Oral history interview with Mr. James C. Robinson at his home on Lake Conway, March 11, 2016.
Attorney James C. Robinson wrote the Laws of Florida Chapter 57-1643, House Bill No. 1626, to be known as “Lake Conway Water and Navigation Control District”.
My name is James C. Robinson, I’m Jim Robinson, I’m from Rock Hill, South Carolina. My family moved here in about 1925 and I was just a little boy. After I started school, I went to Hillcrest Elementary School two years and then the family moved to Conway. And I always considered myself a boy from Conway, the Conway area. Because Conway is an important historical area in Orange County. Conway comes from Wales, is where the name comes from, but there are Conways all over the country. It’s fairly common. But it was an area, it’s geographically described, and there was an original brick road from The Orlando Central Park out to the Conway area. And we lived on what was in effect a Michigan Avenue extension which was about a half mile from the Conway Road in the Conway area.
I had been going to Delaney. Well, I started out at Hillcrest. And so, we moved en route we stopped for some time, and I went to Delaney Elementary and then when we moved to Conway. I wanted to continue at Delaney. And a family which lived on the Conway Road, and their name was Sheur. There were at least two girls, maybe three, and they were working in Orlando and they had a younger brother who was a year older than I. And they took him to Delaney so that he didn’t ride with a schoolbus in that area of Conway. A schoolbus took Jack Price, Helen Price, and others clear across Orlando to Concord Elementary School.
Concord Park Elementary School
And I wanted to continue at Delaney and I did. I continued and finished at Delaney Elementary School. I became active. And the last year I started riding my bicycle to Delaney from Conway area. It was several miles but there was not much traffic. My first job, community effort, was I was made Captain of the Delaney School Boy Patrol. And I used to stand on the corner of Delaney and the kids that came walking up Delaney to get across the change in the roadway I would assist them sort of like people do today helping kids. Anyway, I would do that. Although I did not direct traffic at all.
Orange County Circuit Judge Frank Smith, who was commissioned to serve in the seventeenth circuit in 1925 and again in 1929 for six years.
Judge Frank Smith
And one of the highlights of that experience was Judge Frank Smith, who was a circuit judge, he was the only circuit judge in Orange County at the time. Every morning, he lived on Delaney, he’d come walking up and stopped on the corner and shook hands with all the kids. He walked to his office, downtown Orlando courthouse, every day. I guess round trip, four miles. And one of the things and I mention this, he had a funny thing about what he did. He would shake hands with the kids, but he would hold on to their hand until they said, “Uncle.” And he had a son who was a lawyer, became a lawyer. And he had a daughter who was in our class, that is, Betty and mine.
Mollie Ray and Elizabeth Robinson
Anyway, I went all the way through there and the principal of the school was an interesting young woman. She, one of the heroes of the early school system in Orange County, was Mollie Ray. And when she retired, Elizabeth Robinson, took her place and then she became principal of Fern Creek Elementary School later. Very important person and very much, her family was involved in the church that I went to, First Presbyterian.
So then our next step, I went to Cherokee Junior High School, and Betty, who had been in the second grade junior class with me, Betty Thornton, we don’t remember each other, but we know we were there. She went to the junior high school which was downtown right on Lake Eola and I went to Cherokee. And I finished at Cherokee and I have happy memories of some of the teachers and people there. And when it finished, that’s when we became involved. It was Orlando Senior High School which was the white senior high school; which is now the middle school on Robinson that was our high school.
Orlando Senior High School
Well, we were going there and Betty joined a little high school sorority they called PAK. And they went to Daytona Beach in the summers with a little group… And this particular year, which was after the junior year in high school, we were aware of each other because of the church relationship. Although in the church at that time the girls and the boys were in different classes until they got to high school…. Anyway, she went with this group and it was a beautiful moonlit night there in Daytona. And the girls wanted a midnight boat ride on the Halifax River. So they put it together and Betty announced that she wouldn’t go because she didn’t have a date. And it was a boy – girl thing. And Alice Price with whom I grew up in Conway she was one of our neighbors, one of our special neighbors. She said, “Well, why don’t you ask Jim Robinson?” and she did. And that was the beginning. Big success. And so, we started going together. We went together all through the last couple years of high school. And she was very active and I was very active in whatever was going on.
Most Likely to Succeed
Betty was an “A” student and I wasn’t so interested in that. I remember in high school, I disappointed my mother because she was an “A” student. Betty lived fairly near the high school on Pine Street. And if I didn’t have football practice or play practice or something I would walk home with her and carry her books for her and she’d be very upset because I never took books home. Anyway, we both became very active. We graduated in 1940 and she went to Tallahassee which was an all girl school. And I went to University of Florida at Gainesville, an all boys school. The class held elections. I was president of the class and Betty was secretary. And after they had their final roundup they elected both of us as most likely to succeed. And also, I was the most popular and best all around….
Jim Robinson and Betty Thornton pictured in the 1940 Orlando High School Yearbook
University of Florida
But anyway, we went off to school, and we continued the relationship and sometimes I would go to Tallahassee and we would go, one of the boys had a school bus. And on the weekends ten or twelve boys we would go up on the schoolbus and stay. Go up on Friday night and stay until Saturday night. Because 10:15 at night they would have what they called a “light flash”. And at 10:15 on Sunday nights we would leave because they had to be in the dorm in 15 minutes or they’d be locked out with penalties. But it was a dangerous trip because at that time there were no laws about people who owned cattle having to keep them on their property. And they were all over the roads lots of accidents. But anyway, we went thru that together and I went up there to play football.
World War II
My brother Bill was captain of the gator team in 1941. I was captain of the Orlando High School football team my senior year, football and basketball. So, I got up there and I played football as a freshmen and the war came on. And I began to realize that we were all going to be involved. And I wanted to get through so I quit football and went summer and winter to try to get through and I did finish. And in 1943 I got my Bachelor of Arts and I had one year of law school. And they took me in as a private and I thought they would give me a commission, but they said I didn’t have enough ROTC. So they took me and sent me out to Texas in tank destroyers because we were engaged in North Africa. They were teaching us water training… They wanted to teach us what they call water discipline and so we had canteens. And number one, you took the top off your canteen and put it under your bag and filled it with water. Number two, you raised it to your lips. Number three, you took a drink. Number four, you put it down. They were trying to teach you to conserve water.
In due course they decided that I should go back to the field artillery which is what I was in and not ROTC. I went back to Gainesville and to make a long story short, I finally had to take more training. I was a private first class making $54 dollars a month. So anyway, we decided to get married. And we got married in Orlando, February the fourth, 1944 and we went to Daytona Beach for the weekend honeymoon.
Officer Candidate School
And we went back this time to Gainesville and the Army Colonel in charge said, “Well, you’re going to OSC- Officer Candidate School.” And I said, “Can’t somebody else go, I just got married.” And he said, “No. You’re the only one in this group that has a degree and you will have seniority over everybody.” And I said, “I don’t want seniority.”
I went to Oklahoma, Fort Sill to OCS. Betty stayed at home. It was several months, of course. And the last month she came out there and we got her a room. And she could get the city bus and come out to the fort at supper for an half an hour. But I finally got through and we got finished with it and I became a second lieutenant…. my unit was ordered to go to California to prepare for the invasion of Japan.
Lieutenant James C. Robinson and his wife Betty Robinson of Orlando
Well, we no more than got there and the Battle of the Bulge erupted in Europe and my unit was shipped cross country on a train and on a boat and we landed in France. I was sleeping on the bench in a tent, freezing, absolutely freezing. The colonel came around and said, “We’ve liberated Paris.” And two officers and four enlisted men are ordered to go to Paris for R&R, rest and relaxation. And I had just gotten there the night before and I was chosen to go because I spoke some French….
The GI Bill
So anyway, we went into Germany and we fought with the Germans. We finally beat the Germans in ’45. Then I didn’t get to come home because I didn’t have any children. You got points for being married and for each child. And so I had to stay there. And Japanese Americans came just to be troops working. And so I didn’t get to come home until 1946. And so, of course, we went back to Gainesville and lived together. She worked and I got the GI Bill, $90.00 a month, plus books so we finally finished up. And it was summer, winter two years of law school.
Looking for a Job
We came to Orlando and I started looking for a job and I visited Ben Fishback. He was a prominent lawyer here and he was related to Betty by marriage. His office was right across from Lake Eola. An interesting thing, he didn’t have any room, but his office was an office on the ground floor and he had a window in it. So he opened the window and stepped out and said, “Let’s go over and see Judge Smith.” Well, I wanted to do that. We did. We met Judge Smith, and Judge Baker, John Baker was a prominent lawyer. And it ended up with my going to see LeRoy E. Giles. We talked for a little while and he knew my father and he knew about me because my father was very prominent in the community.
J. C. Robinson
A kind of interesting parallel was that he grew up on a farm outside of Lancaster, South Carolina. My mother came from Sumter and they met and my mother was an honor graduate of Winthrop University in 1913. My father was one of eight children, and they lost the farm in a financial crisis. They went into Lancaster to find a place to live either six or ten years old, never went to school another day in his life. And I often wondered, but never asked what did her parents think of her marrying this boy with her background. Well, he was a brilliant mind. Brilliant. He was able to kind of educate himself become head of department stores, very successful. Real estate. President of the Chamber of Commerce. President of the Rotary. Very outstanding.
Letter from J. C. Robinson to his son Jim Robinson
And anyway, Roy Giles was chatting with him. He didn’t say he’d hire me. He just said, “I got a problem.” He represented the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, big client. And he said, “Now go back in the library and look up some law.” Because they gave a common carrier that’s what you called railroads. They had certain duties with regard to passenger’s luggage. So I did. And I came back and he was going home. The next day I came in, he hadn’t said he’d hire me. He wasn’t there, but the lady in charge said, “Your office is that one.” So I went in there and sat down. They gave me a bunch of abstracts of title which I’d never seen and I worked through them. I discovered a good bit later my salary was $150.00 a month.
First National Bank
The next day I had a call from a man named Linton Allen, he was president of First National Bank. We were on the fourth floor. He was on the first floor. He said, “I want you to come down and see me.” I went down. He said, “I want you to be part of our bank.” He said, “Sign this promissory note.” It was several thousands of dollars and I’m going to buy stock in our bank in your name. And I said, “Sir, I can’t pay it. I don’t have any money.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be a success.” He said, “I know about you,” through his mother in law who had been my Sunday School teacher. And he also knew about my activities in high school. So incidentally, that stock, I used the dividends and the bank grew and the bank became successful. And that stock, I think the note was for $10,000. became worth about a million dollars. And I gave stock away to my children and to various others. I still have some not too much.
Giles, Hedrick, and Robinson Law Firm
But anyway, that was kind of my start. LeRoy Giles, and he, and my father and several other people, notable in 1933 or thereabouts, formed the First Federal Savings & Loan Association. And, that was Mr. Giles’ biggest client and ultimately I became the attorney for him and also a director on the board and it figured largely in everything. And so that was kind of the beginning. And there was a fellow there already name David Hedrick and he was from Jacksonville, a young lawyer. He’d been there about a year and many prominent people, lawyers, had started out in his firm: Supreme Court Justice Campball Thornal, judges, you know. But, Mr. Giles was especially kind to me. He was just like another father and he always called me “Sonny”. And after we got things going good we found a firm: Giles, Hedrick, and Robinson in about 1952. I started in 1948 with the firm. Anyway, it grew very successful. Mr. Giles died in ’63, I think. We were moving into a new building and he never occupied his office.
Attorney LeRoy Giles founder of Giles & Robinson law firm, the oldest law firm in Orlando. Mr. Giles began practicing law in Orlando in 1908 and James C. Robinson joined the firm in 1948.
Forming a University
In the early sixties, a group of people, in which I was just one, decided that for the growth of our community we needed a university in the nine county eastern part of Florida. And so, we worked toward that. It was a lot of maneuvering. We finally got legislature passed creating it. And Senator Beth Johnson, our local senator was very important and I was one of the group that helped get it passed. The legislature gave the, what they called at the time, The Florida Board of Control: the power to decide where and how the university would be formed.
Elected as County Attorney
Well, during the period of time before this occurred, the Price Family with whom I grew up, and I became very involved, W. K. Jr. became the leader in Orange County. He had a place over in Merritt Island. He invited me to go over there for the weekend. When I got there much to my surprise, the county commissioners were there. This was before the “sunshine laws”. There was nothing wrong with it. It was a weekend of fishing and drinking. Anyway, I enjoyed it very much. Anyway, I had no further dealing with them for quite a long time until one day the phone rang and it was the deputy clerk of Orange County. And he said, “You know, the commissioners enjoyed you being with them and they would like you to come over and see them at work.” And I said, “Okay.” So I went over there and sat down and listened to what they were doing. And there came a moment when John Talt, who was the Commissioner of Apopka, he announced, “Listen, it’s time to reappoint our county attorney. And so, I nominate Akerman,” which was well known, they were the attorney. There were no seconds. A moment later, somebody nominated me and they elected me. I had no experience with it at all….
Choosing the Site for a University
So I went with the county commission in a car to Tallahassee to a meeting with The Board of Control and they selected two sites that had been offered. One was Seminole County, former naval base and the other one was on South Orange Blossom Trail. Well, there were seven members, but the one from Orange County had been removed because he failed to file an income tax so they only had six, and they voted three to three. On the way back, I said to them, “Look, I know a place that’s a lot better than either of those.” And they said, “Where?” I told them, “Way out in East Orange County and it would be more attractive to people on the coast.” And so they said, “Well, they’d like to see it.” So, out on Alafaya Trail was where it was. So far east the Davis family lived and they raised horses and American buffalo. And so, they loaned us the horses and I got Harry Price to lead us through this property. He had been putting it together for years and I had become his lawyer. And he made a cattle ranch of it. But he sold it all to a man from New Jersey named Frank Adamucci. There was nothing there but pine trees and cow pasture….
An aerial view of the Adamucci site suggested by Jim Robinson for the development of a university.
$1,000 an acre
Anyway, the county approved that. They thought it was a good site so we got the Board of Control to come up. They looked at it, but they sent us a letter and said that we should provide clear title and surveys, a bunch of expenses, within 30 days. And I told them “We can’t do that that fast.” They said, “You’d better do it quick or we’re going to withdraw it.” So Beth Johnson and I and others sat down…. Well, I tried to call Frank Edwards on the way back and didn’t get him. But I did get him when I got home afterwards and I said, “Frank, they need a 1,000 acres at least and it’s got to be free and clear. Can you give us any land?” He said, “I’ll give you 500 acres and you pay me a $1,000 an acre and I’ll provide you an equal amount.” Well, we had no money.
Paying for the University
So, we arranged a schedule and it was very involved. People in the community who would pledge a certain amount of money by signing promissory notes which we took to the bank and they honored money on it. And we raised nearly a million dollars.
University of Central Florida Founders
And, these people were agreeing that their money could be used, but they were going to get it back. Of course, they were taking a chance. Well, it took us four years to get it cleared out because the state had to pass laws which gave Orange County the power to spend money for a university. It had no authority to do that for them to have the ability to levy taxes to pay for the university. It took four years. Anyway, we got it and we managed to pay off the creditors and so forth. And so we got the land and they chose Dr. Charles Millican to be the first president. And I became very close to him. Anyway, I handled their estates, and we got a state university. And Millican retired and the second person [Dr. Trevor Colburn, UCF President 1978-1989] became very close to me and we worked on it together. And finally the third president came. But the second was brilliant and a very good friend.
Martha Hitt, Dr. John Hitt, Mary Jo Davis, Charles Gray, Saundra Gray, Joe Guernsey, and Jim and Betty Robinson are pictured from left to right in this photo of The University of Central Florida founders.
It was very interesting that although I was a central figure in it and they were very nice to me, they never gave me official recognition. And it didn’t bother me at all because I felt that I was part of a community. Now later there was recognition. Much later some friends used to joke about it. Some 25 years afterwards they gave me a PhD, honorary doctorate from the university. And I was in the course of it, the people, like the President of the University said, If anybody could be called the father of the University of Central Florida it would be me. And Charlie Millican wrote a letter to me “that I was a visionary extraordinary” and that was nice.
Well, later in that year, 1960’s, I decided to run for Congress, 1968. During that time I was so busy, the only way I succeeded was I had a secretary for forty years and she just really and Betty taking care of three kids, I couldn’t have done it without their help. But anyway, I ran, but I was too busy doing all kind of stuff and I did not get elected. Lou Frey got elected and he served ten years and quit.
Building an Airport
Next thing that happened to me was, Martin Anderson, who was the owner of the newspaper, he wanted to see the airport made into a big airport off of Colonial, that was the one that was used during WWII. And so, a group was put together appointed by the City Commission. The first thing they did was try to select an attorney and they selected me. And so, I went to work for them. There was land down south of Orlando which the U.S. Air Force was using as a major airport and they turned it back over to the City of Orlando and I was involved in that. The City of Orlando had no money to build an airport. So I did suggest that we get the airlines and I negotiated with them to agree that they would underwrite bonds that we would sell and then we would get the money. So the airport has been built without the use of local funds. So anyway we got that done.…
GREATER ORLANDO AVIATION AUTHORITY MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH ORLANDO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT by James C. Robinson. READ Document.
Airport Resolution for James C. Robinson and the Giles, Hedrick & Robinson Law Firm which is archived in the permanent records of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority
Lake Conway Water and Navigation Act
I told you W. K. Price, Jr. became a good friend of mine and the family already was. He became county commissioner and then he became Mayor of the City of Belle Isle. And Belle Isle was started probably in early 1920’s, ’24 or something like that. But it had gone inactive, the city. A young lad, he became mayor and he hired me as the city attorney without pay. And we looked into everything and we reactivated the city government. And, in the course of it, we realized that there was no authority over the major items in Belle Isle which was Lake Conway. And so, that’s why we did that and that’s why I got involved in trying to get a body that would look after boating and everything else. That was during the 1950s, right? So that was before the development of Martin and Disney? 1957.
Laws of Florida Chapter 57-1643, House Bill No. 1626, to be known as “Lake Conway Water and Navigation Control District” written by Attorney James C. Robinson.
So you live on Lake Conway, a lot of these homes weren’t here yet and this act actually created a special district, right? Water and Navigation Control. You understand Lake Conway is really three lakes? I think one time, I guess, they were all one body of water, but if you look way down across you can see the canal that leads into the other southern lake. My son lives on that lake. And up here at the north, there’s a canal that goes into this north lake and three bodies of water. This is the big Lake Conway….
First Presbyterian Church
My mother had grown up in the First Presbyterian Church in Sumter, my father was a Presbyterian in Lancaster. But it was called ARP, Associate Reform Presbyterian Church. When they came here they went to First Presbyterian Church… Anyway, I grew up in that church going to Sunday School…. They came to me and asked me to teach a Sunday School class and so I did, high school students, and I came to know a lot of people. And, anyway, I taught an adult class and this minister, who was the one who formed Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg, became very friendly with me. He asked me, because they had a big problem with a church out in Maitland, and he asked me… to go out there to prepare to take over the preaching. I went and the deacons wouldn’t allow me to enter the pulpit.
Well, I managed to stand up in a break and explain that the officials in the Presbyterian Church had been meeting with the minister and others and they just defrocked him, taken his job away from him. So then the little group refused to get out of the church. The Presbyterian Church asked my law firm to bring a suit and we did. And the judge, he ruled in our favor. At the same time a similar situation had arisen in the Tampa area, St. Petersburg. There the judge ruled in favor of the dominant member. So it went to the Florida Supreme Court and they upheld our decision. And so we took possession of the property and I went out there and I conducted services for quite a while. And I went on the National Board of the General Assembly and I was on the Board of World Missions and I made trips to Europe, Africa on their behalf.
Resolution of Thanks to James C. Robinson by Central Florida Presbytery, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) March 3, 2007.
What message would you give to future generations of our community?
To look for opportunities to work with others for the betterment of the community and not for just your personal gain. But to look at what is really needed for the common good. And look for it, and be willing to sacrifice, work for it.
City of Orlando Proclamation from Mayor Buddy Dyer presented to James C. Robinson for his 90th birthday.
Interview: James C. Robinson
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: March 11, 2016
Place: Mr. Robinson’s home on Lake Conway.
GREATER ORLANDO AVIATION AUTHORITY MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH ORLANDO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT by James C. Robinson. READ Document.
Listen as Attorney James C. Robinson describes the historic development of building Orlando International Airport in this excerpt from an oral history interview at Jim Robinson's home on Lake Conway, March 11. 2016.
LISTEN Part III (20:28)
Building an Airport
Next thing that happened to me was, Martin Anderson, who was the owner of the newspaper, he wanted to see the airport made into a big airport off of Colonial, that was the one that was used during WWII. And so, a group was put together appointed by the City Commission. The first thing they did was try to select an attorney and they selected me. And so, I went to work for them. There was land down south of Orlando which the U.S. Air Force was using as a major airport and they turned it back over to the City of Orlando and I was involved in that. The City of Orlando had no money to build an airport. So I did suggest that we get the airlines and I negotiated with them to agree that they would underwrite bonds that we would sell and then we would get the money. So the airport has been built without the use of local funds. So anyway we got that done....
Laws of Florida Chapter 57-1643, House Bill No. 1626, to be known as "Lake Conway Water and Navigation Control District" written by Attorney James C. Robinson.
Attorney James C. Robinson describes how this special Water and Navigation Control District came into being in this excerpt from an oral history interview with Jim Robinson at his home on Lake Conway, March 11, 2016.
LISTEN Part IV (17:54)
Lake Conway Water and Navigation Act
I told you W. K. Price, Jr. became a good friend of mine and the family already was. He became county commissioner and then he became Mayor of the City of Belle Isle. And Belle Isle was started probably in early 1920's, '24 or something like that. But it had gone inactive, the city. A young lad, he became mayor and he hired me as the city attorney without pay. And we looked into everything and we reactivated the city government. And, in the course of it, we realized that there was no authority over the major items in Belle Isle which was Lake Conway. And so, that's why we did that and that's why I got involved in trying to get a body that would look after boating and everything else. That was during the 1950s, right? So that was before the development of Martin and Disney? 1957.
So you live on Lake Conway, a lot of these homes weren't here yet and this act actually created a special district, right? Water and Navigation Control. You understand Lake Conway is really three lakes? I think one time, I guess, they were all one body of water, but if you look way down across you can see the canal that leads into the other southern lake. My son lives on that lake. And up here at the north, there's a canal that goes into this north lake and three bodies of water. This is the big Lake Conway....