Linda Chapin’s Hopscotch Journey
Linda Chapin, 67, didn’t start out as an Orlando power player. Her foray into the city’s business world was visiting her grand-father at his downtown car dealership in the 1950s. It would take a series of volunteer projects to craft her social conscience and develop the political skills that led to roles as Orange County commissioner and the county’s first chairman (now called mayor). In 2001 Chapin became director of the Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies at the University of Central Florida, focusing on growth, the environment and social policies. She retired from UCF last year.
I always thought of myself as a Florida girl. Even though we lived in Little Rock and Kankakee and St. Louis and Connecticut and Detroit, during all those years the only place that was stable was here, in Orlando.
My grandfather was in the auto business and after he lost his job at the Hudson Motor Car Company in Detroit during the Great Depression, he came to Florida. First to Pensacola and then to Jacksonville, where I was born, and then to Orlando. New frontiers. Wherever I was living with my parents, I’d come down here for summer vacations and the Christmas holidays. In the midst of moving and change I put down roots in Orlando long before I lived in this very house my grandparents had owned.
My grandfather had an auto dealership here, Simpson Motors, near Lake Ivanhoe. My memories of Orlando as a girl were taking the Pine Castle bus downtown and having lunch at Morrison’s Cafeteria, then seeing a movie at the Beacham and then walking down Orange Avenue to Simpson Motors and getting a ride home with my grandfather.
One of the earliest memories of my own father was when I was 5 years old. The day he came home from the war. He had been a P-51 pilot in Europe and had signed up to go to the Pacific when V-J Day came. My mom went to meet him at the train station, and I have this crystal clear memory of him coming in the kitchen door of my grandparents’ home, carrying his knapsack.
After the war ended my dad went to work for Chrysler, and we moved around the country because every time he would get a promotion we’d move somewhere else. There are so many pros and cons to that. I went to 14 schools in 12 years, so I learned to be adaptable. Those years had an effect on me of trying to work with people, to build consensus, make friends and find the right path to fit in.
My mother would find a house to rent or buy and it would have a swing or a window seat in my room so every move was always a great adventure. We thought that was the best way to live. At the same time you never feel quite like you belong. You’re always the new kid in the class.
Overall it was very much a kind of ’50s Leave It To Beaver childhood, a middle-class American family. I took piano lessons, there was the stay-at-home mom who created all the right memories, a little brother and, when I was 16, a little sister. Everybody got an allowance, and everyone had chores, and my first job was at the candy counter at Woolworth’s. I was very happy growing up.
When I was in college at Michigan State, my dad was killed in a plane crash. When he died, he was the general sales manager for Dodge and was on a business trip. He was flying from Detroit to Los Angeles, and someone exploded a bomb on his plane. [A passenger who had purchased a large life insurance policy set off the explosive in a lavatory over Missouri.] I was 20, my brother was 14 and Nancy was 3. It was a great tragedy.
At that point my mother moved to Florida with the younger children to be close to her parents. Soon after that, I became a child of the 1960s and my college years were pretty much tied up with all of the interesting things that were going on. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather had gone to Michigan State, and I was there majoring in journalism and political science. I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to be ambassador to the United Nations or foreign correspondent for The New York Times. I knew one of those would be in my future.
The ’60s came early to East Lansing. It was a very chaotic time on college campuses everywhere and certainly at my school. The Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem had gotten a master’s degree at Michigan State. When he went back to Saigon, his regime was being supported by advisers from the school’s police administration, and the political science people didn’t think too much of this at all. We were also engaged in civil rights issues, which was the cause closest to my heart. Being a Southern girl, you grew up with certain things you later realized were just plain wrong. So on my 22nd birthday in August 1963 I went to the March on Washington. I have always felt that I inherited a lot of my dad’s genes. He just had a passion for fairness, for doing what was right, for making moral choices.
After graduation I got a job as a receptionist at the Chrysler Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It was there that I met the man I married. Bruce was working two jobs to save money for law school—at the Chrysler Pavilion and driving VIPs around in a Greyhound tram. When we decided to get married, he was ready for law school and I agreed, on the condition that we come to Florida. I loved Manhattan, but I missed the trees and the outdoors. Florida was in my blood.
The choice was between the University of Florida and Stetson law schools, and we chose Stetson in St. Pete because it would be easier for me to get a job and help put my husband through school. In keeping with all the idealism I had developed in my college years, I was doing social work for the Department of Public Welfare. But I had calmed down a lot since college. By the time I was 30 I had four children. After the twins were born—on Labor Day!—the most radical things I was doing were supporting Eugene McCarthy and pushing a double baby carriage with a sticker saying “War is not healthy for children and other living things.’’
I sometimes look back and wonder how we did it. After Bruce graduated, he had an offer from an Orlando law firm and could have earned $550—a month. We had to think hard about that. Instead, he took a $500-a-month job with a firm he preferred.
When I went back to work, I wrote a column for a small newspaper called the Corner Cupboard and got paid 25 cents—maybe it was 50 cents—per column inch. And I did volunteer work, particularly with the League of Women Voters, and later became league president and got involved in that kind of political activism.
If you want to accomplish something, the best advice I have is to show up. Just show up. Whatever your interest is, pursue it. Whatever your political inclinations are, get involved. If there’s a job you want, go after it. Be proactive. Become a part of the passing scene. That’s certainly true for me. Like many women of my generation, I got involved in politics through volunteer work, and some of the best training I ever got was through the League of Women Voters and the Junior League of Orlando. I put that to good use as a banker for 10 years, and then I entered politics.
Sometimes I feel I was in a lot of right places at the right time. There was the 1960s, then the World’s Fair, and political activism and the women’s movement that worked to my advantage. People like governors Reubin Askew and Bob Graham who wanted to appoint women to boards looked around and said, “There’s Chapin. She’s involved.”