(December 2019) – When Charlie Gray looks across Lake Eola out the 14th-floor window of his office, he can see the property where his childhood home once stood that now holds the Reeves House condominiums. He can see a downtown Orlando skyline he only imagined early in his career as a partner starting what has become the venerable GrayRobinson law firm with 250 attorneys and 14 offices in Florida and Washington, D.C.
“From my early life, I have loved Orlando,” Gray said. “I remember so vividly what was downtown then, so many places we frequented and bought clothes. It was a friendly town. It used to be if you walked down Orange Avenue, you knew everybody and everybody knew you. Then something happened and downtown died. You could have shot a cannon down Orange Avenue and not hit anybody. But it grew, and things started happening.”
Those things didn’t just happen on their own — they had help. Since Gray returned to his hometown as a University of Florida graduate in the 1950s, he has been a guiding force in many of the projects that have changed the face of Central Florida. Today, at age 87, he is still connecting people and projects to make things happen.
One of his proudest accomplishments was helping launch the University of Central Florida (UCF), one of the largest universities in the nation today with more than 68,000 students, 13,000 employees and an operating budget of $1.7 billion. Gray had helped get Haydon Burns elected as governor and then secured his commitment to fund the university and locate it in Orange County, where it started off in 1965 as one building under the name Florida Technological University. Its founding president, Charles Millican, was given an initial budget of $75,000 for planning the university.
Gray remembers spending time with Millican and his wife at the Grays’ beach house, and Millican was doodling on the back of a napkin. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He showed me. He was designing this,” Gray said, displaying a gold ring on his finger with the UCF Pegasus swirl logo. “I got to see this as it was forming.”
Another of Gray’s favorite accomplishments was helping get the Orange County Convention Center built. Today, with a complex of 7 million square feet and 1.5 million visitors in 2018, the convention center is the second-largest in the nation behind its counterpart in Chicago. A state law passed in 1977 paved the way for the project’s funding by allowing county governments to impose a tourist development tax. Orange County voters approved a 2% tax in April 1978, and it raised $3 million in its first year.
Gray became the county attorney in 1977 to help guide the convention center’s construction. In the meantime, he had his hands full with other government projects. The county had 16 separate fire districts, and he worked the political system to get them consolidated into one. The county and Orlando were in a battle with government environmental agencies over wastewater treatment and were banned from approving new construction, and Gray helped negotiate a solution.
“It was traumatic because if you can’t issue a building permit anywhere in Orange County or the city, you’re not going to last very long,” he said. “Our economy was built on construction then and development. Wastewater treatment is not the sexiest subject, but it is absolutely critical to our community.”
Through the years, Gray also had a small hand in helping Walt Disney’s team start a theme park empire in Central Florida. He pulled strings to get approval for both State Road 408 and an interchange at Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike. He has helped get people elected and appointed to numerous public positions.
Things have not always come easily. Gray bought a Mercedes dealership in the early 1960s, and things did not go well with the manager. Gray had to leave his law practice and run the business himself to bring it out of deep debt. One day a stranger named Al Burnett walked in and asked whether the dealership was for sale. Gray eventually sold it to him for $1 plus the $10,000 of remaining debt.
Burnett made so much money from the dealership that he asked Gray his advice on what to do with it, and Gray’s answer was simple: “Have you thought about the University of Central Florida?” Burnett donated his first $500,000 then and became one of the university’s largest donors over the years.
“As bad a deal as I made up front back then, it turned out to be one of my best deals,” Gray said. “It just worked out that way.”
One of Gray’s biggest disappointments was the death of a planned high-speed rail project between Orlando and Tampa that had been earmarked for federal funding. “We need high speed rail in the United States,” Gray said. “Most Americans have never gone overseas. They don’t know that Japan, Spain, Germany and Europe all have high-speed rail. China has high-speed rail — the kind that gets up to almost 300 miles an hour and you can’t even see a glass of water tremble. If it had gone in, people in the United States, most of them go to Disney and Universal, would have ridden it just for the novelty and they would have understood that we need high-speed rail in America. We could have had high-speed rail going all the way from Miami to New York by now.”
Through it all, Gray has had his wife Saundra by his side. They met at a Christmas dance in 1954. The next spring, Gray was walking in downtown Gainesville when he passed an appliance store with a television in the window and saw her on TV talking about giving ski lessons. Her parents owned Hagood Brothers Marine in Orlando, and she felt right at home on the water. He looked her up and they’ve been together ever since.
“She is truly the wind beneath my wings,” he said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without her.” As the UF homecoming chairman in 1957, Gray had been trying to decide who to invite to speak at the Florida Blue Key banquet, considered the political event of the year in Florida. “She said, ‘Why don’t you get that young senator from Massachusetts? I think he’s going somewhere.’ Gray was able to secure John F. Kennedy as the speaker, and a picture of them at the event still hangs on the wall of his office today.
Saundra Gray served on the Federal Reserve Boards of Jacksonville and Atlanta, and through her connections her husband gets to travel with her every year to meet the current chair of the Federal Reserve Board. The Grays took some time off together from 1999 to 2001 for the trip of a lifetime, circumnavigating the world in a 54-foot Gulfstar sailboat. Their route is traced in magic marker on a globe in his office, and he can tell a story about every stop. They created a website about their trip at Seagem.com.
Gray remembers returning to Orlando and answering questions at a social event. “Somebody said, ‘You didn’t have a captain? You were the captain?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he turned to my wife and said, ‘And she was the crew?’ I said, ‘No, she was the admiral.’”
With all of their community involvement, and Gray’s work behind the scenes in politics, he said he never considered putting his own name on the ballot. “I’m interested in getting good people to run and helping them be elevated to office,” he said. “I’ve never really wanted to do it myself. I just felt like I’ve got other things to do.”