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Oral History Interview with The Honorable Linda Chapin, Part I of II

The Honorable Linda Chapin served as the first elected Mayor of Orange County, Florida, from 1990-1998. Her accomplishments in public office include the construction of the nation’s second-largest convention center, a new Orange County Courthouse, the Orange County Regional History Center, fifteen new parks and recreational trails, and the purchase of over twelve thousand acres of environmentally sensitive lands. In 1999 Ms. Chapin was named Distinguished Alumni of the Year by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 2001 she founded the University of Central Florida Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies. She is the first woman honored with the James B. Greene Economic Development Award from the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission which she received in 2004. Ms. Chapin was the first woman and the first layperson appointed to the Judicial Nominating Commission. Linda W. Chapin is the recipient of the 2008 Women Who Mean Business Legacy Award. The Honorable Chapin served as Orange County Commissioner prior to serving as Orange County Mayor and served two terms as Chairman of the Board for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. Ms. Chapin also served as the Chairman and Director of Orlando Regional Healthcare Board. The Honorable Linda Chapin currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts as well as numerous civic and community boards.

LISTEN  Part I  of V (19:59)


My name is Linda Chapin, I was born in 1941 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Where did you grow up?

Well, that’s always a hard question to answer because I grew up sort of all over the place. I lived in Jacksonville during the war with my grandparents, my mother and I did. But after, dad came back to join Chrysler Corporation and then began to climb the corporate ladder, and so we would move almost every year. Because he would get a promotion to another area or a bigger job. And so, we moved from Jacksonville to Boston to Little Rock to Mississippi to Chicago to all over the place. I went to 14 schools in 12 years. We wound up in Detroit which is where all good automobile people wind up. I went to Michigan State to college, but then wound up back here in Orlando, FL which is another story.

Did you know your grandparents?

The reason I love Orlando so much is because, as I mentioned, having moved around every single year, the one sort of stable place in my life was my grandparents home on Lake Conway. And I would come for Christmas vacations and for summer vacations and that was the one place that stayed constant in my life. And for the last 30 years or so my husband and I have lived in that house and raised our children there. It’s an old farmhouse on the lake in the middle of what used to be orange groves, but it’s very dear to us. It has its leaks and its creaks, but it’s five generations for us. That’s kind of unusual in Florida where people are so often newcomers.

Do you remember what it was like when you used to come and visit?

Oh, my goodness! I have such vivid recollections of Orlando in the forties and the fifties. In fact, I often talk about the fact that now we are one of the dining capitals of the south with all these incredible restaurants. And when I was young there were three. There was the restaurant at the airbase which was then the old airport. There was Morrison’s Cafeteria downtown. And, there was the Parliament House which was a regular restaurant over on the Orange Blossom Trail as I recall…. And so, a very special day for me as a 12 year old would have been I would take the bus from Pine Castle and have lunch at Morrison’s Cafeteria with a friend. We would go to the Beacham Theater for a movie. And then we would walk all the way down to where Simpson Motors was which was my grandfather’s automobile dealership. He was a Desoto Plymouth dealer and his dealership was right where the hotel at the end of Orange Avenue overlooks Lake Ivanhoe. So that was a pretty long walk. But then we’d get a ride home so that would always be a special day. Orlando was a wonderful small town like many others in the south.

What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?

Well, depending on where we were I expect we went to church. I was raised in the Episcopal Church as was Glenda [Hood] by the way. So, you know, it would be different at almost any time and any place and any age. In Michigan, when we lived in Michigan I have wonderful recollections of Sunday afternoon drives through the countryside looking for apple orchards and cider mills. And those beautiful days seem vivid in my mind, although how many autumns were there in my life then? Not that many living in Detroit. But I have very fond memories. In Little Rock we made wonderful friends and had a great neighborhood and my parents would- there’d be a big pot luck on Sunday afternoons and everybody in the neighborhood would bring something. The afternoon would progress and the sun would go down and we’d chase fireflies and put them in jars. And I’ve always been sorry that my kids growing up in Florida for some reason never had fireflies. I’m not sure why that is. So I have many happy memories, but they’re all sort of different depending on how old I was and where we were living at the time.

You said that you attended Michigan State, may I ask what you got your degree in?

Yes. Michigan State was a natural place for me to go to school not only because we were living in Detroit by then, but because I was fourth generation Michigan State. All of my family roots are in Michigan and my grandfather and my great grandfather went to Michigan State to school. So even though a number of my friends from high school went off to the University of Michigan, I was drawn to East Lansing and I majored in journalism and political science which sort of was the basis of all the interests that I developed in my college years, those that stayed with me forever. And not just because of my choice of studies, but because this was the sixties and there was an awful lot going on in the sixties particularly at both campuses in Michigan. The students for a democratic society was born down the road in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. At Michigan State there was a lot of civil rights activities going on and there was also, even in the early sixties, the beginning of an anti-Vietnam War Movement. The reason for that was that the ruler of Vietnam, Diem, had studied at Michigan State. He got a master’s degree at Michigan State and when he went back to Vietnam he took an awful lot of our faculty and police administration people with him. There was a natural clash between the political science department and the other departments that were assisting in Vietnam. It was a very interesting time and that activism stayed with me for a long time.

You also, from what you have described, had the idealism of growing up in this country with your family…

Anyone who grew up middle class in America with parents who valued education in the fifties and beyond, I mean, we were incredibly fortunate. And, it’s always interesting to me that later the generations clash over certain ideas and ideals. And yet, I think, my generation cared just as deeply about our country and wanted our country to live up to it’s own standards. And whether it was civil rights, whether it was the war years, it was just that everybody had different ideas about how that ought to be accomplished. Fortunately, my parents, while they were staunch Michigan Republicans, were very open minded and very supportive of letting me take my own path.

March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King

When I went to the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, they were very supportive. They thought that was certainly a good idea. So those were turbulent times, but such interesting times. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. And I think those growing up years were very, very formative for me.

Were there other activities at school that you volunteered for?

There was a very active group of students at Michigan State. We sort of thought of ourselves as being on the front lines of protest. And, it was a very diverse group. I met a lot of people who helped found ideas and such for me.

When I was a senior at Michigan State… “

But then something happened that also shifted the direction of my life. When I was a senior at Michigan State, my father was killed in an airplane crash. He was a general sales manager for Dodge, and he was flying from Chicago to LA, and it was the first time somebody put a bomb on a plane. And the plane went down over Missouri and everyone on board was killed.

Coming to Orlando…

That then led to my mother, who was then a young widow at 40, decided to move to Orlando to be close to her parents, her family. I went off to New York after I graduated, to work at the World’s Fair in 1964. And that’s where I met my husband who was also working at the New York World’s Fair. And he was a New York City boy when we met and dated and got engaged to the tune of a Beatle’s song as I recall. And we talked about getting married. My sort of bottom line was, that was a wonderful idea and we would have to live in a place called Orlando, FL. Which I think he had heard of, but not much. And that’s sort of how we came. Bruce went to law school. Those were in the days when men went to law school, women worked to put them through law school. And so we lived for a while in Clearwater because Bruce went to Stetson Law School over in Clearwater and then moved right to Orlando. And that began a whole new phase with small children. Andrew was born when we were in law school. The twins came shortly after. And then, a fourth, Roger…

League of Women’s Voters

One of my mother’s friends gave me, as a housewarming present in Orlando, a membership in the League of Women Voters. And so, that’s how I began sort of the volunteer phase of my life. And you probably have heard this from others, certainly from Glenda [Hood]. Because volunteering and being involved in nonprofit and civic organizations is how women got our training experience in those days for whatever came later. Whether it was going back to work or running for public office as Glenda did. I was president of the League of Women Voters and then President of the Junior League and one day Blaine Culpepper who was the President of Winter Park Federal called me up and said, “I have an opening for a branch manager in a new branch in downtown Orlando. Would you consider that job?” And I said, “Sure.” And so, that began the next phase of my life.


But volunteerism was very, very important in those days because there were outstanding national and local organizations that thought it was critical that women get good training in leadership. And I know others who feel just as strongly as I do that a lot of the skills that I picked up through the League of Women Voters which was: the ability to look at issues carefully, to look at all sides of an issue, to be very objective about issues, that skill came from the League of Women Voters. As President of the Junior League, you learn to bring people together, to reach out to other organizations, to work with government entities to build and improve a community. And so, all of those skills translate perfectly then into public service later….

Supportive Female Friends

I have a wonderful group of friends who are very supportive of each other. A lot of that same group of friends like Glenda [Hood] like Toni Jennings, like Jane Healy, like Carolyn Fennell, supported each other and helped us climb ladders. But, one thing I have felt very strongly about during much of my career is to let younger women know there is no such thing as superwoman. And any one of the women that I’m looking at in this picture would tell you some story about how they screwed up; they failed at an assignment. I can remember very well when I was on the board with the Junior League, Cindy MacKinnon, who later became a judge, after being president of the Junior League, Cindy went to law school at Florida and then became a highly esteemed judge. And I was on her board and I can remember her saying, “You will know that you have really come intro your own when you can look at something and say, “Boy, I really screwed that up.”

Orlando Magazine, September 1995. The Honorable Linda Chapin is pictured in the center of the front row.

“Anyone who thinks right, works hard, and has a servant heart can accomplish wonderful things.”

Well, I was stunned at the time, both by the idea itself and by the fact that she would say, “screwed up” at a Junior League meeting. But I’ve remembered that ever since and it’s become an important part of my message to younger women. In fact, last week I was the moderator at a panel at a women’s conference out somewhere and a very nice member of the audience took the occasion to offer some very sweet and heartfelt praises of me. And I said, “I am so grateful for your kind remarks, but it is always important to tell people that there are bumps along the way… because you can’t let other women think that there’s some kind of impossible standard that they can’t meet. Anyone who thinks right, works hard, has a servant heart can accomplish wonderful things. But there are going to be bumps in the road and we need to share them.

LISTEN Part II  (19:47)


You served as Chair of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority…

Now there’s a story, too. I hope you don’t mind personal stories. Well, one thing that’s important for me to acknowledge always is that as a woman, there are many women who have had to struggle to overcome obstacles. I’m sure I had a few along the way. But, I was also in the right place at the right time. And in the early 70’s when Reuben Askew and Bob Graham were governors of Florida, they were progressive thinkers and they looked around and they said, “You know, we really ought to get women involved in some of these important assignments.”

“Reuben Askew appointed me as the First Woman and the First Layperson in the Judicial Nominating Commission…”

And so, oh, this is almost embarrassing, and so, Reuben Askew appointed me as the first woman and the first layperson in the Judicial Nominating Commission which interviews lawyers for vacant spots in judgeships. And I was so happy to do that and be the only woman. And they would have these evening meetings four or five nights in a row and, Jane, I would fix fried chicken and potato salad and chocolate chip cookies. I would take dinner every night. Well, no wonder they made me chairman. I mean, let the chocolate chip cookies keep coming. But you can see how even women who thought of ourselves as trailblazers often still thought we had a role to fill. So I fixed supper and took it with me.

“Bob Graham appointed me to the aviation authority…”

And then when Bob Graham appointed me to the aviation authority, there were these very august elder statesmen, six of them, including the Mayor of Orlando, who sat on the board who were very welcoming and happy to have me, but had no idea what to do with me.

“They elected me chairman of the board a couple of years later and I served two terms as Chairman of the Board of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.”

So we were building the new international airport and they asked me to chair the art collection, to oversee the décor, and to plan the opening party which I was most happy to do. I think it’s always important to tackle whatever assignments you’re given, but I was more pleased when they elected me chairman of the board a couple of years later and I served two terms as Chairman of the Board of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

And you’re now on a committee for the airport 1.1 billion dollar expansion, right?

You know it’s funny I can’t seem to stay away from the airport. That was my first major civic assignment, big deal assignment at the aviation authority. And then I went on to be a county commissioner and served again as a county commissioner on the aviation authority. And then I was Orange County Mayor and served again. And now Bill Frederick and I have been asked to come back and sort of be consultants on the expansion of the airport. In all I have spent about 40 years of my life being involved with what I think is the greatest economic engine the community has. The airport has meant everything to Central Florida right along with Disney. So I’ve always enjoyed that service and was thrilled week before last to go out and get a tour of the new south terminal which is under construction… it’s a fabulous airport and all primarily due to the incredible vision of a man named John Wyckoff who was the planner, builder, first administrator, and who was the one who said, “We need to buy lots of land because we’ll want to expand one day”. And who said, “I want every arriving passenger to instantly have the Florida experience…”

Project 2000

I was working as a banker. I was working for Winter Park Federal and Jacob Stuart, who was the new president of The Orlando Chamber, asked if my boss would let me take a sabbatical year and head something called Project 2000 which was essentially bringing people together to say what do we want to be when we grow up. What do we want Orlando to be like in the year 2000? This was 1985. Most of us thought the year 2000 would never really come. It did. But we had incredible people that year working on a lot of different issues. Glenda [Hood] was there, Roger Nicewender was there, so many people that have gone on to be stars some way in this community were part of that. And I was the executive director.

“I ran for the county commissioner and was elected in 1986.”

We dreamed about one day we should have a professional sports team. We said one day we should have a children’s hospital. We said a few things that still haven’t come true. One of them was a regional transportation authority that would take care of all modes of transportation at once. We don’t have that yet, getting closer. And so, that year taught me so much about my local community and its needs and its resources and its future. And suddenly, there was an open seat on the county commission and it seemed just natural to run for it. So I did. All the people that had been involved in Project 2000 supported me and helped me. Glenda [Hood] was one of them. She was planning to run for the City Council. And suddenly there was an open seat on the county commission and it seemed just natural to run for it. All the people that had been involved in Project 2000 supported me and helped me. Glenda [Hood] was one of them. She was planning to run for the City Council. And so, I ran for the county commissioner and was elected in 1986.

Orange County Attorney Tom Wilkes

The League of Women Voters had been for some time talking about a local charter for Orange County, home rule charter. That was accomplished actually before I got there. But then the Charter Review Commission began talking about some alternative forms of government and it had a lot to do – you should talk to Tom Wilkes some time because he was always the lawyer who was involved in these things. He was my county attorney, but before that he was the head of the Charter Review Commission. He worked with Charlie Gray when they were county attorneys. He is the expert on Orange County government and how it evolved.

Charter Review Commission

So there was a Charter Review Commission that needed to talk about diversity. We had a very historical form of a county commission. What it amounted to in those days was five conservative, rural, Republican white guys. And another person, who is an important part of this era is state representative Alzo Reddick. Representative Reddick said, “It’s not right that we have a whole population of people of color in this community who are not represented in government. And he said, “This has to change. And if I have to bring a lawsuit to do it then that’s how it will be.”

“We changed to what is essentially a municipal form of government with people elected from districts…”

The Charter Review Commission said, “You know there’s a lot to be said for representation of everyone. And so, let’s talk about single member districts”. And you divide up the county pies and instead of electing the commissions countywide, you elect them from special districts, from geographic districts. And then there were others who said, “Well, that’s a good idea, but it kind of fragments the government process. And we think that if you’re going to have single member districts, you should have an elected mayor like the City of Orlando does.” Essentially what we changed to is away from a traditional county commission form of government. We changed to what is essentially a municipal form of government with people elected from districts and a mayor countywide or citywide or whatever. So that’s what the voters decided to do. And they decided that in, let’s see I ran in ’86, the voters changed the form of government in ’88. And so, I ran for the newly created position in 1990 and was elected. (And, as I say, Tom Wilkes is the expert so maybe you can talk to him and get him to explain it with even more depth and understanding.)

Linda Chapin Elected as the First Orange County Chairman, County Mayor

That was a difficult time I must tell you… I was suddenly – they called it the Orange County Chairman in those days because we wanted to get the referendum passed and the mayors of the mayors of the city were saying, “Well, I don’t know, it might be all right. But we don’t want it to be called mayor. So they called it chairman.” Later they changed it to mayor as you know and fortunately they grandfathered me in. They said, “And this change will apply to all the people who have held the office up until now.” So I feel fortunate because the problem was as Orange County Chairman, there were two problems: one, easy one, or it didn’t interfere too much – was that nobody understood the position outside of Orange County. I mean, if you went to Tallahassee, they would say, “Oh, yeah, you’re the Orange County Chairman, okay, and that means what?” If you went to Washington, no one understood that it was a strong executive position. So that was one problem. The other problem, of course, which I had to grapple with the first four years was that there were still county commissioners there who were used to the old way of doing things. Change is hard. And if you’ve been a county commissioner who can pick up the phone and call public works and say, “Listen, there’s a pothole on Forsyth Road and I want you to get out there this week and fix that. Well, that ability was taken away because now you had a strong mayor who worked with the county commissioner and who directed staff.

“The County Mayor, then called Chairman would hire and fire the staff…”

What made it a strong position was that the County Mayor, then called Chairman would hire and fire the staff, big deal. (The County Commission had to ratify this election of the county administrator, but that’s all.) Who would prepare and present the budget, again big deal. A budget is a policy document. And finally who present the agenda for every meeting. There’s amazing power in that. And some of the county commissioners had a hard time adjusting to having all that power suddenly vested in someone, especially someone who had been a colleague, who had been one of them. As I look back, it’s really amazing that several of them were gracious enough to help me make it work. And it was a tough four years, but it was a great learning experience, terrific learning experience about how to work with people coming from different points of view from different places.

Orange County Commissioner Hal Marston

I will give you as an example, Commissioner Hal Marston had been there when I got there because there were no term limits in those days. So he’d been there for a long time. And he was a conservative gentleman, a former Air Force Pilot, very conservative in his ideas. And here comes me, pretty liberal with a whole set of objectives having to do with how, you know, allocating money to children’s needs and other things, and we had to learn to work with each other. And we had to learn to listen to each other. That was probably the most valuable experience that I had during those four years – learning from Commissioner Marston and recognizing his willingness to come along and to be brought in my direction. And, my learning that sometimes I had to bend. And one of the very proudest things in my past is that when Commissioner Marston later died his family asked me to speak at his service and that really meant a lot to me. Those were tough years, but really important years in my development as a leader. Because a leader has to know how to work with others, listen with others, share with others, respect others, and that was when that lesson was really brought home to me. The next four years were fabulous.

“We found the land. We found the money. We built the courthouse.”

The next four years were when all the projects that we had started began to bloom so to speak. We had made the difficult decision to build a new courthouse for instance. The 1964 courthouse was filled with asbestos. We had to move people out of it. It was tough to decide where to build the new courthouse. There were some who wanted to build it on the outskirts of town, sort of a suburban courthouse. I felt strongly along with the then Mayor of Orlando Bill Frederick that the courthouse is the heart of the community. It needed to be in downtown Orlando. And so, we found the land, we found the money, we built the courthouse. In doing that, we tore down the ’64 courthouse.

LISTEN Part III  (20:05)


The Targeted Community Initiative

We had a program which we called the Targeted Community Initiative which looked around Orange County and said there are lots of places in Orange County which simply have been neglected and overlooked. And the first one we looked at and worked in was South Apopka. And I went out to South Apopka which is a heavily African American neighborhood and I went to the community center and I said, “I am your new county chairman and I am here to help.” And they said, “Oh, boo, hiss! We’ve heard that story before”. And they did everything but throw tomatoes at me. And I said, “No, really, seriously.” And we did. We built sidewalks, we renovated a community center. We built ball fields… The next one was at Winter Garden. The next one was Bithlo. The next one was Taft. And we made changes and improvements that the citizens deserved. They paid their taxes all these years and they had simply been overlooked by officeholders who had a different set of standards.

Speaking about creating new parks and the West Orange Trail, you also led the county in purchasing over 12,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands…

And that’s a story in the headlines today, Jane. That is beautiful land. I mean, a big piece of it is called Split Oak Forest. It is on the line between Orange County and Osceola County. And we got Osceola County to join us in purchasing this land and setting it aside as a nature preserve. And today they want to build a highway through it. And so that battle is going on even as we speak probably with the Expressway Authority. Because there is a need, I agree there is a need for a road. There are citizens who are outraged at the idea that they would build it through a nature preserve. There are others saying but we have to have access to growth and this and that. I have been before the expressway authority to say,”One thing that worries me a great deal is the idea that this could set a precedent for other places all over Florida. If you dedicate land to the public as a nature preserve and then go back and say, no let’s build something else instead. What does that do for the future?” So that’s a great concern. And, as I say, it’s happening now.

Containing Urban Sprawl

Another big piece of land was across the Econ River… I always felt that we should contain urban sprawl. We should not allow building all over the countryside… we need to protect an urban service line. When you build a subdivision out here – suddenly you need a school, you need a library, you need a park, you need all kinds of services for these people. We need to contain the urban service line and I said, “Draw the line at the Econ River East.” Well I never quite got it written into law, but I did pretty much get it written into custom. And so, by and large, we’ve maintained that line. Now out in the west was different because the citrus groves were frozen. Landowners had nothing they could do with their land. And furthermore some of our biggest employers were out there. Disney was out in southwest and had no housing for workers.

Horizons West

And so, what we did in that case, again it was kind of trendsetting, was all these landowners, big landowners that wanted to sell their land to developers, we said – and I had a great planning director that I brought from Texas – we said, “Why don’t you all get together and bring us a plan for what it would look like and how it would work.” And it was called Horizons West. And it was developed pretty much the way we imagined which was the developers would have to plan the roads. They would have to plan the schools. They would have to make sure services were provided and we saw a need for workforce housing in that part of the county and it was a good plan. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good compromise for allowing development in an undeveloped part of Orange County. We could not expect them to plant orange trees one more time. And I’m glad we didn’t because now, you will note that the History Center next door has orange trees. I was afraid at the time that they might end up being the last orange trees in Orange County. And I’m still afraid of that particularly now with citrus canker. In fact, I don’t even know if they’re impacted by it. I hope not.

Under your leadership Orange County became the first county in Florida to mandate attention to economic development as part of its local comprehensive plan…

Yes, that’s correct. In those days, and you have to remember it’s important to recognize what the timing was on all this, Florida had been largely a rural state until the 70’s. And then, the 70’s and the 80’s suddenly there began to be a great deal of development. And usually, growth and development, and economic development and jobs, had been the responsibilities of cities. The counties, historically in Florida had been about agriculture, had been about the sheriff, funding the sheriff, keeping the cows off the roads. And suddenly, Orange County like Dade County and other places, found ourselves an urban county. We were highly developing, we needed to provide urban services. And in order to provide services that an urban area needs you need a tax base that can support those services. And so, economic development suddenly becomes important to the county instead of just to the city. It was so fortunate for me that I was always able to work well with the City of Orlando. Because what you don’t want is people butting heads and competing for economic development. So we made economic development an element of our comprehensive plan.

“The state of Florida required every county to have a comprehensive plan that looked 25 years out…”

Those were the days when Florida, the state of Florida required every county to have a comprehensive plan that looked 25 years out and said, “What a wonderful idea!” And so, we had all the usual elements about parks and schools and water and sewer and everything. But, I added economic development because I thought it was important. I do also always have to add that I was able to assemble some of the most talented people as staff that brought so much expertise. And I was able to work well with them and that I always recognize expertise and I learn. And I respect public administrators immensely. These are people who dedicate their lives to public service in a way that really goes beyond those of us who are elected for a term or two or three. These are people whose whole career is about serving the public. And so, I was always highly, highly, motivated to work with those people and to learn from those people. And some of them were just great experts that taught me things about how to do economic development.

You are the first woman to receive the James B. Greene Economic Development Award from the Metro Economic Development Commission…

Yes. That was very meaningful to me. That was very important. That recognition was very important. I will tell you though, another funny story. I was out of office by then and one day someone called me from the Economic Development Commission and said, “You know, Linda, I just thought you ought to know you were almost elected to get that award. You came in second in terms of deliberations on who to get the James B. Green Award. And he said, “But you know it was a year in which we recognized that we had never given that award to somebody from Lake County. And we just decided that we needed to give it to someone from Lake County because they’re part of the organization”. I said, “Well, I appreciate you letting me know this, but I’d like to point out something else. You’ve never given it to a woman. Any woman.” Well, I’m afraid I embarrassed him because it was a few years that went by before I was given that award. But it was important for those of us who believed in certain things to be willing to speak out. It really was. And that’s another thing I’ve tried to teach younger colleagues.

And you did it with a smile…

I did it with a smile… When I got to UCF I taught a course on 20th Century Social Movements, and one thing you recognize in the way any movement begins, builds, grows there is that there are always people out there on the barricades who are militant. For the women’s movement, it was the bra burners. And then come the support troops. And they soften tone. They keep pushing, but they soften the town. And then things change. That’s true whether it was the environmental movement, whether it was the labor movement, whether it was civil rights movement, whether it was the women’s movement. The gay movement is a perfect example. A perfect example. Because with the gay liberation movement, there were leaders of that movement who got together… they said, “We need to become much more establishment. We don’t want people to think we’re all outrageous, flamboyant. We’ve got to get support from the establishment for our movement. That’s one of the most successful social movements of all time in my view because it happened quickly. Ten years ago who would have imagined that gay marriage would be totally accepted by virtually everyone. What a success! And there are just ways to do things that leaders recognize you have to have support from all sides.

And you have been recognized for building consensus.

Well, that’s a word I learned in the League of Women Voters many, many years ago. Because part of the methodology of the League is to study the issue. Look at all sides. Bring people together to debate it and then arrive at what we called officially in the League, a consensus. And once you have a consensus in the League of Women Voters, you can then as an organization go forward, and advocate for it, and push for it. But, the important part was to look at all sides, bring all people to the table, and that became my style. It makes perfect sense. It really does. You can be authoritarian and maybe if you’re lucky you get away with it for a while. But it doesn’t work over the long term. I’m convinced of it. I mean, look at dictatorships all over the world…

There were annual regional economic summits that you worked to bring forth…

And those are still happening. We did the first one. We did them every year for about five years. And then my successors continued with those. The first thing we did before we had our first summit was we brought a lot of people together and decided we should decide which industries do we have the best chance of bringing here or growing. Here’s another lesson I learned I had very early in my first term, I had, recognizing this was important, I went to businesses outside of Florida and talked to them about bringing them to Orange County….

Martin Marietta

One day, the president of what was then Martin Marietta came to me and said, “Mrs. Chapin, we’ve been here for 30 years, what are we chopped liver? We don’t deserve those considerations? Those incentives?” That was a good lesson.

Economic Initiatives

And so, part of our looking for what we called our five targeted initiatives, economic initiatives, was to look outside and inside. What do we have here that we can grow as well as what do we have out there that we can bring… We were becoming the tourism capital of the world; that was clearly worth doing and having. And so, you wanted to work closely with tourism leaders. One of them I know was healthcare. We had two great hospitals in Florida. We believed, I still believe that Florida is positioned geographically and Orlando is positioned in Central Florida geographically to attract people in need of healthcare from Latin America, from Mexico. We’ve got a great airport. We’ve got two great hospitals… let’s help grow these hospitals. Let’s help them appeal internationally as well as here in Florida. One of them was high tech. Everybody was doing high tech. I mean, everybody wanted to do high tech. It had to be on anybody’s list. It’s actually the City of Orlando that has made more accomplishments along those lines. Although, I’ve worked closely at UCF with the Incubator out there with getting startup businesses, with encouraging startup business, entrepreneurs trying to give them resources, expertise.

Reverend Zach, Head of Carver Tabernacle Church and Southern Christian Leadership Conference Chapter

The other thing I did that I’m really proud of in terms of economic development is, and here’s a story – The Reverend Ron Zach was the head of Carver Tabernacle Church, but he was also the head of a chapter here in those days called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And one day he came to me and he said, “People are not being treated fairly in this community.” And he said, “The number one example is Walt Disney World. And I want you to know as a community leader we’re going to tackle them.”  

Community Relations at Disney

Well, I had another very close friend of Glenda’s and mine, was over Community Relations at Disney. So I sat down with Diana, I said, “This is not going to be good for anybody. We need to try and see if we can work with Rev. Zach to head off a confrontation. It’s  not going to be good for Orlando or Orange County or Disney”. And so, we did a lot of conversing with Rev. Zach, who is a friend to this day.  

The New York Times

But there was one day when I got a call from “The New York Times” because the Southern Christian Leadership was preparing to picket Walt Disney World. And I said, “You know, I have a meeting in five minutes. Why don’t you let me call you back in half an hour.” And I called Diana at Walt Disney World and said, “This is the emergency about to occur.” And they put me on hold while they went to look for Diana to get her on the phone. And the music they were playing at Walt Disney World when you were on hold was from Uncle Remus. And it was that old stereotype. And Diana came on the phone and I said, “Diane get that music off here. You’re about to get a call from ‘The New York Times’.” 

“We came up with a Minority Business Effort…”

We laugh about it to this day. We sat down again and we came up with a minority business effort. It was something that Orange County put a million dollars in; Walt Disney World put a million dollars in. The Southern Christian Leadership was able to claim victory and it became an important part of our community.

LISTEN  Part IV  (20:20)


The Don Quixote Award  and the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund

Another thing one day is that Hispanic leaders in my second term came to me and said, “You know, we have a growing Hispanic population, and we need to encourage the development of  Hispanic businesses. And, I had this other model, but what they reminded me of today because they gave me an award: The Don Quixote Award for being the first sore civilian to assist in the effort. I said, “Well, you’re all very smart people. You go away and bring me a plan. And they came back and said, “What we want to do is not give money to startup businesses, we want to give resources and expertise. We want to bring those resources to a center”. Well, that was the beginning of the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund.

“African American business people, Hispanic Business people, were an essential part of my vision of economic development for a community…”

And so, those two things for African American business people, for Hispanic Business people, were an essential part of my vision of economic development for a community. Because in order for economic development to truly work, it has to be fair. It has to work for everybody. And that is one of the things that breaks my heart – not in Orlando today, I think we’ve done well, but in the nation as a whole, we have this incredible disparity in income… when I was an Orange County Mayor, a CEO might make twenty times as much as his worker. Today a CEO makes a thousand times as much as his worker. Wall Street went crazy. They brought on a recession that hurt everybody. And, in my view, economic development in our nation has not worked the way it should…. But, I think, we made it work well in Orlando. Glenda [The Honorable Glenda Hood] wound up being very supportive of both of those initiatives and contributing city resources.

Today in our community there are different levels to the economy…

Well, we’re still a big tourism town; we’re getting there. By the way, the Black Business Investment Fund is something that Glenda and I did together. And the Hispanic Business Investment Fund – HBIF is also one that we worked on together with the leadership of the Hispanic Chamber because there were very talented business people already in Orlando who wanted their community to benefit it as well. That’s something that we really need to recognize. It’s always talented, public spirited citizens who make things happen. So let’s see tourism, healthcare, high tech….

You also did made trade missions to Europe and Asia…

Some of those visits were after we had a crisis in tourism. A German citizen was shot and killed on International Drive. And suddenly, all of Europe was talking about crime in Orlando. Don’t go to Orlando. So both the Mayor of Orlando and I did things; and appeared on TV and radio in Europe to combat that image. Another one that was just one of the most exciting trips that I ever took was – and it’s interesting in my own sort of private biography – having been very much against the Vietnam War – our country finally came to terms with Vietnam. President Clinton appointed the first ambassador to Vietnam. He was a congressman from north Florida, Pete Peterson, and he had been – this is such a touching, wrenching story. Our first ambassador from the United States to Vietnam was someone who had been a prisoner of war with John McCain for six years in the Hanoi Hilton. So he was appointed. And very shortly thereafter, Vietnam invited a group of us to come to talk about how do you develop tourism from the ground up.

First Ambassador to Vietnam: Douglas Brian “Pete” Peterson

So we brought tourism leaders. But, part of that trip was an opportunity to sit with Ambassador Petersen in a private moment and say, “How have you been able to overcome what you went through?” Because even after a year he was beloved. And he said, ” Because I know that bitterness never helps anyone. It only hurts. And the person it hurts the most is you. And I have had to learn to put it all behind me.” Wow! What a life lesson and something I’ll always remember. I should write some of these things down for my children….

Speaking of something uplifting which has to do with divisive issues, your Citizens First Program.

I love that. I’m surprised you even know about that.

It seems to me as important right now in our country.

One of the most important things that ever happened to me was a chance to go to Harvard and take a course at the Kennedy School. It was a three week course for state and local executives, officeholders. And it opened up a whole world to me of responsibility. How do you behave as an elected official in the most responsive way you possibly can? And we devised with the help of a political science professor that I had come to know the program called Citizens First.

Citizens First

Essentially it was a promise. It was a promise to the citizens of Orange County that in everything we did and every decision we made, we would put their interests first because that was our responsibility. But it had to be a two way street. They had to promise in return that they would behave as citizens first. And that they would participate. They would vote. They would come to workshops and, importantly, that they would try to do what we were trying to do which is to look at the big picture and the long term. Not about what happens tomorrow, but what happens for our children’s future.  And, my dear, I think that has been so lost in today’s society and today’s way of operating and government. People seem to me to be thinking only of the next election. Only of how do I get the money I need to run a campaign to get reelected.

“We in Florida had such great examples of really good governance…”

And we in Florida had such great examples of really good governance. We had people in Tallahassee, leaders who did think about the big picture and the long term, who made commitments to Florida’s environment. who made commitments to Florida’s educational system. We thought about the future. I really tried to see that Orange County ran that way, too. And I don’t remember the exact numbers, but one of the most satisfying things of that whole eight years was that we had done a poll. When I went into office we did a poll: Do people trust their county government? And the number that came back was discouraging it was something like 38%. When I left office we did that same poll and the number had changed to something in the 70’s. And what could be more rewarding then to be able to believe that you made that kind of difference.

And you’ve written about it too.

What did you find, Jane?

Your “Putting Citizens First in Orange County, Florida” made the National Civic Review, 84.3, Summer/Autumn 1995.

Well, thank you for finding that. I think I coauthored that with Professor Denhardt.

One of the sentences here is that “historically citizenship meant working for the common good.”

Yes, that’s a much better way to put it. At the time I was immersed in the language. Working for the common good, a community comes together to work for what’s good for everybody. That’s what we’ve lost. Everybody’s sort of “it’s my backyard”. “It’s my project”. “It’s how I’m affected not how the community’s affected”.

I’m reminded of a presentation you gave just last year at the Pine Castle Woman’s Club for the Fifth Grade Essay Contest.

Boy, you have done your homework, my goodness.

You presented on leadership to the young people…  and yet, I remember at that presentation that you were there taking notes on their presentations…. Here are these young leaders of tomorrow presenting… and here is this esteemed leader who has accomplished so much in our community taking her time not only to present, but recognizing their ideals.

You know, I think as I’ve sort of indicated before, one of my life lessons is that people need to be respected. Their ideas need to be respected. Gosh, we’re seeing it now with these Parkland students. They are taking a leadership role and that leadership role needs to be respected. Commissioner Marston who had very conservative points of view, but who had fought for his country. And I needed to respect those views and learn from those. And I think that’s how you succeed in relationships across the board, whether you’re an elected official or a neighbor, by respecting people and by wanting to know about them. To learn from them and everybody’s better off when you can do that. And those children have worked hard on their projects. And they had interesting and good ideas and I wanted that to be the focus of the day. I could pull out a speech on leadership from the files somewhere and deliver it, but that was not the point of that day. 

You were named Distinguished Alumni of the Year by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

What a thrill! Really, I hardly ever remember it or think about it. But, at the time it was one of the most thrilling things that ever happened. And, interestingly, it was a colleague of mine – let me go back a bit. I went to the Kennedy School; it was an incredible experience. I went to a local foundation, the Dr. Phillips Foundation, and I asked if they would sponsor other people to go to that same workshop. And so, every county commissioner went to the Kennedy School to take that three week course on state and local leadership. But what we did that was so important is that we would pair an elected official, county commissioner, with a public administrator with the head of the public works department.

“You have to remember what your job is.”

We sent Commissioner Mable Butler to Harvard and they called me afterwards and said, “Harvard will never be the same.” Because she is very outspoken, but that’s what they would assemble. They would assemble a group of elected officials and public administrators. And one of the biggest lessons in my first time there is you have to remember what your job is. If you’re an elected official, you’re not supposed to be running the public works department. You’re supposed to hire somebody who knows how to run the public works department and hold them accountable for doing a good job. And so, the ability to know what you’re responsibilities are and what their responsibilities are is why we would send a pair of people.

Orange County Commissioner Bill Donegan

So one of the county commissioners who went to Harvard and really loved the experience was Bill Donegan, who was a county commissioner who later became the tax appraiser and who was a Republican who had supported my opponent. And yet, we got to be really good friends over the course of things. And he’s the one who nominated me for that award. And that’s how that award happened because he wrote this wonderful thing about local government as a laboratory and how we – all of us working together – made Orange County a laboratory for new ideas. And we learned from the Kennedy School and that recognition really was very, very meaningful to me both because I respected the people at the Kennedy School so much and it meant a lot to me that Bill Donegan wanted me to be recognized for that.

And it’s good for our community.

I’d love to get a copy of that “National Civic Review.” Do you have a copy…. [Putting “citizens first!” in Orange County, Florida by Linda W. Chapin, Robert B. Denhardt, Summer/Autumn 1995]

Speaking of articles about you, this is the article from Orlando Magazine... and there’s a quote here from Tom Wilkes, who was the county attorney at the time. And he says, “Chapin’s most monumental tribute has been the overwhelming support of voters at reelection time. Support he feels she was due after transforming the politics of confrontation into the politics of consensus to get the job done. Only when she leaves the job will anyone truly recognize the value of her work. ”  [Orlando Magazine, September 1995, page 37.]

How nice. I’d forgotten that. That’s a lovely comment.Thank you for reminding me.

It also goes on to talk about what we were saying about people in government recognizing what their responsibility is. So, stepping ahead, years later you’ve become the founder of the Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies at the University of Central Florida.

Well, there’s another instance of what incredible good fortune. When I ran for Congress and lost, John Hitt came to me right away and said, “Will you come work at UCF?” And I said, “Well what do you want me to do?” And he said, “Whatever you want to do.” And so, if you look back over my long career of involvement in local issues, starting back with project 2000, or maybe starting back with the Junior League, or maybe starting back with the March on Washington, all of those things came together for me into the objective of not just looking at local government one issue at a time, not just looking at growth, then looking at transportation, and then looking at economic development, but weaving all these things together. The environment: making it clear that all these things have to work together. And so, that was my idea and I created it. I took it to Dr. Hitt, wonderful Dr. Hitt, and took it to the Board of Trustees and they approved it. And we had a wonderful time bringing speakers in to speak to these different issues. One of the speakers, funny thing, I had a conversation with him recently, one of those speakers was the Mayor of Jacksonville at the time, Mayor John Delaney. He’s now the President of the University of North Florida. And he is one of the great leaders that Florida has produced in my mind. Because he understands the importance of not just local government, but of regional government and how not only issues within community work together, but issues across the state all work together. And so that’s what we tried to do at UCF.

And you’re one of the great leaders of our state.

Well, I have been so fortunate in the assignments I’ve been given or been able to request. And have had such an interesting time.

LISTEN  Part V  (14:07)


Cypress Grove Park

I’ve loved it! Love local government. Love community work. You can see the difference. I would go to Tallahassee and pass a law and then look at it and see, okay, what difference did that make? Or build a park. Cypress Grove Park is one of the most treasured things I have. I found the property. It was for sale down on Holden Avenue. I persuaded the County Administrator to find the funds to purchase the land. We then had to develop it. My idea was that it was ideally located in an area that could serve both Conway and the Orange Blossom Trail neighborhoods. If you go to Cypress Grove today you will see families having birthday parties. You will see babies and moms in the playground. People walking their dogs. You will see on a Sunday afternoon people in white uniforms playing cricket because their Pakistanis. My husband knows that if he comes home from walking the dogs at Cypress Grove Park and tells me what’s going on in that park it will make my day. Because it exemplifies what needed to happen in that particular area. A way to bring people together. A way to make sure that everybody had a place to go. A place to have a birthday party. A place to play basketball. They deserve it. They’re citizens of Orange County.

The Cypress Grove Children’s Rose Garden Dedicated to the Honorable Linda Chapin

Pioneer Days, old Florida, is there, too. 

Yeah, it was this year. We used to have it down in Pine Castle, of course. One of the stories I told somebody recently was about, I was running for office and you always had to ride in the Pine Castle Parade. But the children were at camp. So I borrowed somebody else’s children. I had a very dear friend, Nancy and Tom Cardwell, and they had the same family that Bruce and I had. They had an older boy, boy girl twins, and a younger boy. Well, my kids weren’t available so I borrowed their kids to ride in the convertible in the Pine Castle Parade.          

Saving the Music Library – The Mayor Linda R. Chapin Music Library

Well, I had spent a lot of time trying to save the symphony itself. Harvey Massey, I think, was the president of the symphony in those days and they were 700,000  in debt and they were going under…. really tough times and it failed. It went into bankruptcy. But they had amassed this music library that if we were ever going to bring the symphony back, would we have to do that all over again? So, we convinced some Orange County government and some local government contributors to save the music library. And I was honored, but they remembered that. I think history’s very important, Jane.  But lot’s of people are so busy in their everyday lives that they just, everybody moves on and these things, it’s only special people who remember these things. I’m glad you reminded me and I need to renew my season tickets or next year.

You wrote an Orlando Sentinel article,November 2017, on how tourism dollars can benefit our community. Looking to the future, what do you see?

I’m thinking of writing another letter to the editor because I am very upset that the Florida Legislature practically zeroed out funding for the arts this session in the budget. Hardly anything for the arts. And I don’t even think that this community adequately supports the arts. We have incredible arts organizations and they struggle. We’ve got a lot of them and one reason we have a lot of them, and they’re very good, is because we have the attractions. We have Tourist World, and we have incredibly talented people out there. That’s why we have more theater groups than any other city our size. We have wonderful musicians. But we need to give them more support. Government needs to support them more. Business needs to support them more. Individuals need to support them more. And I’m getting annoyed enough that I’m going to write a letter to the editor and say, I think, tourism could do a lot more for the community than they do. I always got along well with them and I tried hard to work productively and positively with them, but you need to hold their feet to the fire sometimes, too. And they have helped in some projects that are very important to me.

Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

And one of them of course, is the performing arts center where I serve on the board and have for a long time. And they were finally willing to let us use those tourist tax dollars. Now I was around when we created that fund. Those are not dollars that belong to the tourism industry. Those are dollars that they collect from visitors to our community. And I have always believed that they need to be shared. They need to market tourism. If we want them to be successful we need to keep the growing. But, they also need to help our community be a good place for people to visit. I feel strongly about that… everybody needs to do their share. That’s my philosophy about community. Everybody has something to contribute and not everybody’s contributing their fair share. They need to be reminded.

What do you enjoy about living here? 

The first thing on the list would be those memories of my childhood. You know it was not easy to have to move every year. It was not easy to be the new kid in every class always every year. It was not easy to make best friends and then leave them and go somewhere else. And so, Orlando was so important to me. And, I even believe Jane that one reason I have been so deeply involved with the community and I have put down very deep roots is quite possibly related to those growing up years when I never was able to put down roots any place particularly. It’s why I have gone back to a little town in Michigan called Marshall which is where my family history is. And that became a place where I took my children when they turned 16. I’d take them to Marshall. This is where your family settled in 1837. Roots are very important to me. So I would say that those memories of Orlando have been a big part.

Watching my family grow up and become productive and successful and good people in this town and play their own part is very important. My husband’s law career and what he now does; he’s down at the hospital right now with our dog Rover. We have always had big standard poodles and Bruce has trained them to go be therapy dogs at the hospital. Go visit people. And so, he will, it’s Thursday, so he’s there with Rover doing his part. So as a family we have always thought it was important to play a role and be involved.

It’s April, it’s beautiful in Central Florida. February is beautiful in Central Florida. I love the weather. I love the camellia garden. I love the fall which is subtle here, but there will be a morning in October where you’ll go outside to get the paper and the air will be different. And I love the fall. I love access to the beaches. But I do think we have to fight for Florida because we can loose a lot if we’re not careful. If they build a road through Split Oak Forest that will send a signal about what matters.

Now my idea, if they have to do it, give us enough land to make up for it. Give us twice as much as you’re taking. Bigger and better somewhere else. So you’re constantly having to weigh interests and negotiate interest. And Florida’s under a lot of stress because everybody likes our winters. And after the one they’ve had up north this year, there will be more and more people coming. So we need good leadership in Tallahassee. We need to support candidates who will be good elected leaders in Tallahassee. We need to have good local government. I think we’ve had good leaders in Central Florida.  I think Mayor Dyer’s doing a great job. He’s very progressive and pushes hard for things and makes things happen.

The City of Orlando is donating the Chamber building to the Holocaust Center…

I’m particularly impressed with something that is just happening and that is City of Orlando which owns the Chamber building is donating it to the Holocaust Center. What a great gesture at an important time because of what they stand for and what they teach.

So, you’ve asked me what’s important to me, those are all important things and have given me a good life and have given my family a good life here. So we’re grateful for that.

Well, thank you for speaking with us today. Thank you for the values that you’ve just shared and thank you for the way you’ve accomplished your values in the community in such a tremendous way for the public good.

Well, that’s very kind of you. And thank you for the job that you do which is to –   you know I said once when  public television did a series and interviewed me about the March on Washington. And one thing I said that I’ve thought about since: You never know that you’re living history. You’re only living your life. You’re going to a march about civil rights. You may be Parkland students going to a demonstration. You don’t think about history. But thank heavens somebody does. Thank heavens there are people like you, and people like the Library and the History Center, preserving, protecting, documenting, even newspapers, as somebody said, “Newspapers write the first draft of history.” And it’s important because of what we can learn from it… and we can learn a lot….

Photograph of The Honorable Linda Chapin
The Honorable Linda Chapin

Interview: The Honorable Linda Chapin

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: April 12, 2018

Place:  Orlando Public Library


Oral History Interview with The Honorable Linda Chapin, Part II of II

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The Honorable Linda Chapin

The Honorable Linda Chapin served as the first elected Mayor of Orange County, Florida, from 1990-1998. Her accomplishments in public office include...

The Cypress Grove Children’s Rose Garden Dedicated to the Honorable Linda Chapin

"Cypress Grove Park is one of the most treasured things I have. I found the property. It was for sale down on...

There are currently no video related to this memory.
Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part I of V.

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part I of V.

Interview: The Honorable Linda Chapin

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: April, 12, 2018

Place: Orlando Public Library

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part II of V.

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part II of V.

Interview: The Honorable Linda Chapin

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: April, 12, 2018

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part III of V.

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part III of V.

Interview: The Honorable Linda Chapin

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: April, 12, 2018

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part IV of V.

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part IV of V.

Interview: The Honorable Linda Chapin

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: April, 12, 2018

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part V of V.

Oral history interview with the Honorable Linda Chapin at the Orlando Public Library, April 12, 2018. Part V of V.

Interview: The Honorable Linda Chapin

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: April, 12, 2018

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