History and the People Who Make It: John DeGrove

transcript edited by pierce butler

This is the tenth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

John DeGrove, “the father of growth management law in Florida,” was interviewed by Cynthia Barnett [B] on December 1, 2001.

B:    You were in the infantry from 1942-1946?

Yes. We went over right after D-Day [June 6, 1944]. We landed at Cherbourg, in France, got on cattle cars, went across France, and into the front lines in Holland, Germany, Belgium. I got into leading patrols out behind the enemy lines and doing things like that. Pretty soon, our platoon  [was] down to a handful of people who were still alive. That’s how I became a sergeant and then I got a battlefield commission.

We were doing a counter-attack, I guess and some Germans were surrendering. Somebody in the back threw a grenade. Big mistake on their part. Knocked me out just for an instant. That apparently did some damage [to my lungs that showed up] later. Didn’t stop me right then at all. [After] that concussion [grenade], we went on and those guys were wiped out.

After the war, I went in to the hospital because I had a case of viral pneumonia. It developed into tuberculosis and they always said that the concussion grenade had weakened the structure of that lung, so that when I got the viral pneumonia, which [I] should have been able to shake off, it evolved into tuberculosis after I got in the hospital.

I [was sent] out to Colorado, a special place for tuberculosis types. I decided, I’ll be damned if I’m going to die out here in Colorado. I was [determined] to die in Florida, as close to home as I could get. They went along with all that. I went to the tuberculosis sanitarium. They had several of these, and they were ahead of their time. I was in the hospital for almost four years. I missed the marvelous streptomycin and the TB drugs, the ones that would have kept me in the hospital for a month or two, just by a few months.

I became president of the student body at Rollins. I led a revolt at Rollins against the president. We threw him out.

Well, he was a bad guy. We went into an enrollment decline. In the process of cutting back, he was firing the best people. His concept of how to get Rollins straightened out and going right was just wrong. I had some board of trustee members who agreed with me. His name was Wagner. We did every kind of thing to force this guy out.

I finished my master’s in nine months at Emory [University in 1954]. My thesis looked at the Swamp and Overflow Lands Act. That really got me into realizing how badly it’s possible to manage resources. Swamp and Overflow Lands Act of 1849, I think it was, granted to Florida twenty million acres of land. Turned out that a lot of it wasn’t swamp and overflow at all.

It hadn’t been surveyed. There are only thirty-eight million acres of land in Florida and we got twenty million acres under the Swamp and Overflow Lands Act. It was to be drained and reclaimed for useful purposes. That is, I believe, the exact phrase of the Act. “Drained and reclaimed for useful purposes,” carried the connotation that as wetlands, as swamp lands, it had no value. That got started with the Disston Purchase [in] 1884. That’s when we’d gotten well underway to screwing up the state.

[Hamilton] Disston bought two million acres of land. I think it was twenty-five cents an acre he paid for it. The deal was, that he would dig a canal where the Kissimmee River was and drain the land. He would get an extra acre for every acre that he reclaimed. I remember talking to Marjory Stoneman Douglas [environmental activist, author of The Everglades–River of Grass] about this, neither one of us realized what damage channelizing the Kissimmee River was going to do. Disston got quite a few extra acres, because we hit this bad dry spell and it looked like he had drained and reclaimed a whole lot of land that only dried up. When the rains came again, most of that land re-flooded. Disston, the whole thing didn’t work out for him. Maybe he did commit suicide. That got [me] looking and understanding, the give-away to railroad companies, to canal companies, to this, to that. A lot of it just absolutely skullduggerously crooked. My thesis dug into how we had mismanaged that land and what negative impacts that mismanagement had.

At Chapel Hill, I got very interested in urban development patterns. That’s when I began to see, understand, or be sensitive to the downsides of sprawl.

My Ph.D. dissertation was on the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District. The Flood Control District was multi-county, but it didn’t have the right boundaries. At least it was a regional entity. It was a way to try to straighten out some of the things that we had messed up so badly. Back at the turn of the century, and really a part of the Progressive movement, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Florida’s governor, took a good long hard look and concluded that skullduggery had taken place in what we did with the Swamp and Overflow Lands Act lands. We had given away more land for this that and the other purpose, many of it ill-advised or absolutely crooked, than there was in the whole state of Florida. They went to court. They were successful in recapturing 3,000,000 acres of the original Everglades. They recaptured it to drain, not to restore it.

As time went on and the digging went forward, we ended up with the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control project, [and] the increasingly obvious negative impacts of this effort, [such as] saltwater intrusion.

I came here to the University of Florida in January of 1958. They offered me a marvelous salary, I think it was $5,800.

The university had this rule that not only could you not run for political office, you couldn’t contribute to the candidacy of anybody else that ran for political office. Remember, I’m a brand new assistant professor and I [had] no particular political protection. Anyway, I declared that [rule] to be unconstitutional, not only wrong, but it couldn’t possibly be [right]. It turns out it had to do with a deal to get the medical school what has turned into the Shands complex here instead of Jacksonville. [They wanted to keep] liberal professors totally out. The guy that made that deal, I guess, was Shands, a [senator] in the [Florida] legislature.

Anyway, we organized the Civic Action Association. We managed to throw out the old guard and not only elect a new city council, but, in effect, a new county commission. Up until then the old guard just picked out who was going to be the next ones. I was pushing for city-county consolidation, all kinds of radical stuff. I ended up chairman of the planning board.

We were here from 1958-64, six years, and boy, we took over. I was chairman of the state AAUP [American Association of University Professors]. When Charlie [Foreman] and I met, I was at a Board of Control meeting representing the AAUP and I think Charlie might have been chairman. He just could not believe that I was a Florida southern cracker. So he got it [the faculty censorship rule] changed.

It taught me something I had begun to learn earlier and I have never wavered in my conviction. Before then, Charlie Foreman had been just a guy [who] didn’t look like [he was] interested in doing anything good [or for] what I was after. Never ever write anybody off completely, because you might be able to work with them some time in the future. As a matter of fact, I’ve worked with Charlie ever since. He has been a great supporter of the Joint Center and 1,000 Friends of Florida.

B:    What year did you go to Boca Raton?

In 1964, when FAU opened its doors.

When did I first cross paths with Nat? We started 1,000 Friends of Florida together. That was later, much later. I knew him when he was working with Claudius Maximus.

B:    How well did you know Claude Kirk? What do you think of him?

Any legacy that he has for positive behavior is due to the fact that he wasn’t a right-wing ideologue. He was a total character. He had to have people following him around all the time to keep him from running off with first one lady and then another, which he did repeatedly, famously once when he went all the way to California out of a wedding in Virginia.

I think it was the governor’s bride. Somehow he persuaded her to get on this Lear jet he flew around in. Don Reed was a big Republican in the legislature. [He and] this other person, were supposed to be watching out for [Claude]. Somehow he slipped away from them and he got this lady to get on this jet with him and they flew to California and they just disappeared.

Nathaniel Pryor Reed [Governing Board Member, South Florida Water Management District] is from a family who owned a lot of land on Jupiter Island. He’s always been a very strong environmentalist. He’s gradually come to accept that you can’t have a sustainable environment unless you have sustainable urban systems. and that neither are sustainable [in Florida at this time].

B:    What would you say Nat Reed’s legacy is to Florida? [He was] Nixon’s environmental advisor. He persuaded him to stop the cross-Florida barge canal and many other things.

In 1969, in this Seaside Institute paper, I said that we had to understand that Florida’s effort to get any kind of growth management system had to evolve out of a conviction that no right-minded person would voluntarily come to a state, as I put it, where it was hot and muggy, the Indians were hostile and swore they’d never surrender, the alligators were large, and the moccasins were mean. To counter these, from statehood through World War II, our leaders did everything they could to promote growth in Florida. In the mid- to late-1960s, our love affair with growth began to cool. Quite a number of people were saying, wait a minute, we’re really messing things up here.

There was an effort to stop digging the cross-state barge canal. There’s where Nat Reed [came] into the picture with Claude Kirk [Fla governor, 1967-1971].

B: They were both involved in halting the jetport and the cross-Florida barge canal.

It was because of Nat Reed. Nat had been Assistant Secretary of the Interior under Nixon. A good Republican, an environmentally-strong Republican. The Florida Air and Water Pollution Control Act was passed. Coastal Construction Setback Line legislation was passed, aimed at protecting vital dunes and coastal vegetation, and the establishment of the Coastal Coordinating Council, charged with developing a planning and management plan for Florida’s 11,000 miles of coastline.

In the late 1960s, Kirk supported these initiatives. He couldn’t have cared less, but he was heavily influenced by his dollar-a-year, chief environmental advisor, Nat Reed. Nat was convinced that protecting the environment had become good politics in Florida.

Every time we’ve done something in Florida to move toward some kind of effort to manage our growth, it’s been in a real or perceived crisis. Always. The other common thread is, everything we’ve ever done, we’ve never ended up funding it adequately to allow it to be implemented effectively.

The second half of SPOHP’s John DeGrove interview will appear in the October 2012 Gainesville Iguana.

An audio podcast of this interview will be made available, along with many others, at www.history.ufl.edu/oral/feature-podcasts.htm.

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