July 22, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Charles Gray

Attorney and co-founder of the Gray Robinson law firm, Orlando; age 80

Art Levy | 7/9/2012
Charles Gray
Charles Gray at Gemini Springs [Photo: Brook Pifer]

» I never wanted to run for political office myself. I found you could put a good person into office and accomplish as much as if you went into office yourself.

» In 1964, I was watching TV, a black and white TV, and I saw a guy up on a bare stage, talking about what he believed about government in the state of Florida. He was running for governor. His name was Haydon Burns, and I watched him and I listened to what he had to say — and what he said made a lot of sense to me. So, I thought, 'Well, I'll support him.'

» I liked working on a ranch. I like outside. I really liked the animals. You start castrating bull calves, and it seems a little heartless, but then you get used to it.

» I got all my buddies together and I chartered a bus — got a keg of beer in the back — and we headed to Jacksonville and talked to Haydon Burns and his wife, Mildred. I pledged our sacred honor — $500 each and that was when $500 was a lot of money — and he asked me to chair his campaign in central Florida. He was the dark horse, a former mayor of Jacksonville, one of six candidates, and he was the least expected to win. But he won. We were responsible for him becoming governor.

» As chairman of the turnpike authority, I saw there was an area that really needed to have a turnpike and that was down the west coast of Florida. Well, word got out, and I got a call from Nelson Poynter, the publisher of the

St. Petersburg Times. He said, 'Charles, I'd like for you to have dinner with my wife and me,' so I went and had dinner with him. He said, 'Charles, I don't want a toll road down the west coast of Florida.' I said, 'Well, Mr. Poynter, you're not going get an interstate for 20 years, and I can build a toll road in two.' This is 1966 or maybe 1965. He said, 'Well. I'm very disappointed in your governor. He promised me he would not build a toll road down the west coast of Florida.' So I called Haydon. I said, 'Haydon, did you promise Nelson Poynter you wouldn't build a turnpike down the west coast of Florida?' He said, 'I did.' I said, 'Why did you do that?' He said, 'to get elected.'

» After we helped Burns win the election, he called and said, 'Charlie, I want to come down and talk to you.' He came down and he said to me, 'What do you want?' I said, 'Well, I want a new university.' He said, 'You got it.' And that's how the University of Central Florida got started.

» I saw Gemini Springs for the first time in the waning hours of daylight on a Sunday, and I bought it 9 o'clock the next morning — and I didn't have any money. I borrowed. It's a public park now, a beautiful public park. We lived there. We raised our kids there. It had a great swimming hole, great fishing, but we never built a home next to the springs because that would just be a sacrilegious thing to do. I always wanted the property to eventually be a park.

» I went to the University of Florida, a wonderful, wonderful university, but it was pretty much a party school for me. As long as I could make my grades, I was having fun.

» I was really disappointed when we didn't go through with high-speed rail. I was representing the Chinese, and we were prepared to build that thing. My client was prepared to, of course, pay all cost overruns in construction but also pay all the cost overruns in operations for 20 years. It didn't happen because the governor didn't want it to happen.

» During a great deal of the roaring '60s and '70s, I didn't spend enough time with my family. I wish I had spent more time with my children. I guess everybody does, but I have a wonderful wife (Saundra), and she has been a wonderful mother. Now I make sure I spend a lot of time with my grandkids. It's like a second chance, and it's wonderful.

» I really wanted to build something, but I never dreamed the firm would get this big. We've got 260-some-odd lawyers now. I still call it a small firm with a lot of lawyers.

» When the Disney people first came to the governor, he called me in and he told me and he told them that I was his liaison to Disney: Whatever they wanted, work through me, and I'd get it done. So I worked with them all through the process of acquiring the 27,000 acres. When we finally got it all done — Paul Helliwell was Disney's personal attorney and Roy Hawkins was his personal real estate consultant — Paul called me. He said, 'Charlie, I want to have lunch with you. Meet Roy and I at the Howard Johnson's down on the Orange Blossom Trail.' They said, 'Charlie, we want you to know that we are appreciative of you working with us and keeping everything in confidence.' They pulled out a map of the 27,000 acres. They said, 'We want you to be the first to know where the entrance to Disney is going to be. We have acquired three of the quadrants at the intersection of I-4 and State Road 530 (now U.S. 192), and we think you ought to buy the fourth quadrant.' I thought about it, but I couldn't figure out what I could put outside the 27,000 acres that Disney couldn't put inside, and I didn't have the money, anyway. The people who did buy it went bankrupt because Disney didn't open until 1971 and this was 1966, and when Disney did open, it took another five or six years for it to really gear up. So, I made a very smart decision not to buy it.

» I don't do well without a team. It takes teamwork to do anything. I've got the greatest team in the world with my wife. We sailed our boat around the world together.

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