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Oral History Interview with Senator Toni Jennings

Toni Jennings is the Chairman of the Board for Jack Jennings & Sons, an Orlando based commercial construction firm recognized for national industry awards and outstanding projects throughout Central Florida. Senator Toni Jennings, an Orlando native known for her pleasant civility, made history as the first female Lieutenant Governor of Florida. Her in depth knowledge of business proved to be an asset for Florida when Jennings served in the Florida Legislature. As President of the Florida Senate, her visionary leadership established the economic development support for the Florida High Tech Corridor. She excelled in her public service on the Senate Finance & Taxation Committee, Transportation Committee, Governmental Operations Committee, Economic Consumer & Community Affairs Committee. According to They Dared To Dream: Florida Women Who Shaped HistoryJennings set a new precedent by serving two terms as President of the Florida Senate “something no Florida man has achieved.” The book also notes, “Republican Toni Jennings became the first woman to chair the powerful Senate Rules Committee. When she was elected to the House in 1976, Jennings, at age twenty-seven, set a record for the youngest woman in the Florida legislature.” “The Republican majority elected Toni Jennings, and she set another precedent by serving four consecutive years – something that no Florida man has ever achieved. A moderate who worked with Democrats, Jennings proved so popular that she presided until 2000, when term limits required her to retire from her Orlando seat.” Toni Jennings worked as an Orange County Public School teacher prior to her employment with Jack Jennings & Sons. In the Florida legislature she engendered Florida’s first school readiness program: The School Readiness Act and created the License to Learn Florida license plates for educational funding. Toni Jennings, an astute business leader, currently serves on numerous boards.

 

We invite you to listen to a Florida leader in business, education, and public service, Orlando’s Toni Jennings.

 

Listen:  Part I  (18:06)

 

Well, everyone knows me as Toni, but my legal name, the name on the birth certificate is Antoinette. And you’ll never see it anywhere else except on my birth certificate, my drivers license, and now every time I fly on an airplane my ticket has to say Antoinette. But that’s thanks to the circumstances of 9/11 when everything changed and you had to produce that. But everybody else, including every ballot I was ever on, said Toni Jennings. I  was born here in Orlando at, back then it was called Orange Memorial Hospital. It’s now Orlando Health. And I have lived here my entire life.

When did you adopt the name Toni, was that a childhood nickname?

No, it was actually my mother wanted to name me Toni after her very best friend growing up. And the best friend’s name was Antoinette and they called her Toni. And, of course, years later I said to my mother, “Why didn’t you just call me Toni so that’s the only thing that I have? Instead of calling me Antoinette and then they called me Toni.” But I was in that era, having been born in 1949, so that  everyone can now figure out how old I am. Of course, if you’re in politics everybody knows how old you are because that’s like part of your name. 

“Which Twin Has the Toni?”

In the early fifties, gosh, I don’t even remember who the maker of that was, but it was a permanent and it was a home permanent and it was, “Which twin has the Toni?” So Toni was kind of a popular name in the early fifties. Although I’ve only met two or three other Toni’s who were women. You meet a lot more Toni’s who are men. And, of course, when I first started in politics, people thought I was a man. If they only heard my name and didn’t see my picture, they thought I was a man, which was sort of an interesting touch on things.

What did your parents do for a living? I assumed they lived in Orlando.

Yes. They met, neither was from here, my dad was from Tennessee and my mother was from Pennsylvania. Both of their parents interestingly enough moved to Florida. And so, they came to Florida to kind of not be with their parents because they moved after they were certainly away from the home. But to be in the same area with their parents. And they met here in Orlando. My dad was a building contractor. And my mom’s first job, only job, well shall I say only job outside the home, she worked for Southern Bell. She was not an operator. She handled commercial accounts so she traveled around. But daddy was in the building business and our first office was actually the garage of our home which he shared with me because that was also my playroom.

Jack Jennings Sole Proprietor

So we started in home construction and that lasted about five or eight years and then we went into commercial construction in the early mid-fifties and have stayed in commercial construction ever since. So it started out as Jack Jennings sole proprietor. And years later it became Jack Jennings & Sons which we consider a fairly male chauvinist name for a company. But bless his heart, and I was the oldest child, I had twin brothers. My dad was like all good dads. He thought his daughter would grow up and get married and have children and that would be that. Well, bless his heart, he was so wrong. He was so wrong. But he was very proud of me. He died before, well actually I had gone to the Senate. I was in the Senate. I was not Senate President. And was not Lieutenant Governor. And a lot of the things that I’m recognized for and known for he never realized. But he did think his daughter was probably going to be one handful and she was.

So how would you spend your summers? Did you spend your time with your dad in the garage keeping busy?

Well going through years, the good news is about the early fifties he moved out of the garage. And interestingly enough, the office where you sit right now, literally right now, this was his office. But the whole building here is the only office that Jack Jennings and Jack Jennings & Sons has ever had. So when he advanced out of the garage, he bought some property here on Wilford Drive. It was sort of a transitional, residential neighborhood. Because we had a railroad track right behind us which is now a bike path and a walking path part of the trail here. And built the first office which is essentially where you are here. Later it was added on to, upstairs. And we have, what looks like a warehouse next door was an architectural millwork that we owned. So this is the only office we’ve ever had. I digress. 

Camp WEWA

Now, you asked me what I did in the summers. Well, as I was younger, and some people if they’ve been here a long time will remember Camp Wewa which was the YMCA Camp. And I was growing up, I think I went to Camp Wewa as I was nine and ten and eleven. And then, just do what you do in the summer around here. And at my age you could still ride your bikes everywhere. In the neighborhood my girlfriends and I would ride bikes. And we would go, we’d go in the back of Mead Gardens because we lived fairly close to Mead Gardens. And just hang out. Really hang out, in the old day kind of hang out.

Summer School

As I got a little bit older once I was in high school, I actually went to summer school and took things like Americanism versus Communism which was a required course back then. To get it out of the way. Or typing. Because I wasn’t going to take typing when I was in school. But I figured I needed to know how to type. That left me years ago somehow. Back then there were no keys with letters on them so you couldn’t look down. It didn’t matter – there were no keys. That was the typing school which I went to, the old Winter Park. I call it the old Winter Park. It’s now known as the Ninth Grade Center. That’s where I went to high school. But they didn’t do summer school programs. So I went to Edgewater for my summer school programs.

Proctor’s Dress Shop

And then once I got a little bit older, then I worked in college in the summers. And I worked in a place in Winter Park that later became Jacobson’s, the store Jacobson’s. But in the early days it was owned by the Proctor family and it was called Proctor’s. And there was a Proctor’s Casual Shop. And there was a Proctor’s Dress Shop. And they were all on Park Avenue. So that’s kind of what I did with my summers.

Working for My Dad

I did work for my dad several summers. I’d come in, I’d answer the phone when the receptionist and the front office people were on vacation. Or I’d open the mail or do things like that. So I did work here a little bit, but I went other places, too.

Was it exciting for you to work here?

Oh, it was always fun. It was always fun. But I never really thought I would work here which is interesting. Because once I went to college which is like, well, what are you going to major in? And I thought, well, I really need to major in something where I can get a job.

Teaching in Orange County Public Schools

And that’s why I ended up in Education because back then you could always get a teaching job. And I came back and I did teach for two years in Orange County Public Schools. I taught at Kilarney Elementary in Winter Park. I taught the fifth grade.

Learning What’s Required to Be in Business

And it was actually my dad who approached me and said, “You ever thought about coming to work for me?” And I said, “Well, no.” And my brothers were still young and they were still in school. And he said, “I could use the help.” And I said, “Well, if you thought about this earlier maybe I should have, you know, thought about going in engineering or doing something in business to prepare myself.” And he said, “You know what, I’ll teach you what you need to know.” And he actually did.

Business and the Ethics of Business

I started back at the front desk answering the phone and moved through several of the other responsibilities around here. But mostly he taught me about business. I wasn’t estimating the jobs and I wasn’t going out on the job sites to handle construction. But he certainly taught me about business and the ethics of business and what’s required to be in business. And it’s a whole lot more than just knowledge of what you’re doing. It’s all the governmental requirements. It’s all the licensing requirements. It’s all the insurance requirements. It’s all those kind of things.

What It Takes to Keep a Business Running

So as years went on and my brothers who are twins joined the business, their focus has always been on the jobs and building. And mine has always been the operational, internal, administrative functions of what it takes to keep the business running. And all three of us do business development. And so, you know, that’s kind of how I ended up here. And everybody laughs.

President of Jack Jennings & Sons

And I was President, our dad passed away gosh at a very young age for me, because I’m getting pretty close to it. He died at 75 and he had been ill since his late sixties. So he was gone pretty soon. I was with him the longest. And my brothers were just barely 30 when he passed away. And we took over and I had already taken on the responsibilities of being President. When I left here to go back to Tallahassee to be Lieutenant Governor which was 25 years later, I couldn’t still stay as an employee of Jack Jennings & Sons. To be Lieutenant Governor you can’t have another job. So, I didn’t. I resigned. But we all laughed about it. I still owned part of the business. They didn’t want to buy and I didn’t want to sell. So it really didn’t matter.

“I will make myself Chairman of the Board.”

So when I came back, we decided I would not come back as an employee, but I stilled owned stock. So I said, “I will make myself Chairman of the Board.” So that’s how I got to be Chairman of the Board. Because we have an uneven number of stock shares that do not divide by three very well. So my brothers each have – I have one share more than the two of them. So I’m kind of like the majority shareholder. So I elected myself Chairman of the Board. So that’s how I got to be Chairman of the Board. 

That’s fantastic! It sounds like a movie.

It was. People go, “Huh? How’d you get to be Chairman? Did they-” “No, I just made myself Chairman. I had the majority.” But you have to remember, I’m the older sister. So I have been telling my sweet brothers what to do their entire lives. And they listen now about as much as they did when they were five years old. So you know, it’s kind of one of those things. But I’ve been very fortunate, the three of us have worked very well together. We have always worked together. This is the only job they’ve had. And other than teaching and being in politics, it’s the only job I’ve ever had. 

Well, I want to talk about politics. But before that, you did mention business development. So may I ask, because you said that you do business development together. How does that work for you? Do you have certain meetings that you do quarterly? 

When I say business development, it’s mostly if we’re aware of projects that are coming out that sort of fit within our realm of things, we’ll call on the people involved. When I was in politics interestingly enough, I had to be very careful and not kind of involve myself in things. Like we’ve done lots of work out at the University of Central Florida when I was in politics. And we did a lot with Orange County. We built some schools. But again, you have to be careful because, if you’re in the legislature you’re also part of a funding source for a lot of these things. So I had to be very careful about not being involved in actually going after that work. Now most of that work if it wasn’t just competitively bid, it was a request for proposals. And they were evaluated by an independent group. And you were just kind of picked based on your qualifications and things like that.

Project Planning

So, you know, now in today’s world, it’s kind of who you know and what you know and how you find out things. If it helps for me to go with them to meet somebody or if I happen to know somebody, who’s getting ready to build a project or planning a development, then I go and make the introductions and then I get out of the way. But I’ve pretty much passed the torch on. You know once and a while they like me to come to something. Or I’ll go to lunch with the client with them, and meet the client and just talk about the good old days. But I’ve pretty much passed the torch. And my torch is passed, but their torch is going to pass soon because of the Jack Jennings & Sons. My brothers between them have three young boys and all of those young men are in the business now. There’s one daughter, but she’s not in the business. They’re all in the business. And interestingly enough, of one brother’s children all three of them just had boys. I mean just. Like one in June, one in July, and one in August of this year, of 2022. And so, you know, we’re just trying to make sure that Jack Jennings & Sons keeps going.

Well, congratulations!

It’s a fun time. It’s a fun time as you can imagine. 

I did read in an article that you really enjoy family.

Oh, I do. Well, not having children of my own, you know, my brother’s kids were my kids. And I would go to their games. They played soccer for a while. Then they played lacrosse. Oh, my gosh, did they play lacrosse. The perfect game for little boys. They can hit each other with sticks and there are rules. You know, I said this was developed for little boys to do this. I know girls play lacrosse, too. But it just was kind of the thing that all boys love hitting each other with sticks. I would go to their games and I would go to different things. Their grandparents on one side, they still had grandparents. My parents were gone but they had grandparents from the other side of the family. But I would still go to Grandparent’s Day or something like that. I was a little young to be their grandmother. But I tried to be the favorite Aunt Toni. 

I bet you are. You’re the super cool aunt. 

Well it got to be really cool when I was in politics, especially when I was Lieutenant Governor because you have protection. And the Highway Patrol always was with me and drove me around and stuff. So the children were all still pretty little back then. They were really little when I went into office. And they would call it, “Oh, Aunt Toni, can we ride in the car with the woo woo? Woo, woo, woo, woo!” So I will say, from time to time we did turn on the lights and sirens just because. Just because we could.

Listen:  Part II  (22:02)

 

You mentioned the legislature and you were the youngest female to be elected to the Florida Legislature. 

I was back then. I think there have been younger ones since. But I was 26 when I started to run. I was 27 when I was sworn in to office because I had a birthday. And that was in 1976. There have been younger women elected since I was elected. But at that time, I was the youngest that had ever been elected.

1976

And if you think back to what was happening in 1976, we had been through the Nixon Era. The resignation. Gerald Ford being President. Gerald Ford losing to Jimmy Carter. So as a Republican, it wasn’t a good year to run for office. Jimmy Carter won. And a lot of Republicans didn’t win because of that. I was lucky and I did win.

Women in Politics

We always look back on those times. I think that was also the beginning of the growth of women in politics. Because it was interesting that the public – I’m not sure they still feel that way – but the public looked on women as being more honest than men.

An Unelected President

You know, they’d just gone through this upheaval in our country, where a President resigned. And a man became President. A good man. Gerald Ford was a good man and very knowledgeable. But a man who was never elected became President. Because, of course, Nixon’s Vice President resigned and he chose Ford. And here comes Ford and then Nixon resigns. And so, Ford becomes President. And so, we’ve got a President that was never really elected. 

Questioning Politics

So it was an interesting, interesting time, let’s put it that way. It was one of the first times, I guess, maybe it was, because it was when I became so involved, that I think people started to question politics. You know, what’s happening here? Why is this going on? Maybe it happened during Kennedy and Eisenhower and before that. But we were all kind of young back then. People started to question. Jump ahead 50 years later, oh my gosh. You know, talk about questioning.

So did you feel, the impression is that you were this prepared leader. Almost like you came ready packaged for this position.

Oh, yes! At 27 you don’t know anything. But you think you do. You know when you run for office, it’s kind of like you’ve got all these great ideas. And yet, if you look back, what you know at 27 is nothing compared to what you know at 47 or at 67. You know, you look back on those things. But it was an interesting time. I don’t know that I was a prepared leader. I think leadership is something you learn along the way. And you learn it by watching others. But also sometimes by watching others don’t accomplish what they want to accomplish. And you don’t do it that way. You do it a different way. And I think mine has always been – and you have to remember it was partisan politics back then. It still is. And I was a Republican and Orange County was not a Republican county back then. It was a Democratically registered county by lot. So you had to sort of sell yourself and your case to people. That changed. Time went on. But when you’re in the minority party, which I was for a very long time, you also had to find a way to be effective and get things done. And I found that the way you do that is work with people. Sometimes you have to modify your goals to match things that people will accept. 

The Apple 

I always use the example and I did it so many times with brand new Senators. I said, “Now look, I know you want it all. You want everything. But remember, it’s like eating an apple. If you try to eat the whole apple and swallow it, you will choke. If you eat it bite by bite, you will accomplish the same thing and you will still be around to enjoy it.” So, that was my pictorial way of saying, it’s okay to compromise. It’s okay to get a little bit this time and come back and get a little bit more next time or get the rest. You don’t have to get it all.

The Art of Compromise

And I think that’s what’s happened to politics today. I have to win and you have to lose. That’s how everybody looks at it. It’s not I can get a little and you can get a little and we can work on this together. So the art of compromise is just out the window. And it just seems like the parties, and the Republican Party is just as bad, it’s all about well they don’t have any good ideas. We have all the good ideas. Well it doesn’t work that way. And in life it doesn’t work that way. So I’m talking politics, but it’s actually how you deal with people. And in this case, when you think about politics, everybody was sent here by voters in their area. So I didn’t get here – I may have got here with more votes. But it’s, you know, everybody got enough votes to be where they were. So you sort of start on the same plane all over again. It’s a little too philosophical for what we’re talking about here today.

Leadership and Accomplishing What’s Important

But, you know, I think that’s, as you grow in leadership, leadership is about – well, there’s a wonderful saying and it’s attributed to Will Rogers. But it may have been somebody else. And I’m not quoting it specifically, but it’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t worry about who gets the credit. And if you think about life, if you’re going to worry – I want to make sure everybody knows I did this. If you don’t worry about that, you can get so much accomplished because people will help you get to the goal. Get to the final part. Get to where you need to be. Now in politics that hardly ever works because everybody wants credit. They want to take credit for stuff they never did. In life people like to take credit for things they’ve never done. But in the scheme of things, I’ve just found, it doesn’t benefit you much to worry about credit. It benefits you a lot more to see if people will help you accomplish what you think is an important thing to do. So those are my two examples of how I think you should live life. Remember the apple. Don’t eat it all at one time because you’ll choke to death. And if you don’t worry about who gets the credit, you’ll get a lot more done. 

Thank you. 

Those are my two pearls of wisdom. That’s all I got.

Well you did get a lot done. And I read that people in politics on both sides really appreciated your leadership. The citizens, yes, they did obviously, because you were 25 years in the Legislature. But also your colleagues that were seasoned politicians, that were of the opposite party, they appreciated your leadership.

I was very fortunate. And you know, I think that’s the one thing, I have a lot of thoughts about term limits and whether they’re good or bad or whatever. I thought we always had term limits. They’re called elections. And they come around a lot faster than an actual term limit. But again, I am also realistic enough to know that sometimes it’s very hard to get rid of an incumbent. So it’s not really the term limit that you’re thinking. But with term limits, you have such a finite period of time. Eight years. Which sounds like a long time, but it’s not. If I look back, without term limits, I was there a long time. And when I first got there, I thought, golly, these people are so smart. I later learned some of them were smart. But most of us, we’d just been there long enough that we’d seen the same problems. We’d approached it and thought we solved it. And five years later it came back. So we had to work on it again. And we knew what worked and what didn’t work. So we just didn’t. You know, it was sort of one of those things.

Civility

So without term limits, we all got to be friends and that’s what’s changed as well. The partisan politics of it. I don’t know if  anybody in Tallahassee anymore even eats dinner with the opposite party. We would do that all the time. We could oppose each other philosophically, but we didn’t have to be hard to get along with. We could respect the other’s opinion even if we thought they were crazy. You know, you can respect their opinion. And I think that civility is what we’ve lost in so many instances. I mean all you have to do is turn on the television. So, you know, it’s one of those things. And I keep getting off of your questions. You’ve got them and I keep going in these directions. But it’s just being there for the length of time that I was, never thinking in my wildest dreams when I first ran for office that I would be there this long. And remembering that the good news is the Legislature doesn’t pay enough for it to really be your job or you’d starve. So I had a job that I came back to. Every year, every Friday when we were in session – you know, that brought you back down to earth. People might think you were important here. Well, guess what? When I came back home I was just Toni and they needed this and this and by the way, you know, just regular stuff. It was a regular world. But as I said, I digress. You keep asking and I’ll try to stay on task.

You’re doing a fantastic job. And the civility is something that you’re noted for. You’re noted for being pleasant and for being nice. I found it in multiple places in researching you. So it wasn’t one quote from a yearbook… it was colleagues at different levels of government. You’re a business person and you’re nice in business, too, right?

I try to be. You know, we have to thank my mother for that. You know, it’s the old adage, you catch more flies with honey than you do with salt or vinegar, or whatever. It doesn’t cost a dime to be nice. And you can disagree with people and still do it in a nice way. Just, you know, you see people today, they’re not nice. They’re not nice to service people who are trying to help them. They’re not nice to the person in the car next to them. They’re just not nice. I think it’s so sad that you go through life with a chip on your shoulder. Or somebody’s out to get me. Or I’m better than this person. It’s just, I always thought if you smile it makes them wonder what you’re up to.

“You have just been Tonied.”

But there is a story, I don’t know that its ever really shown up, but it was quite the story in Tallahassee. So much so that a bunch of my colleagues actually had little cards printed up. And the cards say, “You have just been Tonied”. It was a term. And they started to talk about it. Because they said, especially when I was Senate President, and they’d come in and they wanted to make sure their bill got here or their bill passed. And they would tell the story and they’d say, “Well, you’d go see her. And you’d go in and you’d have the best conversation. And you’d talk and she’d listen. And she’d make notes. And you’d get up and you’d leave. And you’d realize when you went outside, she didn’t say yes. She didn’t say she was going to do it.” And that’s when they said, “You’ve just been Tonied.”  Which meant, she heard me. She remembered. She’ll look at it. But chances are it won’t happen. Literally, they would have these cards printed up and so somebody would come back out and they’d go, “I just got Tonied.” They would pick up a card and they would take it with them. It was a funny story. And I never realized, well I certainly realized that I was not able to help everybody do everything that they wanted. It didn’t matter which party. It didn’t matter at all. But it was important, that was part of my role, was to listen to them. Was to see if there was a way we could work – back to the apple- do some of it, but not all of it. Maybe we could find some money for this project, but not the whole thing. So we’d have to find some matching money. So that was the story. You’ve been Tonied.

It sounds like you made them feel valued, like that you really did listen.

Oh, and it was important. I was a leader of a 40 member Senate, but everybody there, we all had equal votes. Some of  us had more authority to do things, but we all had an equal vote. That’s what we’re lacking in politics today. I think understanding that everyone needs to be valued. Very much so. And you know maybe in life, too. Look at how people are acting towards each other. And the tragic things, too. We’re just not valuing human life in any form. I’m not going to get onto that subject. But, you know, anything. I mean when children have such mental health issues that they go in and shoot up their schools. What’s happened to us? You know, is are world that much worse than it was during World War II? During Vietnam? I mean, you know, how have we lost track? Now I’m waxing philosophical. We’ll go back to the stuff I can tell you.

Well part of our oral history is about values. So the different generations you mentioned grew up with some different values. They faced great difficulties.

Great difficulties. I mean, you know, during World War II, who’s to know that the Japanese weren’t going to end up on our shores bombing us. That had the Germans prevailed, they wouldn’t be here bombing our country. I mean, there were just all kinds of things, you know.

You mentioned children, and you engendered Florida’s first school readiness program: The School Readiness Act. And you created the License to Learn Florida License plate. And I don’t know if you know that the Library today has a License to Learn campaign every year.

Oh, wonderful! They were always so helpful in the early years when we were doing it. Gosh, I’ve got it, somewhere – Bookmarks! And it was all about the License to Learn. And, of course,  it still, the money goes to the school system. You know, the extra money on your license plate goes to the school system. And I had a plate on my car until about a month ago. And I swapped cars with my brother for some other reason and I now have – the license plate came off of the car because we sold that car. I’ve still got the license plate we just haven’t transferred it to anything else. So I’ve had a License to Learn since it was enacted with the apple. I mean I know that’s a little stereotypical, apple for the teacher. But it was a great campaign and once it was enacted, gosh, back then I think Southern Bell actually put – you know we had telephone books back in the dark ages – the License for Learning on the front of the phone book. (37:22) And I remember now that you say that, that the Library did a whole thing with bookmarks. And they would hand them out. And it’s still going on? Oh, that makes my heart just feel wonderful!

School Readiness Act

But the School Readiness Act was a whole different thing. It was part of a much bigger plan that actually was the outgrowth and a lot of it’s been dismantled now because of the as they called it the Great Recession 2008, 9, and 10. But it was the early years of welfare reform. And our program, and we piloted it here in Florida. And actually we had a Democratic Governor and a Democratic President. Lawton Chiles was Governor and Bill Clinton was President. And we got a federal waiver so that we could use our federal funds to do this.

WAGES

And it was called WAGES: Work And Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency. And WAGES was really focused on, one – getting people jobs, but also saying, that if you’re going to be on public assistance, you have to work for it. And it was time limited. And then the recession happened sometime later and it got very difficult to have, be time limited because there just were no jobs. But as part of this, was also School Readiness which was to change the publicly funded assistance for zero to five into something that wasn’t just babysitting. 

Voluntary Pre-K

You know we had Headstart. Headstart had very good programmatic goals for children. But lots of the public assistance that went was just babysitting. Some better than others. But they didn’t have a criteria. They didn’t have goals. They didn’t have benchmarks that should be met when a child is two or three or four. And that’s where the School Readiness Act really started. And as that grew, then came the impetus for the public initiative for a voluntary Pre-K. That, in fact, yes, we’ve got kindergarten now, for five year olds, but let’s make sure they’re ready for kindergarten. And the voluntary Pre-K at four started right after that. So it was all, it probably all goes back to the fact that I was an elementary school teacher at one point.

Listen:  Part  III (13:22)

 

“My Focus was Always Business.”

But it was interesting during most of my career in the legislature, I did not focus on education. Because when I went to the Legislature, remember there weren’t all that many women, and I was mid-70’s til 90’s. It was too easy for the guys there to want to stereotype you. The women had to do the Education stuff and the Health and Human Services stuff. You know, you’re off there with kids and all that kind of stuff. So my focus was always, Business. Because that’s what I did.

Strategic Leadership

 I wanted to be on Finance and Tax. And I wanted to be on Commerce. And I wanted to be on the committees that dealt with Business issues. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t concerned about Education and Health and Human Services, you know, all the stuff that goes with that. It was just, it was too easy for them to say, put all the women on those committees and the guys will take care of these committees. So it was very strategic on my part. One of the few strategic things I did, to say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” But then when I was in a position of leadership, substantial leadership, I said okay, now’s the time. You’ve got to make sure these things happen and you change the dialogue. It’s not about the free stuff. And there’s so many people out there today that do need help. There are others that take advantage of the help. So, you know, and that will never change. That’s human nature. But, I’m very pleased. It never got quite as far as we wanted it and it regressed a little bit during the tough economic times, but it’s coming back. And I think everybody recognizes that if we start when a child is very young, you build on that. It’s so much cheaper to do it from the beginning than to try to take a high schooler who cannot read and go back. You just, you can’t do it. Plus that child has lost so many years of learning. 

Well, you mentioned those important committees: Finance and Taxation, and there’s Transportation, Economic, Consumer and Community Affairs, to me, all those, all of that is very relevant today. 

Oh, heck, yeah! It all just got worse. More cars, more roads, more this, more that. 

Well can you tell us a little bit about… how does it work? When you’re in the Legislature, and you had to me a very high mark. Because, you know, you were coming in as you just explained as a female. So you’d go to work everyday and then you’d spend your evenings just pouring over all these documents?

Oh, yeah. Well, shall we say, pouring over, it’s an interesting thing. One of  the things that Dan Webster and I, Dan who is also from here. His district changed so much. My gosh, now he’s the Congressman and he’s halfway across the state. But he was right here with us. His office was on Old Winter Garden Road, his air conditioning office. He was Speaker and I was President and we were the first Republican Speaker and President since Reconstruction. I mean, we were the first. The Senate had had a Republican President, but the house had not had a Republican Speaker. And so, Dan and I, it just happened, we were there together; we also were in the same delegation. We’d known each other. We were in the same business. We were in the construction business. We had so many similarities that as we moved forward, we would try to approach things from the vantage point of how does this make Florida a better place to do business? And a better education makes us a better place to do business, but you have to have the right opportunities. And sometimes, it’s having the right road system to get from here to there. Or to have the right infrastructure that you can build new communities and do those kind of things. It was just a different approach, I think, as we started out. 

Well, your approach worked… Paul Sohl in the Inside the Florida High Tech Corridor said, “Among the many individuals we have to thank for establishing The Corridor’s unique approach to economic development, Toni Jennings and Daniel Webster top the list. More than 25 years ago, they led the charge as President of the Florida Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives in taking a bold and disruptive ‘smart risk’ on high tech development. They were instrumental in garnering support for recurring funds to launch our signature Matching Grants Research Program. It’s from that act that The Corridor was born.” He goes on to say, “Their courage to engage in boundary-breaking collaboration without precedence inspires the spirit of innovation with which we press forward to build upon The Corridor’s legacy of 25 years.”

You know isn’t that interesting because it wasn’t our idea. It was their idea. I mean, literally several people from UCF came to us and they had been talking to people at USF. And they said you know if we could combine the brain power of back then, The Corridor came from the I-4 Corridor. It literally was the I-4 Corridor. Along that Corridor, anchored by the two universities and then, of course, from the eastern side what’s in Melbourne, FIT. Anyway, we had another one come into the thing, but it was essentially UCF and USF. And we were using the I-4 Corridor to be the development arm. And instead of the universities – they were still doing it – but instead of them all competing, back to my, “I want this.” “You can’t have it.” “I want it all.” You know, sort of thing.

“Let’s do a collaboration.”

We were the first to say, “Let’s do a collaboration.” And we can maximize our dollars because we’ll have the Central Florida Delegation and the Delegation from the Tampa Bay area will combine to help us get these things passed and get the appropriations together. And when we all work together, again it’s a collaboration. But Dan and I would have love to have taken credit for the brainchild. No, no, no, they came to us and they said, “What do you think if we tried something like this. Do you think it could work?”

“It is still working today.”

What the interesting thing is, is that it is still working today. That’s the amazing thing. When you talk about things that happen legislatively, invariably something comes along and somebody pulls out, and something goes haywire and they’re not there. But the I-4 Corridor, well I call it the I-4 Corridor, it’s called something else today, but that Corridor, for economic development, for research, for business expansion in Florida is still active and has gone nowhere but up since its origination. So Dan and I take credit, but it wasn’t our idea. We helped them implement let’s put it that way. We made sure that they had all the tools that they needed to do what they did best which was good.

How wonderful that you clarified that. It shows great humility.

Well, see it goes back to it’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t worry about who gets the credit. It was so nice of him to give us credit. And it was. It was something we helped facilitate because they couldn’t have done it without us. But I wish I had such good ideas. Gosh, most of the time when you have really effective legislation, it comes out of a need for something. Sometimes it’s a knee-jerk reaction to something and I’ll give you an example. And it’s something that I’m very proud of.

The Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute

At the University of Central Florida there is now well I’m not proud, I am proud they named it after me. It’s a program and it’s called: The Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute. But how it  all started, I had a friend who had a child with autism. And the closest place they could go for help and for guidance and for all the things that were necessary was either Miami or Gainesville. And I said, that doesn’t make sense. We have a university right here. And they were called CARD Centers… [Center for Autism and Related Disorders] And I said, you know, why isn’t there something in Central Florida? And there wasn’t on the west coast either. I mean, Tampa didn’t have anything. If you’re talking about  Central Florida coming all the way across, everybody either had to go to Gainesville to the University of Florida or to Miami. And, I thought, that’s just not right.

Exceptional Children and Teacher Preparation

So we got a small appropriations to start and one thing led to another and it was a natural outgrowth out of the Teaching Academy which is the School of Education over at the University of Central Florida. And for the center that started really with a focus on autism, but it became a focus on all exceptionalities for children. And, for preparing teachers to deal with those children. And to be able to help those children progress in their educational situations. So it grew out of a need that we hear about. And you think, gosh why not? So sometimes the best things like The Corridor, like the Institute at the University of Central Florida, it’s a response to a need. And I’m proud of those things. And I always say, they say, “Oh, it’s a building.” No, no, no. The name is on there, but it’s a program not a building. Because I’m not about naming things after people who are still alive. You have to be gone.

Senator Malcolm Beard

And in the old days we had a Senator for the longest time when, you know, there were always these namings. They’d name roads. They’d name buildings. They’d name all this stuff for people who were still alive. And his name was Malcolm Beard and he was from the Tampa area and he had formerly been a Sherriff. And just a great guy. And he’d stand up and he’d say, “Okay, you know this guy. This guy. (He’d always call them a guy.) This guy is still alive. He has plenty of time to mess up. And then you’ll be sorry you put his name on that building.” Later we find out that even when you name them and they’re gone, sometimes they did things that we don’t find out about until later. But, you know, that was always the story. So I thought, I don’t want my name on a building. But when they said, “We’d like to name the program after you.” I said, “That is, that’s very special to me.”

Listen:  Part IV  (22:58)

 

And you also, speaking about children, you have been serving 14 years on the Nemours Foundation Board of Directors in Central Florida.

I did. I’m no longer on it. And I’m no longer on it because when I was the Nominating and Governance Chair of the Committee of the Board, I said, “You’ve got to have term limits.” Remember when I talked about term limits? But when you have no term limits on a board, you get a whole lot of people who have been there a long time. And I said, “You know, I think it’s important, you need fresh ideas and you need turnover.” And at that point, 14 years, there were a few new people, but most of them had been there longer than I had. So, I created term limits and then I term limited myself off. 

“Nemours offered our community a children’s hospital that nobody had to pay for.”

But Nemours is a fabulous opportunity. It’s an interesting scenario because Nemours offered our community a children’s hospital that nobody had to pay for. They paid for the entire thing. Now do they get reimbursement? Yes, they get third party reimbursement like everybody else. But when they first came to the community, Orlando Health and Advent were not very receptive. And not only not receptive, I mean, they really didn’t want us here. And what I never understood because I was always very supportive of both our other big hospital operations. Very supportive of them. What I didn’t understand was, don’t we have enough sick children to go around? And I think I’ve been proven, that yes. Time has made the situation better.

Alfred I. du Pont

Nemours is a specialty hospital unit for very sick children. And you’ve got Winnie Palmer still at Orlando Health and you have the Disney Pavilion at Advent. And I never quite understood that. But the Nemours organization is a wonderful gift from a man who determined that he was going to make Florida his home. And that was Alfred I. du Pont, who was part of the du Ponts of Delaware. [He] Came to Florida built a home in Jacksonville, developed East Coast Railway, Florida National Bank, St. Joe Paper, probably a couple more things that I’m forgetting at the moment. But was a huge benefactor to Florida. And fortunately, when he passed away, his will and everything that was in Florida, was adjudicated in Florida, and when Delaware continues to sue and want more money from the Nemours Foundation, it’s always adjudicated in a Florida court that says, wait a minute, the will says, this is where we are going to spending things. And part of the trust money goes to Delaware and it takes care of children and older people in Delaware, too.

“Nemours is a gift to our state.”

But Nemours is a gift to our state from one man who made a whole lot of money and was a huge business person here in our state. But, at the same time, knew that it was important to take care of children. And the original part of the trust interestingly enough speaks to caring for crippled children. So those were in the years when polio, you know, those that would have – that’s why orthopedics was always its first and primary focus. And then it grew from that. So we still have a Nemours operations in Jacksonville where the headquarters is. And they operate, Wolfson is its own hospital. But all the doctors are Nemours doctors at Wolfson’s Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville. And then we have the Nemours Hospital here. And then we have the clinics that are all over both Jacksonville and Orlando. 

Was it so meaningful for you to serve on their Board?

It really was. It was. And I’m sure anyone who serves on a hospital board thinks that of their hospital as well. Because say what you may about health care today, healthcare generally is doing wonderful things for people who would not be here, but for the research and the care. 

And it’s very inspiring to see the future of medicine happening here in Central Florida, the Medical City.

Oh, isn’t it? Yes. And you know when you think about it, of course, there was a lot of hullabaloo about where Nemours was going to put their hospital. And it was going to go some place else first. And then we ran into some other issues. But for it to end up at what became Medical City. When Nemours was first looking at that land and remember they bought the land. They didn’t get any free land. They bought the land from Tavistock and the development area out there. And then, here comes University of Central Florida’s Medical School and now they build a hospital. And then you’ve got University of Florida and they’ve got a pharmacy. And you know, back then Burnham, Sanford Burnham was out there as well, sited their operation out there. Medical City is going to continue to grow and spin off. We call it the detonator effect. Where you’ve got several large operations that spawn off others that either serve them or their research for them or whatever. And then along the way here’s the U.S.T.A. siting their tennis facility there. You know it’s just amazing.

And there will be a Library there as well.

Good! That is important. That is important. And, of course, libraries don’t look like they used to. But I still read books that are books. I do read out of my Kindle, but I read books that are books. And I read newspapers that I have to hold in my hand. I guess you just say I’m old.

Well, studies show internationally most people still prefer a book, of all ages. 

The print has to be bigger than it used to. But it’s wonderful. You know, remember when we went through that phase and now call it Media Centers. But they were, it was a mixed media. It wasn’t all about the written word anymore in the form that we always knew it. It was the written word in many forms. And it’s wonderful. I think libraries an important part of everything we do.

Thank you for saying that. 

I don’t think we touched on something that, as this is a history interview and you are known as being Florida’s first female Lieutenant Governor. And, I understand, I read and this is absolutely clear, that you’re a business person first and when you serve in the Legislature you’re a public servant first; which is admirable and I think people want that and they respect that. You know, they respond to that as the voters have. At the same time I hope you’ll accept this question in the vein of history and of also going forward. So, there is a disparity of women at top levels in the Legislature.

Oh, yeah. Everywhere. In business. Everywhere.

So do you think that it’s a matter of time or are there just so many different reasons and variables that it’s too much to even respond to? Because you were successful. And I understand that you’re going to visit Tallahassee for the swearing of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo.

Oh, I am, yes. And it will have been 20 years since their was a woman Senate President and the last one was me. And I know Kathleen. I don’t know her really well, but I know her and we’ve chatted. She’s asked me questions about things and I’ve tried to give her some insight. And this sounds very proprietary but I said, “My Senate is different from your Senate.” The members are different. The time we’ve had together are different. But just generally and I’ve sort of told her my things about bringing in the other party and having them as part of this. How things work and all that kind of stuff. You know I’ve never quite figured out why there aren’t more women in politics. Today, I’m not sure why anybody would want to be in politics at all, male or female. It doesn’t really matter.

A Woman’s Place is in the House and the Senate.

And maybe we could go back to the old stereotypical especially if a women is in a situation where she has children and feels like she is the primary caregiver even though she’s got a husband. It’s just the whole thing of – we’re nodding our heads here – but it’s kind of that, a woman’s place is in the house. We always said, “It was in the House and Senate, a woman’s kind of place.” And it’s just old news about all of that. Now whether as they move forward, it’s I think still tough. And you look at politics as just a microcosm for other things. I sit on a board of some public companies. And within those public companies, the leadership, the hierarchy of the executive branches of those companies, there are a few women scattered here and there.

Companies with Foresight

Now these are both companies that have foresight and they are working hard to make sure that women have opportunities. And not just women. That women and minorities have opportunities to be exposed and to able to lead. And to be operational managers of things so that they’re ready to move up to that. But it’s, you know, it’s 2022. This isn’t 1922. And there are days that I sort of shake my head and think we act like it is. And then you turn around, and we understand, you know,  there are more women than men pretty much on this planet. And especially in the U.S. and so we need to be cognizant of that. Do I have a solution? If I had a solution I would bottle it and I’d make a lot of money. But I do not have a solution for that. I’m just thankful for those women who will – I’m thankful for all those who go the extra mile and move ahead. And I try to be supportive.

Yes, and I read that people refer to you as a great leader in the Senate, Lieutenant Governor, not as a woman, but as a great leader period. So you set the mark and you accomplished it. 

And I tried to do that. Remember I told you when I first ran for office they thought I was a man. So you never know. After a while they realized Toni was a woman. But, I may have gotten a few votes in the very beginning where people thought I was a guy. Who knows, you know. It was one of those things. I wanted to be good and effective and the right kind of public servant. I didn’t want to be a woman legislator. I wanted to be a good legislator. Sort of like, I don’t want to be a woman in business, I just want to be a good business person. 

And that’s what you accomplished.

Thank you.

So, I wanted to ask, I know we did talk about business. We talked a little bit about business development… and you just mentioned that you are on a number of company boards. I’m sure you know Central Florida is a success area for entrepreneurs coming into this area thanks to a lot of the work that we’ve talked about making it a friendly place to do business. So do have advice for people who are entrepreneurs or people in family business? Because they still need to face challenges.

Oh, my gosh, yes. And we didn’t even get into the family business part. I mean working in a family business is totally different, you know. And I’ve always thought and I think my brothers will say the same things. Now whether my nephews as they come along will say the same thing or not it will be interesting to see. But you have the opportunity to work with people that you know well. You know them very well. The other side of it is, and my mother used to say this all the time when we would have holiday things and everybody would be there. And we’d end up talking business and she said, “This is family time. You’re supposed to leave that at the office.”

But advice, oh my gosh. Today’s world, it’s not easy to be in business. I keep going back to government. Government can make it pretty hard to be in business with all of it’s rules and regulations and things you have to do. And all those kinds of things. It’s hard to be an entrepreneur. You’ve got a great idea. You’ve got a product or a service. And how do you get that out there? How do others know? The Internet and social media has sort of changed marketing. Probably for the better. But there is parts of it that you sometimes wonder maybe its not as good. Because I think we still have a whole lot of people who believe anything they see. I used to say I believed everything I read in the newspaper until they started to write about me. And then I wondered, you know.

Today, if you think about how people get their news. How they get their information. How they market. It’s just a whole different world. So do I have any, no I don’t have any good advice. You know what I have. I have sage wisdom from lots of years of set your goals, work hard at them. Be honest. Be trustworthy. Say what you’re going to do and do what you say. And you know what? If a handshake isn’t good enough, then all the paper and signed documents in the world – if you’re not doing business with somebody who has integrity – all the paper in the world with signatures on it isn’t going to help you. So, let’s go back to being those kind of people. Maybe I’m looking for a place that doesn’t exist anymore. But I think they’re still out there and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of them. 

Thank you. And I have to say I did look at your website and it is very inspiring to see the projects that your company has accomplished. 

We’ve been very fortunate. And next year will be our, well technically we’re not really sure exactly when our year starts but we know when our fiscal year starts. But we know when our dad started in business. We know it was ’48.  So next year is our 75th year in business. And, you know, that’s an accomplishment. So as I said, sometimes you’re good and sometimes you’re just lucky. And to be here for 75 years, you’ve had a little bit of both to get through all that. 

Well, congratulations on all your hard work and what you have given back to our community.

Thank you. Well, it’s given us a lot more than we’ve given back. You know it’s given us opportunities. It’s given us a great place to grow up. A great place to have a business. A great place to raise children. You know, that’s why we’re all still here. And our families are all still here. You know, all the children are still here. So, you know, everyone loves Florida. Now after all this, they’re coming to Florida in droves. Well, we were lucky enough to always live here. And we recognize that it’s a great place to be.

Is there anything that, you’ve been so kind to talk to me about the topics I have.

Well, I said when we shared some preliminary information, I said this sounds like this is not an interview, this is like a mini-series, you know. It’s going to take a very driven person to listen to all of this. So put these in nice little segments. So they can take me ten minutes at a time you know before they have to listen to all this. But it’s, you know, I have been very fortunate. I have had opportunities. I think I’ve worked hard. But I’ve also been given opportunities. And hopefully I’ve made the most of them and tried to give back.

Civic Rent

Because there is, someone in our community years ago and he termed it, Civic Rent. And it’s what you give back to the community. It’s what you pay back for the opportunities that your community, your homes, your schools, the people that you know have given you. So if we all thought in terms of paying our Civic Rent in whatever way. You don’t have to run for office. You can volunteer. You can do it in some other way. This would be a better place. But you know what? It’s a pretty darn good place anyway as we have it. So I’m just lucky to be here and I hope those who listen to this our fortunate enough to live in Central Florida and will learn all about the history of our wonderful community. Because it’s a fascinating place. 

Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today. It was a great joy to speak with you. And thank you for all that you have accomplished for our state. But also because the things that you have accomplished transcend you know like we talked about the Tech Corridor, things like that, transcend our area. It’s of international importance.

It goes other places. But remember, nobody does it by themselves. So it’s better to work together to accomplish goals than to do it independently.

Thank you for the legacy of your family to our community and the values, there is the business that inspires buildings. But the values are a gift that the generations have passed on.

Well, you know, it is fun to drive Central Florida and look at a tangible result of something. You can say, “Oh, these buildings out at UCF. Oh, we did that. Or this downtown. We did that. Or, the Winter Park City Hall, way, much older. Oh we built that. We built this and that.” My gosh, we’ve been around so long we tore down things that we built and built new stuff on top of them. So it’s very gratifying to us. Other people are in different businesses so it’s not quite so tangible. We have things we can point to and say, “Well, we built that building and we built this building. And we did this over here which is lots of fun.” 

Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Well, thank you. This has been wonderful. 

 

Interview:  Senator Toni Jennings

Interviewer:  Jane Tracy

Date: August 22, 2022

Place:  Jack Jennings & Sons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Senator Toni Jennings

Toni Jennings is the Chairman of the Board for Jack Jennings & Sons, an Orlando based commercial construction firm recognized for national...

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Oral History Interview with Senator Toni Jennings Part I of IV

Interview:  Senator Toni Jennings

Interviewer:  Jane Tracy

Date: August 22, 2022

Place:  Jack Jennings & Sons




Oral History Interview with Senator Toni Jennings Part II of IV

Interview:  Senator Toni Jennings

Interviewer:  Jane Tracy

Date: August 22, 2022

Place:  Jack Jennings & Sons




Oral History Interview with Senator Toni Jennings Part III of IV

Interview:  Senator Toni Jennings

Interviewer:  Jane Tracy

Date: August 22, 2022

Place:  Jack Jennings & Sons




Oral History Interview with Senator Toni Jennings Part IV of IV

Interview:  Senator Toni Jennings

Interviewer:  Jane Tracy

Date: August 22, 2022

Place:  Jack Jennings & Sons




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