview me, and I accepted the chairmanship.
S: Who were some of the families that were brought here at that time?
B: Who is the tailor here?
B: Yes. That is one of the families. Another one sells wallpaper and paints
out there in Auburndale.
S: Is is Martin?
B: I have forgotten. Many other people came here and moved on to other
communities. We assisted them in finding jobs until they could learn to
speak English and so forth. During that time, I would say that I probably
signed about 100 affidavits to get people out of Germany.
S: What were these affidavits?
B: The affidavit was such that I agreed that if they were permitted to enter
the United States, I would be responsible for them. That, however, was
taken over by the national organization in New York City.
S: Was that the UJA?
B: No. It was a national organization in New York City funded by some of the
more affluent Jews.
S: Did you have to pay money to the powers that be to bring these people
B: No. There was no money required that I know of.
S: But once they got here, you had to get them jobs.
S: What was happening here? Were you active in the Temple?
B: I was just on the board of trustees.
S: You were here early enough to talk about the beginning of the Jewish
community from a temple point of view. What was happening here? What
about the families that were here? They were pretty well-established,
some of them.
B: We got some support from the families here, but it was disappointing that
some of our wealthy leaders did not participate. I think the German Jews
more or less looked down upon Jews from Poland.
S: They were not willing to help them get jobs?
B: We got more from the type of people from the Center than we did from the
S: And yet these Jews were coming from Germany.
B: From Germany, Poland, Austria.
S: But a lot of them were coming from Germany?
B: But somehow or another, some of these German Jews considered themselves
S: Why do you think that?
B: I guess because a lot of those Jews that were left in Germany had migrated
into Germany from Poland- and Russia and a couple of other countries.
S: What about the families that were here? The Cohens and the Furchgotts?
B: The only families that were here were the Cohens, the Furchgotts, and the
Levys. I will give you a very specific example. When we raised our first
$6,000, we went to see Mr. Levy. He said to me, "How much do you honestly
think I should give? I will give you $300, I am just starting out in
S: When was this?
B: I would say around the early 1930s. It seemed to me that the Center
always formed a clique--a society which banded themselves together and
never gave to the Jewish charities.
S: What about their own temple?
B: They supported the Temple, but meagerly.
S: So actually, for a segment of the Jews in Jacksonville. .
B: I got more of a response from the Center than I did from the Temple.
S: This Temple group, they were integrating into the city life in
Jacksonville. They were becoming assimilated and a lot of them were
marrying outside of the faith.
B: Not too many. Most all of them were in business and were profiting. I
guess they took the attitude that they did not want to be of help because
they figured they had their own.
S: What were some of the other things that you were doing at that time?
B: In 1940 I was engaged in building facilities at the naval air station for
the navy. In 1942 I volunteered for World War II.
S: Was that in the army?
B: Yes. I taught the boys to build airfields overseas. I was asked to
contract at the naval air station. There was a representative of the navy
who came down here, unbeknownst to me or anybody else. They realized in
Washington that they were just about to enter World War II. He made a
survey of the three companies that could build the facilities at the
quickest possible time. As they said it, "We want you to imagine that
there is a warship out there in the harbor just about to drop shells on
us." He was Captain Carter, who later became Admiral Carter of the navy.
He selected the Duval Engineering Contract Company in Jacksonville to
build the facilities on a cost-plus, fixed-fee basis.
They did not have any plans complete. They employed a firm of architects
from Atlanta, Georgia, called the Robertson Company, and they moved in and
started drawing. We got the Army-Navy Award for Excellence, which they
give to only a few companies. Senator Harry Truman, who was later to
become president, came down here and checked over the operations, and
recommended us for the highest award.
In September 1942, when we had practically completed all the facilities, I
thought that I had something to offer in teaching the boys how to build
airfields overseas. I entered the army in September 1942, and went to
Camp Claiborne, Louisiana for four weeks of training. Then I went to
Richmond Army-Air Force Base, where they had the battalions. I organized
the school for officers. I think we trained at least 1,100 officers for a
two-week course in how to build airfields.
S: What rank were you at this time?
B: I was a major at that time, and later a lieutenant colonel. General
Godfrey, who was the head of the aviation engineers, was so impressed with
what we were doing at Richmond Army-Air Force Base that before second
lieutenants graduated from officer candidate school in Fort Bellmore and
went to permanent assignments, they went to my school for two weeks. I
taught the boys how to build airfields.
You can imagine the state of second lieutenants after having gone through
officer candidate school where forty percent of them got their
commissions, and sixty percent were returned to their unit. They had just
gotten their second lieutenant bars on Friday and on Saturday they came to
Richmond Army-Air Force Base. We met them at the airport with transport
trucks and Monday morning they reported to school at this classroom.
Monday morning at 9:00, my superior officer would tell them what a great
guy I was and when he left I would say, "Officers, relax. You are now
going to go through a four-year college course in two weeks' time. It is
so streamlined and airborne that in a previous class one of the officers
went to the latrine to wash his hands and when he came back, he found that
he had missed his sophomore year." You will get a certificate of
attendance here. If you do not get sick and go to the hospital, I will
give you a certificate of attendance.
At the end of two weeks, on the Saturday before they graduated, I asked
every officer to write out a statement telling how he liked the school,
and any criticisms or suggestions. I said, in order for you not to be
identified, you can print it and I do not want you to sign it. At the end
of every two weeks, I revised the curriculum of the two-week course and
the two-year college course.
One of the second lieutenants was assigned to a base in South Florida on
the west coast. The government had shipped a tractor on a railroad car
and no one at the base knew how to crank it up or drive it off. Due to my
instruction, he was able to get up there as a hero, crank up the tractor
and roll it off the flat car. I had many compliments about the school.
In fact, the dean of the engineering school at Texas A & M went through my
course in two weeks and I asked him what he thought about it. He said it
was the most unique school he had ever been to in his whole life.
S: When these boys got through, what did they do then?
B: They went to various units. Later on, we went to Knights Field in
California and Geiger Field in Spokane, Washington. At one time I had
2,000 officers under my command. We had about 60,000 enlisted men
training for aviation engineer battalions. Before they went overseas, we
sent them to the national forest, where they built a landing field for the
supervisors of the national forests. They lived under actual field
conditions. They had the medics, the cooks, the doctors, the pastors, and
everything. We shipped them out overseas in complete battalions. They
would go into combat and build airfields.
S: Have you seen some of the boys that you trained?
B: Yes, I have seen a lot of them. I am writing the memoirs of my army
career, which should be completed in about three or four months.
S: That is very good.
B: I will give you another little incident. Later on, while I was at the
Richmond Army-Air Force Base, the aviation engineers were doing their
training. The thought was that the engineers were who were going to build
the airfields should be familiar with the pilots who were attached to the
air force. They were the pilots that were going to co-pilot the planes.
I got a call one morning from the commander of the base. He said, "Who is
this?" I said, "This is Major Brest." He says, "I understand you are
conducting a bastard school down there." I said, "Let me tell you
something, sir, this is under the orders of General Garfield of the United
States Air Force in Washington, D.C. Now if you want to complain, you
talk to him, don't talk to me." I was accused of conducting a bastard
school. I had a lot of incidents.
S: So all during the War you were teaching?
B: During the War, no. I was the battalion commander. As a matter of fact,
I was supposed to have gone over with the twenty-first engineers on the
North African invasion. But due to the fact that I went to this five
weeks of induction courses at Camp Claiborne, I was too late to join the
regiment. When I went to the Richmond Army-Air Force Base, I was training
these battalions, and at the same time was commandant to the school.
Then when we went to Knights Field in California and Geiger Field in
Spokane, Washington, we had a base of our own. We were recognized by the
war department as the Army-Air Force Aviation Engineers School, with all
the status of some of these other staff command schools. I was director
of operations of training.
S: Was that the beginning of it?
B: Well, it started in Richmond, unofficially as a bastard school, and
finally became recognized due to my efforts.
S: Is it still a school today?
B: No. In 1947, after the end of the War, this school was disbanded.
S: What did you.doq after the War?
B: After the War, in 1945, we had some Brazilian officers visiting the base
at Geiger Field. They were so impressed with the training that they asked
the authorities in Washington, D.C. if I could go to Brazil when the War
was over and set up the foundation for aviation engineers for the
Brazilian government. So when I was discharged in September of 1945, I
went to Brazil and-spent a month there. I visited San Paulo and several
other cities in Brazil. I wrote up a report and made recommendations for
Brazilian army air force aviation engineers based upon my experience in
this country. Then I went back to my business.
S: Who was running your business during all this time?
B: Mr. Hodges.
S: So he was not in the service?
S: What happened then?
B: We built all the expressways here. Every one of them.
S: In Jacksonville?
B: This way and that way south. We built a bridge over the Trout River. We
built 1-95 and that toll road going to Fernandina. We built the Savannah
River Bridge. One of the interesting things that my engineering
background helped with was with the bridge in Savannah. The difference
between the low tide and the high tide is five feet, four inches. At
backriver, we had about 8,000 feet of trestle to build. What we did first
was drive the piling, then we built the caps eighty feet apart. Then we
built a steel form for the bridge deck. At high tide, we floated it in
place and fastened it to the caps. Then we poured the deck. Four days
later it came into the high tide and we took that form and put it to
another. That was the innovation.
S: Was that the first time that was done?
B: I think so. Incidentally, we made over one-million dollars on that
contract. That was the first time that I knew about. We had several
choices. One was to go ahead and pre-cast the slabs on the shore, then
float them out and erect them with a big crane. But we did not have
equipment big enough to handle that many tons. So we chose the other
You were asking about when I was making those affidavits. I think I
signed over 100 affidavits and it became known. I had a secretary who was
an expert in making out affidavits. Louie Kurtz was a lawyer here with
one of the outstanding firms. I guess he would call himself a Christian,
but his mother was Jewish and he came to me and asked if I could fix up an
affidavit for his mother very quietly.
S: What was this affidavit for?
B: To get his mother from Germany to here.
S: Out of Germany during or before .
S: How did you get started in some of the civic activities in Jacksonville?
B: Well, I belonged to the Temple and Rabbi Kaplan and a few people I know
said, "I want you to become a member of the board of trustees." So,
having nothing else better to do, I became a member of the board of
trustees. As poor as I was, I made a few contributions and solicited. So
they said, this man must be something--he must be a millionaire, he gives
$100 here and $200 there.
While I was at Temple Ahavath Chesed, a man came along and contacted some
of the trustees. He was Mr. Julian Benjamin, Sr., the chairman of the
cemetery committee. That is Julian Benjamin's father. I do not know
whether you know the Benjamins or not. He said, "Our survey shows that
there is gold buried along the cemetery." Right away some of the members
of the board of trustees said, "My God, let's look into it." I said,
"Well, let me tell you something. If they should by chance find one five-,
ten-, or twenty-dollar gold piece, they will tear up the entire cemetery.
Forget about it.
S: No one found the gold?
B: No one found the gold. Let me tell you another experience while I am
talking about gold. There was a county commissioner who came to me and
said he had a friend who had an instrument that could detect gold. I
think it was in Goldsmith, North or South Carolina [Goldston, North
Carolina]. They used to mine gold during the Civil War. So he said, "I
want you to come with us." I said, "Alright, as a favor to you, I will go
a prospector." So we went out there, and he said, "There is gold over
there." So I said to myself, I am going to put it to the test. I took
off my solid gold watch, put it under some leaves, and said, "Is there
gold here?" He said, "No, there is no gold there." I said, "Let's go
S: His prospecting was not so good, I guess. Now, Mr. Brest, there are
several buildings in Jacksonville that are named for you.
B: Yes, at Jacksonville University. We were not a university then, I think
we were a junior college. Robert Angas, a civil engineer, was an
associate of mine. He said to me, "Would you consider going on the board
of trustees at Jacksonville University?" I said I would be happy to.
Carl Swisher was then the chairman of the board and he donated five or six
buildings out there.
At the first meeting, they wanted a driveway to the present Swisher
Gymnasium, because it had not been paved. So Bob Angas said, "Make an
estimate of what it is going to cost." At the first meeting, Carl Swisher
was presiding and said, "Let's take up the question of building this
driveway to the Swisher Gymnasium. Mr. Brest has made an estimate that it
is going to cost $5,000. That is too much." So I said, "Mr. Swisher, just
a minute. I am making that as a donation."
S: So it was not too much.
B: It was not too much. So I got on the board.
S: When was this?
B: It was after the War, so it had to be around 1950.
S: Is that when they moved over to the present site on the St. Johns?
Because they were in Riverside first.
B: Yes. So then I got on the board. They elected me chairman of the
building committee. I was more or less the campus architect and planner
for the whole thing. As a matter of fact, the board of trustees did not
even know they had a waterfront, because they could not see the St. John's
River from the campus. It was all grown up with trees and everything. So
I took a bulldozer and cleared a path. Then I took Carl Swisher and some
of the board of trustees and showed them what we had on the lower campus.
From that time on, I became more or less the campus planner. I designed
the location of the buildings and the facilities they have now.
If you want to know what I contributed: the baseball field, the tennis
courts, the softball field, the outdoor basketball courts, the golf
course,, the dugouts for the baseball, and everything on the lower campus.
It was a challenge for engineering because when we moved down to the lower
campus, that fill was dredged in from the St. John's River when they
deepened the channel. That was all swamp there at that time. They
tracked in a lot of muck. When we moved in there, we lost a tractor
because it sank in the mud. We had to move it out with a crane. But the
success of that drainage is that in the perimeter of that lower field, the
underground water seeps through above a layer of hardpan into that basin.
So we had to intercept all of that water with French drains, which you
will not see. They take care of the water and carry it to the St. John's
River. We built all the roads and facilities.
S: It is a beautiful campus. Are you still active on the board?
B: Yes. They wanted me to be the chairman of the board, but I refused.
S: You have never served as chairman of the board?
B: No. I have been vice president and chairman of the building committee. I
gave them the Alexander Brest Museum. I gave them my collection of
Steuben glass. They named a dormitory after me.
S: Very good. Did you ever teach any courses at Jacksonville University?
B: Oh, no.
S: Have you spoken there?
B: Very little. More action than words.
S: Now, how about the museum?
B: The Children's Museum?
B: Well, I guess about five to seven years ago, I was approached by Gus
Schmidt, who said that the planetarium needed some money. It had already
been built. They wanted to know if I would made a donation. I think I
made a donation of $110,000. They named it the Alexander Brest
S: At that time, it was called the Children's Museum.
B: Today it is the Jacksonville Museum of Arts and Sciences. You see, it
started many years ago in Riverside as a little children's museum.
S: I remember.
B: Duval County sends children there for free to visit the museum. I think
they pay for about three or four of the staff over there. I was talking
with some of the council members and they thought the Children's Museum
was a misnomer. They suggested that we change it to the Jacksonville
Museum of Arts and Sciences.
Incidentally, I made a feasibility report on enlarging that thing about
three years ago at my own expense. What we had in mind was to build a
planetarium that would double the capacity. We have a capacity of 120
seats right now and should figure on sixty for the dome.
S: Have they started this construction?
B: No. It would cost four or five million dollars. They want a study made
on space available on the present site and so forth.
S: Will the city undertake this right now?
B: I do not know. It would require either a city or a county bond issue or
for someone to come along with five or six million dollars. Do you know
anybody who would like to give five or six million dollars?
S: Listen, I just want to get this project finished.
X: May I ask a question?
S: Sure, go ahead.
X: Did you know Mr. and Mrs. Cummer from the Cummer Gallery?
B: I knew who they were, but I did not know them intimately. They were in
the lumber and limestone business.
X: They were one of the first families here.
S: So we are kind of bringing this up to date. Is there anything else that
you would like to talk about?
X: Are there any people that stand out in your mind in the early days in the
community that were your friends? Who do you think were important in the
Jewish community or the community in general?
B: The most important man that we had in the Jewish community was Dr. Kaplan.
I must say that I am very much disappointed in the assistance the Jewish
community in Jacksonville has given on several phases. We do not have
real leadership here in Jacksonville today in our Jewish community.
X: What do you attribute that to?
B: I do not know. We have leadership in some of the big cities. As a matter
of fact, we do not have any great Jewish wealth here. The Cohens, the
Levys, and the Furchgotts have all passed away. The Cohens did not
contribute much to Jacksonville, as they should have, except for building
the St. James Building. And the Levys, they did pretty well. He left a
little bit to the Jewish welfare. He left a building, I believe. The
Furchgotts did not leave anything.
S: When you say "great wealth," do not forget our government takes everything
B: One thing that is disappointing to me--judging from my membership in the
country club--is the professional people. The lawyers, doctors, dentists,
and CPA's are not doing their share. The small businessman is a thing of
the past. There are no small businesses left. These big conglomerates
own May-Cohen's, Levy's, and Furchgott's. The professional men are making
a tremendous amount of money, but are not contributing their share.
X: With taking care of their children and the government's taking so much,
they are not left with that much either. That is what I hear them say.
B: Everybody else is in the same boat. They are no different from anybody
else. The average doctor makes between $300,000 and $400,000 a year.
S: Do you think they make that much?
S: But they do not get to keep it.
B: Well, who keeps it?
S: Uncle Sam.
B: There is enough left.
S: Well, it is true that there are other much more generous communities than
Jacksonville. I think that we have not really been trained to give.
B: That is right.
S: A lot of people give when they do not have that much; a lot of it is
training. A lot of it is your background.
B: A lot of them are trying to figure out how little they can give to public
charities or community. projects.
S: Do you think maybe people are looking inward instead of outward, as they
did in the early days?
B: I think so. The present generation is a generation from affluent parents.
I worked my way up. I have been working since I was twelve years old.
The four years I was going to high school, I was a night telephone
operator. I worked from 6:00 at night until 8:00 in the morning. I got
one dollar per night. I did my studying, too. I worked my way through
S: Let me ask you about that. You went to MIT?
S: Was it difficult in those days for a Jew to get in there?
B: No, there was no anti-Semitism there. At that time, MIT had the highest
tuition of any school--$250 a year. That was terrific amount of money.
Then if you passed every examination, they did not ask.
S: How many students were at MIT then?
B: I would say at that time it was around 5,000. At MIT, like most schools
today, the tuition takes care of only about forty percent of the costs.
The other part had to come from grants, donations, and foundations. There
is the same problem at Jacksonville University. We cannot survive on just
tuition alone, We were a young university, without the alumni who have
accumulated wealth like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Cornell have. At
Stanford University every two or three years, they go out for $2 million
or $5 million and think nothing of it. Because they have graduates; they
have the wealth. We do not have that at J.U.
S: What is happening to the smaller, non-public colleges today?
B: They are facing extinction. At Jacksonville, you have the junior colleges
which are free and the North Florida University which is free.
Jacksonville University is the only independent college that charges
tuition. They are struggling.