I think Orlando will continue to move forward and upward because we have visionary leaders who have the unique ability to look past what’s in front of them and say, “How do we serve the residents, the travelers, the tourists, the businesses that will come to Orlando in the future?” I think the sky’s the limit for this community and I am excited! And I would not want to live any other place. Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Congresswoman Val Demings, April 18, 2022 at the Orlando Public Library.
My name is Val, it’s actually Valdez. Val, it’s short for Valdez Butler Jennings, and I was born in Jacksonville, Florida.
So you’re a Florida native!
Florida native. Never lived any place else. Had opportunities to live other places, but I always wanted to stay close to home and stay in Florida.
Would you tell me about your parents? I read that your parents instilled in their children a deep respect for hard work, for decency, and responsibility. Is there something that you recall about their work or experience that happened that illustrates that?
Well, I believe, I know that I am able to sit here as a former Police Chief and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives because of two things. Number one my faith in God. And, number two because of the hard work of my parents and what they instilled in me. What I remember growing up was my dad used to go to work seven days a week. He was a janitor, but he also mowed lawns, he picked oranges, whatever he could do, whatever he needed to do to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. My mother was a maid. I remember a time when she used to go to work and clean different homes every day to make a living. But just rooted and grounded in her faith. And, she played the piano at Church. And so, we would go to Church with my mom. And my younger sisters and I, I’m the youngest of seven children, but we would sing in the choir while my mother played the piano. So I cannot remember a time when I was not in Church. But my parents were good, decent honest people and they taught us to be decent and honest. To treat people the way that we wanted to be treated. To always try to make the world a better place to live. And so, I made the decision a long time ago to dedicate my life to public service as a direct result of the example that my parents set for us.
Did you know your grandparents?
I did. My mother’s mom, my maternal grandmother, I never knew because she died 12 days after my mother was born. My mother was raised by her maternal grandmother who had passed away when I was born. My paternal grandmother lived next to us in Jacksonville. So even though she died when I was 12 she was like my best friend. I mean, I can remember getting home from school and I could not wait to beat that path over to her house and hang out with her every day that I can remember when she was in my life.
My paternal grandfather used to live across town. And so I remember going to see him and he was a very quiet man, very kind of stoic and serious. But, you know, there again, I can imagine that the work ethic that my father had he got from his parents. My mother’s father, his name was Frank Woods. My mother grew up in Anthony, Florida which is outside of Ocala. And there was a time when he came to live with us and, matter of fact, he passed away while he was living with us. But I was five years old when he died. But, yeah, good decent hardworking people.
You mentioned Church, what was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?
My grandmother was Methodist, and my mother was Baptist. And so, we joined my mother’s Church and we would go to the Baptist Church. They only met on first and third Sundays. And then we’d go to the Methodist Church and sing in the choir on second and fourth Sundays. But going to Church, as I said my mom played the piano for a while for our Church. Sunday was Church. There was no question about that. We were going to be in Church most of the day. And I just remember my brothers and sisters and I used to go to Church and, you know, people were having a pretty good time, you know, celebrating the goodness of the Lord. And when we would get home we would basically mock them and kind of get in the back yard and do the same thing. My brothers were the preachers and then, you know, we were the congregants. We would just have a good time.
I remember everything from, you know, we just celebrated Easter and it was a big deal during Easter, because number one, we got new clothes. Whether my mom made them, a lot of our clothes she made, or we were able to go to the store and get them, new clothes. But then we also participated in an Easter Program that you don’t see very much any more. But, as I said, I grew up in the Church, Church has always been a part of who I am. And it’s always been that place, where you know, when the world is rough and tough on you, Church was always that place where we could go and refuel, right. And then leave believing that we could conquer the world or conquer anything that the world threw at us.
You mentioned after Church with your siblings in the yard, what other kinds of things did you do for fun when you were growing up, like in the summers?
Yeah, we used to, during the summer – we lived in a very rural part of Jacksonville called Mandarin. And so, a lot of – my parents didn’t have a lot of money. It wasn’t like we had a lot of toys, so we would kind of make things to play with. We used to watch The Flintstones a lot for example. And we used to take these sticks and make them into people. And, you know, depending, we had different sizes for different people. The husband, the wife, the children. Then we’d take like a jar top and fill it up with mud and then we could stick the sticks in the top and that was the car that we pushed along the road, right. And we’d build these little houses that were made out of basically clay and mud. We’d play out there all day long with these different families. And we used to play a lot of stick ball, we’d play kickball, I used to love to play softball. We would play softball and just run a lot. And look, we didn’t have a lot, but my childhood memories are all very fun! And we were very happy! And what I think I grew up realizing is that money really can’t buy happiness. It’s not about how much you have in terms of material things, but it’s the love that you have in your home. And we definitely had a lot of love in our home. It was fun! We had a great time!
When was your first visit to Walt Disney World?
The first time I went to Disney it was, gosh, I was in the tenth grade. We had a band trip to Orlando and we stayed in this hotel on International Drive. It was called the High Q then. But we were so fascinated. I think it’s a Sheraton Hotel now. But we were so fascinated with it because it was a round building. And here we were in high school and we were staying in a hotel. And it was just so cool! Of course, International Drive was not then what it is now, but we were still pretty excited to be there. And to have an opportunity to go to Disney World and that was – it hadn’t been too long in Orlando at that time.
The Hall of Presidents
It’s odd but I remember my favorite attraction was the Hall of Presidents. It wasn’t the craziest ride. It was the Hall of Presidents. I was just fascinated with that. And was glad to hear that they reopened that exhibit although I have not seen it yet.
The Magic Kingdom
But Disney was like, you talk about the magical kingdom, The Magic Kingdom for us, who hadn’t ventured outside of home very often or very far, it was just so cool to come to Disney. It was years and years, my second visit took years and years and years, but I remember the first one. It was great!
And so it was super fun?
It was super fun! It was super fun, yes!
I read that you were the first person in your family to go to college, and we’re living in a time when some people are evaluating the investment of education. So I wondered if you would tell us about your education and how you made the decision to go to college and the value it’s had in your life?
Well, I remember when it was almost time for me to graduate from high school and my mother was very, very focused on education. You know, neither of my parents finished high school. My mother went to 11th grade. My dad went to somewhere around the sixth grade. But my mother always talked about how important education was. And I think my mother clearly understood that the key to success was through education for us. So even though she had not experienced it herself, she definitely wanted her children to have that experience. And I remember when it was near time – I mean, I made decent grades, they probably could have been better if I didn’t talk so much in class, but I made decent grades. And when I got ready to go to college, when it was time for me to graduate from high school, my mother said, “What college do you want to go to?” And I was working at McDonald’s at the time. And I remember saying to my mom that I thought it was best if I stay and continue to work for about a year, save up some money. Because I really didn’t have any money to leave home and go and stay any place. So I said, “Maybe I should stay and work at McDonald’s for about a year and then I can go to college.” And my mother said, “No. I don’t think so.” She said, “I don’t want you to get comfortable.” And she said, her words not mine, “You’re too smart to stay home.” And she said, “You apply to the college of your choice and we’re going to make it work.”
Florida State University
And so, I only applied to one and that was Florida State University. And I will never forget when I received my acceptance letter and I was so excited! But then, you know, my excitement suddenly went to, oh my God, how am I going to make this work? And I remember the day that my parents drove me up to Tallahassee in our family station wagon, and I had $50.00 to my name. I had, well, I didn’t have all my stuff, I had about this much stuff. And they said, “You’ll be fine. We’re going to pray and everything is going to be just fine.”
“I worked three of the four years I was there at McDonalds.”
And, you know, because I’m the youngest of seven, but I’m the first to go to college, so I had to figure out – there was no one else that could really tell me how to apply for loans or grants, and you know, kind of navigate through the system. So I had to kind of figure all of that out, and I did. You know, my parents, they would send what they could, but they weren’t always able to send the care packages that some of the other students were able to receive. So I went to work again at McDonalds. I worked three of the four years I was there at McDonalds. And hey, we made it work. I graduated and my parents came up for my graduation and that was my experience in college.
Education is the Key to Success
But education, my mother always knew that you got to get a good education because it is the key to success. And to her, success at that time was to get a four year college degree. My view on that has changed somewhat. It’s shifted about defining success as a four year college degree. But I do think for my generation, and I think about the time, I think the four year college degree was my ticket to a better life.
I would like to talk about your law enforcement education and training… what were some of your favorite classes or what did you find really fascinating?
You know, like I said, I made a decision a long time ago to dedicate my life to public service because I had some opportunities that I think don’t exist for a lot of people. And so, I want to give back, right. And while I majored in criminology at Florida State University, at that time my goal was to go to law school. My dad used to say, “You’re a pretty good talker. You need to like make money talking.” So he thought that was a good way, being an attorney in a courtroom. I went to Florida State. I majored in Criminology, and then I graduated and I really didn’t have any money. So I knew I needed to go to work.
Social Worker for the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to the Police Academy
I went to work initially at the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services as a Social Worker working with abused, neglected, and abandoned children. And I had a caseload full of kids that had been neglected and there was one particular case that involved this little ten year old boy who I felt the system for; that it was working against. And I kind of colored outside of the lines to get him the help that he needed. But it just left me very, very discouraged about the system itself that was supposed to be there to help children. I remember that I was sitting at me desk one day and there was an advertisement that came over the radio on my desk that said the Orlando Police Department was in Jacksonville recruiting. And I said, well, you know, I took all of those Criminal Justice classes, I’m going to go over and hear what they have to say. And I did. I took some exams, filled out some paperwork and ultimately was hired to go to the Police Academy.
“What I wanted was to be the best police officer that I could be.”
You know we went through the criminal law, we went through defensive tactics, of course the firearms, community relations, to say there was a favorite part – what I wanted to do was to be the best police officer that I could be. Remember, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to dedicate my life to public service. So to keep people safe was the number one priority. And it took all of that. Criminal law so we make the right, the proper charges. The defensive tactics so we could reduce injuries to others and to ourselves. And the firearms, having God forbid, if we have to use our guns that we would be proficient in the use of that weapon. Community Relations, building relations with the community is extremely important. Was then, still is now. And so, I had no favorite part. I knew that it took all of that to make me the best law enforcement officer that I could be and that was my ultimate goal. But what, I think, I loved most about the police department was that when people were in trouble, because if they’re picking up the phone calling the police they’re not having a good day. And when people would call, they really believed that when we got there, things were going to get better. And it was that knight in shining armor feeling that I had. And I just loved that.
“It was the best career.”
I can remember a midnight shift with the sirens going and the lights going and we’re trying to get there as fast as we could. That feeling I had in the car, like just hold on, hold on, when I get there things are going to be better. Things are going to be different. When I first joined OPD I said, “I’m going to stay five years at the most, because I’m going to law school.” But it didn’t take long, it certainly didn’t take five years for me to realize that there was something just really special about the feeling that I had responding to calls from people who were in trouble. And I made the decision to stay and I’m glad I did. It was and it still is, and I say this sitting here as a member of the United States House of Representatives which I am honored to serve, it was the best career. It was the best career ever.
How has your 27 years of public service in law enforcement specially prepared you for your Congressional Appointments you have now like the House Judiciary, the Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Committees?
You know as a police officer you get to see people at their worst and you get to see people at their best. And as a police officer you enforce the laws of the land. And I remember people would say, “Well, I don’t think that’s – why are you arresting me for that?” Well we don’t write the laws, we just enforce the laws as law enforcement officers. But when you’ve been in that experience on the front end, to now have an opportunity to write the laws, I think, being a law enforcement officer has given me a whole different perspective. Because I have seen communities at it’s best, communities at it’s worst, and I know the vulnerabilities. I have a much different perspective. And so, the work that I do on Judiciary, for example, is about protecting the Constitution and the proper application of the law. On the Intelligence Committee, making sure that God forbid if our military, if we ever have to go to war, that our military has the information and the resources that they need to win. Because for America losing is not an option. The rest of the world looks to us. So making sure that we have the information that we need so we always win is the work that I do on Intelligence. Understanding as a Law Enforcement Officer, as a Police Chief, my job is to make sure the department, the men and women, have the information, the resources that they needed to win. So we won’t experience a loss of life on either side of the aisle.
“As a lawmaker, I think I am much better at that job because of the law enforcement experience I had at the front end.”
On Homeland Security, it’s all about the safety and security of our nation. We know that after 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security was created so we would never have another attack on our shores like we had during 9/11. I was assigned to the Orlando International Airport during 9/11, so I got to see it from that perspective. And so, being a police officer that rose through the ranks to become the Police Chief, I’ve seen the good, the bad. I’ve seen the strengths and the weaknesses. And so now, as a lawmaker, I think I am much better at that job because of the law enforcement experience I had at the front end.
You mentioned Orlando International Airport, would you tell us about your recent visit because you went to visit the Air Traffic Control Tower, TRACON?
That’s right. You know, I was assigned as I said to the Orlando International Airport as a Captain during 9/11. And you know, the airport police division is kind of like it’s own police department. Because we are out there at the airport. We’re kind of self sufficient. I mean, you’re connected to downtown, but not really, right. All of the resources that we need are at OIA. And so, when I was assigned there it was such a great experience to learn all about aviation security, the role that the FAA plays and how that fits into the bigger picture of security of our nation and our community. And so, I was assigned out there from 1999 to 2003. So it’s been a long time. So to go back, tour, and understand and see how we’ve grown with the new air side that they’re going through completion of that, to my trip to the tower, and the persons, the air traffic controllers who work there and understanding the importance of the job has not changed. It’s still, we know how important the position is, but how we also have to keep up with technology to make sure that they have all of the resources that they need so the traveling public will always remain safe. And so, we learned some of the systems that needed to be upgraded. And so, we have really been pushing in Congress to make sure that we could get these upgrades done. This was in Orlando, so it was a great visit!
And that was a bipartisan approach?
Yeah, yeah it has to be. You know, look as a former law enforcement officer, let me say it this way, a a former Police Chief, I could not tell the political party of the overwhelming majority of men and women that I worked with. We had a mission and we were laser focused on that mission. And that was to keep Orlando a safe city. Of course, 27 years that has been engrained in my head, right. Of course, I took that same spirit and attitude to the United States House of Representatives. So I certainly believe that areas of infrastructure, areas of security, areas of safety, are certainly, even protecting constitutional rights, I think those are areas that should always get strong bipartisan support. And I am going to certainly do my part to make sure that they do.
You were present during a historic time in our nation… you were one of the first women and one of the first Black Americans to prosecute a presidential impeachment before the U.S. Senate. Thankfully, impeachment is fairly rare in U.S. history… do you have any reflections of your role as guardian of the law?
Well, my reflection is, I take it extremely seriously. And, you know, as a law enforcement officer, I took two oaths, one as a Police Officer and one as the Chief of Police that I would protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. Pretty much take the same oath as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. And so, I take that oath very, very seriously. When I was chosen to be one of seven impeachment managers during the presidential impeachment trial, and one of the First Woman to serve in that role, one of the first Black Americans to serve in that role, of course, I took the responsibilities extremely seriously. I am there to represent the interests of the people. Just as I was in that patrol car on midnight shift. Just as I was through every rank at the police department. Just as I do every day in the House of Representatives.
Guardian of the Law
My job is to represent the interests of the American people. And so, I was honored to serve in that role as a guardian of the law. You know, we talk about how great this country is, and our country is great. But that’s not by chance. That is a result of the blood, sweat, and tears of men and women of all races who sacrificed to make this country great.
We have three gifts. Those gifts are the Constitution of the United States, the rule of law, and our precious democracy. And the impeachment trial was then, and God forbid any future impeachment trials are about protecting those three things. And to have the honor of serving in that capacity is something I will never, never forget. And, it’s a tremendous responsibility. But it was also a tremendous burden.
“We’re a Great Nation…”
You know, if there’s anyone who thinks that it was not tough, it was tough, right. But when I look historically in our nation, we’re a great nation because of those tough moments that men and women were willing to step up and not make it about themselves, but about representing the people. And so, I served with an absolutely wonderful team. And you know, I can tell my grandchildren about that moment in American history that I had the honor of being a part of.
And you also get to tell your grandchildren about that you had the honor of proposing and enacting two Congressional laws, right? That was bipartisan as well.
That’s correct. It’s really interesting that people think that there’s nothing going on, there’s nothing going on, whatever. Well, you cannot get a law passed unless you have a Republican and a Democrat sign the law and send to the President’s desk if you will. And so, we introduce legislation all of the time. You know introducing the legislation is just the first part of the process, right. But getting it from that point of introduction to the President’s desk, it takes a while to get there. And so, I have focused a lot of my attention on legislation that would help our police officers. Legislation that would help to keep our communities safe. That’s a really comfortable area if you will for me.
The American Rescue Plan
But then, being a part of bigger legislation like the American Rescue Plan and our bipartisan infrastructure deal, we are already seeing millions of dollars flow into Central Florida, Orlando, and around the state that will help improve our broken highways, roadways, bridges, expand our broadband so that every Florida home will have access. To help restore our Everglades. To help protect our environment. Those things are extremely important. And I’m just honored to have been a part of it.
I am curious because this is local history, did you at the time go to the Windermere Post Office and the Nap Ford Office building?
Yes. Well, what we did, we actually had a ceremony there.
Napoleon “Nap” Ford Post Office Building
You know Nap Ford, of course, was a City Commissioner who I think is just, even though his legacy kind of speaks for itself, I also think he’s one of those unsung heroes as well right, that really helped to change Orlando for the better. And to have an opportunity to name the Kirkman Road Post Office in his honor is a big deal. Because there are a lot of great people who serve. But I think that he deserved that recognition.
Officer Robert German Post Office Building
Of course with Officer Robbie German, look I sit here as a former law enforcement officer and I don’t know if we can thank the men and women in blue enough for the sacrifices that they make. I don’t know if you can thank them enough. And Robbie German lost his life on the side of the rode trying to help two people who were in distress. And so, to meet with both of the families and to honor them in such a special way. We had ceremonies. The families were there. We had community leaders who also joined us. Very special moment, right.
I know your time is limited, I wanted to ask one more question if there is time. Where do you see Orlando in five years?
You know what I think makes this city so special is our ability to come together and work together. You know, you never really know what you have until it’s tested. And I’ve always known Orlando was a great place to live. But, I think about the Pulse nightclub shootings, just tragedy that we will never forget. The Pulse nightclub is in my district and I saw a community come together, lay down our differences, come to every segment of our community, every race, every culture, including the faith based community, everybody, government, private corporations, we all came together to help the survivors, the families, get through a very tragic time.
I think, you know, I was just at the Performing Arts Center a couple of months ago now, I guess, and that is the product of a community, a region coming together not just looking at what’s in front of you, but having the vision for the future, right. And in five years I think Orlando will continue to move forward and upward because we have visionary leaders who have the unique ability to look past what’s in front of them and say, How do we serve the residents, the travelers, the tourists, the businesses that will come to Orlando in the future? I think the sky’s the limit for this community and I am excited! And I would not want to live any other place.
Well thank you for your outstanding service to our community and to our nation. For upholding the rule of law for current and future generations. And we look forward to seeing your next Congressional bill and your accomplishments for the good of our country. Thank you so much for coming today.
Thank you so much. It’s been fun!
Interview: Congresswoman Val Demings
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: April 18, 2022
Place: Orlando Public Library
Interview: Congresswoman Val Demings
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: April 18, 2022
Place: Orlando Public Library