Interview with George Rountree III, attorney, philanthropist, and senior partner in the law firm of Rountree, Losee & Baldwin LLP. Here, he discusses his family's prominent local history as well as his own personal narrative, which includes his political career and his work in the legal profession.
Q: Today is Tuesday, July 31st, 2007. I'm Carroll Jones
with Chris Malpass with the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History
program. And today we're very pleased to have as our guest, George Rountree,
Wilmington native, attorney, philanthropist, enthusiastic Seahawk booster and
UNC athletic department supporter. You were also--
Rountree: That's a lot of things, Carroll.
Q: You also were in the North Carolina senate, were you
Rountree: I was.
Q: For how many terms?
Rountree: One session.
Q: The next thing I have down here is now passé. Good
morning, George. Welcome to the wonderful world of Special Collections and
Archives. And Sherman Hayes is also here, our university librarian. I think in
the letter I sent to you it explained why we're doing this.
Rountree: What it didn't explain was how I could get into
this building, because--
Q: I sent you a map.
Rountree: Well, you don't expect an old man to look at a
Q: No, I don't. Men don't ask directions.
Q: Speaking of old man, perhaps we should set the record
straight. When were you born and where?
Rountree: Born in James Walker Memorial Hospital here in
Wilmington at 3:48 p.m. on the 10th of August, 1933.
Q: Who did the delivery, do you know that? There were only
a few doctors in town, weren't there?
Rountree: Seems to me, either Watts Farthing delivered me
or-- I don't remember who else it could be.
Q: Okay, I'm going to ask you now to tell us a little bit
about your background in Wilmington, your roots, and how far back, I understand
your grandfather was here and was involved in the 1898 event. Is that
Rountree: That is correct.
Q: Just tell us-- just start free flowing.
Rountree: Sometime in the 18th century, my
great-grandfather's family moved to the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. He
was a Davis. George Davis. He was born in 1824; graduated from Carolina at 18,
in 1842, was a Confederate senator from North Carolina, was a very close friend
of Judah Benjamin. When Judah Benjamin was tapped for secretary of state in
1864, my great-grandfather, George Davis, was asked to serve and did serve as
the last attorney general of the Confederacy.
Q: Your great-grandfather?
Rountree: My grandmother's father. My grandmother was Meda
Q: The one with the statue downtown?
Rountree: The one with the statue downtown.
Q: Right next to--
Rountree: St. James Episcopal Church.
Q: Oh yeah, very handsome statue with some very nice words
about his service. And then past that, though, he served even after the
Confederacy, didn't he?
Rountree: Well, he was asked by the governor of North
Carolina in 1868, after he got out of federal prison, in Richmond, to serve as
the chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which he declined
because he could not support his family on the salary that was then payable to
the chief justice, which was, I think, three or four thousand dollars a year. He
was a dedicated man of the law and represented various railroad interests,
Wilmington railroad, what was then the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Champ Davis
was a long time friend of his.
Q: No relation?
Rountree: No, no relation. My grandfather, George
Rountree, married George Davis' oldest child. At the time that-- before the end
of the Civil War, my grandmother's mother died, so George Davis was a widower at
that time and remarried in probably the 1870s. Had additional children, whom my
grandmother helped raise. She met my grandfather, who graduated from Harvard
College in 1878, she met him about 1880, and she was called to Kinston by my
great-grandmother Rountree, Mrs. Robert Hart Rountree, who told her that she--
my great grandmother, Robert Hart Rountree, wanted to make sure that Meda Davis
understood that she was marrying a very difficult person in George Rountree.
That he was an impetuous and sometimes profane--
Q: Now this is a relative--
Rountree: No, this is my grandfather. George Rountree, the
first. And she wanted to make sure that this Quaker lady who came from
Philadelphia, Cynthia Biddel Lofton [ph?], was her name-- Mrs. Robert Hart
Rountree was Cynthia Biddel Lofton before she got married. She wanted to be sure
that this young genteel Davis woman, who was about five-feet-one really was
serious about wanting to take over George Rountree, who was about six feet, 190.
And all of the opinionated rhetoric that he could muster. And in fact she
decided she was ready to do that and she did do that. I remember spending many
nights at my grandparents home at 18th and Market, where the Trinity Baptist
Church is now, and they owned the entire block there from Market to Princess,
fronting on 18th, and the house was eight or nine bedrooms, nine or 10
bathrooms, huge. Probably ten, twelve thousand square feet.
Q: To accommodate visitors or children or
Q: It's gone now unfortunately?
Rountree: Gone now. Sold by my father after my
grandmother's death in 1942, sold for I think something around twelve thousand
dollars. It had cost well over a hundred thousand dollars to build, the mantle
piece had been imported from Italy; the masonry work had been done by special
artisans from Florence; my grandfather had a Washington, D.C., architect design
the Georgian home, so it was balanced.
Q: You gave an interesting comment, that this Harvard
graduate-- is that what you said? And that was your grandfather?
Rountree: And my father too. But my grandfather
Q: Well, I just find that interesting in that we'd
finished the Civil War, the feelings were not so great, and yet they went first
class and sent the--
Rountree: Well, Robert Hart Rountree had significant slave
interests and cotton and tobacco farming interests, in Lenore and Pitt. At the
outbreak of the war, he offered the governor of North Carolina the money to
raise a regiment and he would have the regiment. And the governor said, "No,
Robert, you're one of the best business people we know in North Carolina. North
Carolina's role for the Confederacy is to make and distribute shoes, boots, for
the soldiers, and that's your job. Make sure that they're made properly and
they're shipped where they need to go." After the war, of course, all the slaves
are gone, the plantation is ripped apart, partially burned, but my
great-grandfather had a number of friends and many of them went with him to New
York to form the New York Cotton Exchange. So Robert Hart Rountree was one of
the founders of the New York Cotton Exchange with friends from Charleston, and
Savannah and Norfolk, particularly. He was about six-four, about 220, loved
women, horses and money, not necessarily in that order, according to my Aunt
Meda. So he was well able to send his children wherever they wanted to go to
school and he believed that the economic benefits of the north were huge. And
his children ought to go to school in the north and meet the people who were
likely to be successful folks.
Q: I think that's very enlightened in a sense because
there were many people in the south who were defeated and downtrodden and
resented the north, even today. So I think that's an interesting--
Rountree: Well, it was a pragmatic, practical view of the
Q: That Harvard was going to be useful. So this was
Harvard law school?
Rountree: No, Harvard College and then my grandfather came
back here and studied law for a year and at the time when one did not need to
have a degree from a college of law in order to take the bar exam. Read the law
and then took the bar exam.
Q: Which was the more common practice.
Rountree: Right. Then, he and my grandmother married,
probably, I don't know, somewhere between 1879 and 1881 or '2. And moved to
Richmond where my grandfather, under the auspices of his father, got into
business in the cotton exporting business. And one evening as they were having
dinner at the boarding house where my grandmother and grandfather lived, the
owner of the boarding house went to my grandmother and grandfather's table and
said, "Mr. Rountree, there's some men in the kitchen who want to see you," and
Grandpa said fine. And he went back to the kitchen and there were three black
men who had become very popular minstrel and gospel singers who were on the way
to Europe to perform for the Queen of England and other European dignitaries.
They had been slaves given to my grandfather by my great-grandfather when he was
seven; one to take care of his horses, one to take care of his guns and fishing
gear and one to take care of his clothing. So my grandpa had three
Q: Were they adult slaves or were they young
Rountree: I'm not sure. Surely in 1882 or so, they were
adults. And came out, and my grandfather insisted they go out and sing for the
patronage there at the home and they embraced and he never again saw them. But
an interesting story of the history of having had people looking after you and
then all of a sudden you don't have that.
Q: But this was when your grandfather lived in
Rountree: He lived in Richmond. And then he returned to
Wilmington because George Davis was in declining health. Davis died in 1894 and
before he died, my grandmother and grandfather moved back to Wilmington and my
grandfather began practicing law. By that time, grandfather Rountree and
grandmother Rountree had had two children, one of them was a Robert Hart
Rountree, the second, who died in childbirth. Back in those days, of course,
here my grandmother was five-one, diminutive person, and the child was going to
be eight or nine pounds, and didn't make it. The other child was Isabel, and she
eventually married Van Wensler King, who would have been in the army, the United
States, was an engineer, a graduate of Wooster Tech, and had found my aunt
Isabel, whom I never knew. And they got married and he was a big man, about
six-three, and she was diminutive, and she died in child birth several years
Q: The children didn't make it either?
Rountree: No. Subsequently, two other daughters were born
who lived and my father was born. Cynthia was the older of the three surviving
children and then Meda, named after my grandmother, Meda Davis Rountree, who
subsequently married the Episcopal priest, Masterton. Aunt Meda was a huge
character, lived to be 99, spent her last years in Carol Woods, and then my
father was born April 7, 1904.
Q: What was Carol Woods?
Rountree: Carol Woods is a retirement center in Chapel
Hill. And she played bridge every week.
Q: Can I divert for a second to the name Rountree, because
we've talked to various Rountrees, and there's Rountrees in Wattville, and
there's Rountrees out in wherever, you seem like a student of history, that
Rountree: Well, the name was originally Rowantree,
R-O-W-A-N-T-R-E-E, a Yorkshire name, an English name. Yorkshire. So the first
Rountrees from which I descended came to this country in the 17th century and
the great-grandson of the first Rountree was Jessie Rountree, Sheriff of Pitt,
in the early 18th century. And the name evolved, the "a" was dropped and the "w"
changed to "u."
Q: So within the English nomenclature, it was a common
Rountree: Certainly not uncommon.
Q: And there were lots of families of various lineage that
Q: Aren't there quite a few Rountrees?
Q: In genealogy it's not uncommon to have people who came
from England or wherever, the dialect, they would write things if they were
uneducated or barely educated, particularly women, as they spoke, so it went
through various evolutions. This area fascinates me, the number of surnames that
are so unusual, and they come from somewhere, so it's interesting to find out
where. But go ahead.
Q: Another question I had for you is you obviously studied
this but you also knew these people, so was the family a family that was
Rountree: It was diverging. My Aunt Cynthia and Aunt Meda
were very close to grandfather and grandmother. My father was born when my
grandfather was 50. And my grandmother was 46. That was relatively old, first
place, for people to live, and then to have children is another-- my father was
something of a miscreant, and was a favorite of my grandmother and my
grandfather was very irritated at his perception of my father's lack of focus.
So my father was sent off to St. Paul School, prep school in Concord, New
Hampshire, when he was in the seventh grade, I think.
Q: But in perspective, for professional class folks,
sending someone to prep school was not uncommon.
Rountree: Not uncommon.
Q: Today we don't see that as much.
Q: Except the old families depending on where you live.
It's not uncommon-- I grew up on the west coast in a family that had been
totally entrenched and their kids were sent east to get polish.
Q: But I'm saying there would have been other generational
people of his peers that also were probably sent to various schools.
Rountree: Oh, sure. And of course he met and befriended a
number of very prominent folks who became successful lawyers in New York,
Philadelphia, Boston. So he went from St. Paul's to Harvard College, then to
Harvard Law School. Flunked out in the midst of enjoying riotous living, his
first year in law school. Went to North Carolina--
Q: He told you this?
Rountree: No, my grandmother told me. And he did very well
at Carolina, a member of the Law Review, returned to Harvard Law School and
graduated in 1928.
Q: Interesting times, just a year before the
Rountree: My mother, well, my aunts, Cynthia and Meda, it
was improvident to send a young woman off to school from Wilmington, and so my
grandfather imported, along with other prominent Wilmington men, Joe Hooper's
grandfather was one of them who paid to import teachers from Harvard and
Princeton to come to Wilmington to teach these girls. And that's how
Q: This would have been on the college level.
Rountree: Oh, yeah.
Q: Did they have a formal setting or did they live in the
Rountree: I don't know that. I don't know that. All I know
is Aunt Meda said she was educated by the smartest people she'd ever known
outside of her mother and father.
Q: So they were tutors in essence? And on what subjects,
Rountree: Yeah. Every-- well, math, English--
Q: Probably even Greek.
Rountree: Greek, yeah.
Q: Latin, right.
Rountree: My father could speak Greek, Latin, French and
English and some German as most folks--
Q: Well, he was a lawyer.
Rountree: Well, he had studied at St. Paul and Harvard, he
was required to learn--
Q: It was more classical higher education.
Q: And who do you think were some of the other men-- you
mentioned the one name; were there others that, your grandmother's
contemporaries, that are still here-- were there Sprunts at that
Rountree: Sprunts. Pembroke Jones just adored my
grandmother and every year sent her Christmas and birthday presents from London.
My grandfather and Pembroke Jones were fast friends and my grandpa did much of the
legal work for Jones, and Jones finally bought a huge silver Tiffany's cup,
about that big, and gave it to my grandfather saying, you're never going to earn
this cup playing golf yourself, so I'm going to give it to you.
Q: The law in your family goes back how many
Rountree: Three back from me. 1842.
Q: But in perspective as we talk about your father's
generation, and this will help us as we talk about you growing up in Wilmington,
Wilmington had some-- you know, some old families and there was some money here
because of cotton and railroad and shipping--
Rountree: And banks.
Q: But it was still a pretty small burg, I mean, let's put
it in perspective. We're now 350,000 people in the area, but what's your sense
of when your dad was growing up here in what would have been the early 1900s,
what was it? 5,000 people? 6,000 people?
Rountree: No, it was probably 35,000; 40,000. But a very
provincial southern community. With a great deal of reaction against the
northern carpetbaggers or people perceived to be controlled by northern
industrial interest. It was agrarian, basically agrarian, maritime
Q: And these families had been here a long time and they
served the community but they knew each other and worked in those
Q: Now, we're talking up through your dad's period in the
'20s. But you grew up in the '40s, right?
Rountree: Well, if I've grown up. I allegedly matured in
Q: I'm trying to get to a point where we can compare and
Rountree: I'd like to say something about my mother
because she was no dummy. She was a phi beta kappa graduate of Radcliffe at a
time when women didn't go to college. She was right there in the yard. And was a
member, obviously, attended Seven College conference meetings every year, wore
her phi beta kappa key and told me I'd never be quite that smart, which I never
Q: Did she particularly concentrate on
Rountree: French literature major.
Q: What did she do with that?
Q: Did she speak French--
Rountree: She eventually, after my parents separated and
divorced and my mother and my sister and me-- mother moved my sister and me to
Phoenix, Arizona. Mother worked for the American Red Cross, a very liberal, a
very people-oriented person. At that time the American Red Cross function was to
assist families of members of the service.
Q: What time period are we talking about?
Rountree: We're talking about 1947 to 1964 or
Q: And you had at that point gone to school here and the
moved to Arizona to Phoenix.
Rountree: Right, I started school here at Mrs. Cranmere's
[ph?] kindergarten in 1938. I was five. At that point in my life and probably I
haven't changed, I talked up in class and did not wait to be recognized, I know
you can hardly believe that. And so the teacher, to punish me, took me out of
the classroom and put me in a closet. And that event is what I attribute my
depressed personality to this very day.
Q: For the record, that was a joke.
Rountree: So a couple of hours later the teacher went to
the place where she'd ensconced me, the closet, and I'm not there. She becomes
immediately disturbed and calls my mother and says, "Mrs. Rountree, I can't find
your son. He was misbehaving and I put him in the --" and mother said, "Well,
that's strange, he came home about an hour and a half ago and said you'd called
school off for the day." I wasn't going to stay shut up in a closet, you've got
to be kidding me. I was five. Then I remember going to Isaac Bear with Bobby
Cameron and Louie Woodbury and Henry Long; there was a drugstore at the corner
of 16th and Market, called Jarman's Drug Store. And I found out about credit at
Jarman's Drug Store when I was seven in the second grade at Isaac Bear. I found
I could go there and charge these ten cent cones, two big scoops of ice cream
for ten cents. Well, I charged cones for Cameron and Woodbury and Henry Long and
me for a month, you know, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, so
that's 20 times. So that's 20 times 50, about ten bucks, okay? And so my mother
got the bill and she said, "What in the world have you done?" and I said, "Well,
I mean, I didn't know you had to pay," and she said, "Well, of course you have
to pay, you can't go charging things without paying for them." That was my
introduction to credit. My further introduction, my grandfather used to take me
to the Bijou, and the Royal, those are movie theaters downtown, on Front
Q: Motion picture. Talkies?
Rountree: Yes. Black and white. I mean, you're talking
about the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, the Durango Kid.
Q: These are the morning things we would go to and sit all
day long with a bag lunch.
Rountree: 1940. Okay. So Pete Knight, who used to be the
photographer here in Wilmington, was employed by the Bijou, taking tickets. And
I remember at age seven being picked up after school by the street car because
my grandfather told the conductor to pick me up at a certain time and deliver me
to a certain point, at the Merkson [ph?] building, just immediately south of the
Bijou theater on Front Street, at a certain time. Well, I was delivered, we
walked into the Bijou and Pete Knight said to my grandfather, "Well, Judge,
where's your ticket?" "Hurmp, I'll pay on the way out if I like the movie." I
thought that's the way you did it. Okay, "I"ll pay on the way out if I like the
movie." So, after my grandfather died in early 1942, I went to the movies-- of
course the movie was nine cents at that time, I didn't have nine cents most of
the time and I tried that with Pete Knight, and Pete Knight said, "You're not
your grandfather, young Rountree, you need to come back in about 70 years and
Q: You mentioned Isaac Bear, because to you it's just a
school in another building, but it's very, very important in the university's
history and in fact now there's what's called an early college high school
that's named itself Isaac Bear. So tell us about that building, it was what? An
elementary school right across the street from the high school?
Rountree: Elementary school right across the street from
the high school.
Q: Did they talk about who Isaac Bear was?
Q: I mean, we know he was a merchant and maybe owned it or
had it originally. What grades were there? K- through--
Rountree: No, no, no, there wasn't any K; what are you
talking about "K."
Rountree: I know what kindergarten is, but not K, no
public-- there wasn't public kindergarten back in those days. If one were K'd,
one's family paid a kindergarten type--
Q: Tied to a church--
Rountree: Some of them were tied to churches.
Q: So it was a private-- so first grade
Rountree: First grade through 8th at that
Q: So it was a substantial building in the sense that it
could hold quite a few--
Rountree: Well, it held probably three or four hundred
Q: I didn't realize it was that large. When did you switch
Rountree: When I was nine, my grandfather had advanced
money to my father and mother to buy a lot and build a house on it at the
confluence of Hawthorne and Hydrangea; Hydrangea dead ends into
Q: These are streets in the neighborhood called Forest
Rountree: No, this was one block north of Oleander Drive
at the present Hawthorne. But there wasn't any development south of Oleander
Drive at that time. This is 1942. Spring of '42.
Q: So that was the outer limit of Wilmington?
Q: Over where the country club is.
Rountree: Just east of there.
Q: So that was empty territory up to that
Rountree: It was pretty empty territory and I remember two
things about living there. One is my job was to clean out the grease trap. You
ever cleaned out a grease trap? I mean, get down in it with a bucket, and dump
the residue out on high ground, let it filter and do that until the grease
trap's reduced to probably eight inches.
Q: And a grease trap being--
Rountree: A grease trap being a septic-- cesspool system.
That's where all the refuse went from the bathrooms and from--
Q: Oh, not just grease.
Rountree: No, it was not grease.
Q: So that was a euphemism, the "grease" trap.
Rountree: It was a euphemism.
Q: Today we would say the septic tank. Although the food
would go in there too, so it was a mixture.
Rountree: Right. Well, it was pretty septic. And the other
thing I remember is that there were obviously a number of woods and clumps of
shrubbery on the north side of Oleander Drive at the corner of Hawthorne and
Oleander and I tell you I killed more Japs and Germans at that intersection than
Audie Murphy or any other American did in the course of World War
Q: This is what I've been hearing from all this
Q: But that's an important statement, the war is on,
started in December, and you're seven, eight years old.
Rountree: I was eight at the time.
Q: And every day on the radio and every day in the
newspaper was about the war, and so you played soldier, and the soldier wasn't
the Civil War-- when I grew up it was always cowboys and Indians, I lived in the
Midwest and so for us the imagery was always cowboys and Indians. For you it
really was the enemy of America at the time.
Q: And so what, you had a gang of guys--
Rountree: Yeah, Bobby Cameron, Wilbur Jones, Louie
Woodbury, Billy Dosier--
Q: Bobby Cameron.
Rountree: Robert Franklin Cameron. He's the youngest child
of Lottie Fales Cameron and Bruce B. Cameron, Senior.
Q: I'm trying to think of what happened to
Rountree: Oh, you've got Bruce, Dan, Hilda, Rachael,
Q: The youngest. And he's still alive, he's the one that
owns the BP stations?
Rountree: No, no, Bobby does.
Q: Okay, that Bobby. But not Dan, because Dan was older
and Dan was headed to World War II.
Rountree: Bruce. Bruce and Dan went and graduated from
VMI. They were in the service. In fact, it may have been Bruce, Hilda, Dan,
Rachel and Bobby.
Q: And who were some of the others?
Rountree: Wilbur D. Jones, that Jones. The right tackle on
the 1946 Forest Hills football team.
Q: Was Smitty Jewell [ph?] one of them--
Rountree: No, Ronnie Phelps was one of them. I'll tell you
who another one was, John Wannett [ph?] Blake.
Q: He's deceased now.
Rountree: Gene Robinson and Sonny Utaff [ph?]. Albry Utaff
Junior. Artie Perry.
Q: You had a division almost.
Rountree: Oh, yeah, we were organized. I mean, we were--
Howard Pinton [ph?].
Q: You were fairly close to a story that we
Rountree: Horace K. Thompson, Junior.
Q: Further out, because the military took over Blumenthal
Field, we have stories that there was a private air strip built where what is
now the shopping center area. I wondered if that had happened by '42 or was that
Q: You're talking about what is now the shopping center
area at Independence?
Q: Right, near there was a private air strip because they
forced them away from Blumenthal.
Rountree: I don't know anything about that.
Q: Okay, it must have been a little bit later, because I
think later in the war they actually put in an air strip, and I thought maybe
you guys would have discovered that.
Rountree: It was a strange time. My family had a big house
adjacent to Carolina Yacht Club, Wrightsville Beach, and certainly in the summer
of 1941, and in 1942, we had black-out shades pulled down at night. Could not
have a lighted area because the apprehension existed that Nazi subs were off the
coast. There was rationing, there was gasoline rationing, there were food
stamps, you had to have special stamps to buy tires for your car. You couldn't
get bubble gum. Couldn't get Double Bubble gum.
Q: Did you actually see the military presence increase
during that time?
Rountree: Oh, sure. What was New Garden-- I mean, the
apartments there at Oleander Court apartments, they were built by several
Wilmington families at that time to rent to military people from Camp Davis, and
so George Harris, long time friend of mine, and I would go to Oleander Court
apartments every Sunday and knock on doors and volunteer to shine shoes, 15
cents a pair, two for 25, to make money.
Q: These were military guys.
Q: Did your family ever rent your beach house out to
military couples? Because there was no place for married couples to live in
Wilmington and a lot of families would rent out their extra bedrooms or even
move families in together.
Rountree: I don't know the answer to that.
Q: Was the country club in existence at that
Rountree: Oh, sure, yeah. My grandfather had been one of
the-- he's not listed as a founder--
Q: It's not in the same condition as it is now. But, oh
Rountree: Well, then there were three holes that were
north of Oleander Drive. So we'd all gather on the 15th fairway, which ran
parallel with Mimosa Place, and was behind the home of Dudley Humphrey, Senior.
Dudley Humphrey, Junior, was a contemporary, and so we at Forest Hills would
gather at the Humphrey home and play football and then migrate to the country
club because there was beautiful grass and if you got knocked down there it
didn't hurt as much as it did on the hard surface of the worn-down lot adjacent
to the Humphreys. Because we played every day. Every day. And we're talking
about people who played there, Claude King, was the great athlete, _____________
high school. Sonny Jurgenson--
Q: Your father then was past the military
Rountree: No, he was 4-F. He volunteered and they wouldn't
Q: And did he get pulled into war effort things as
Rountree: Oh sure, he was an OPA. Office of Price
Administration, issued the stamps, the food stamps, and gasoline rationing
stamps. You couldn't get what you wanted unless you had money and
Q: And so he was a practicing attorney though through this
Q: Well, Mr. Humphrey was also an attorney and so was
Q: And you know, all of this started when you left Isaac
Bear to go to school at--
Rountree: Forest Hills.
Q: Because you made that shift and you went to school
based on location.
Rountree: Right. There were no black students where I went
to school. Ever. Until I went to the University of Arizona.
Q: Ever? By policy?
Rountree: Yes, by policy.
Rountree: I mean, when I moved to Phoenix, the Phoenix
Union High School District was the only high school district in the state of
Arizona that was segregated. And that was in 1947.
Q: Oh, just by their policy.
Q: Well, out West there was no segregation. So-- did you
go to Phoenix because your mother was from that area?
Rountree: No. Mother's mother was Isabel Hastings Johnson.
She was educated at a college in Massachusetts. Her husband, B.O. Johnson,
Benjamin Oliver Johnson, went to Wooster Tech, played football at Wooster Tech,
in 1881, 1883. Was a graduate engineer, rose to senior vice president of
Northern Pacific Railroad before he died, and as a Northern Pacific Railroad
executive, lived in St. Paul. At that time my grandmother Johnson led the
Minnesota effort to support the women's suffarage amendment. Was a huge women's
rights person. I remember in the legislature, I called my mother the night
before-- in 1974 we in the senate were going to vote for the Equal Rights
Amendment. Mother said, "If you vote for that, don't come home because I do not
want to be brought down to your level. I do not want to be brought down to your
Q: She didn't want you to vote for it?
Rountree: No. She said, "I don't want to be brought down
to your level. I mean, you light my cigarettes, you stand up when I come in the
room, you indicate deference to my stature of position in the family. Why would
I want that change?" I said, okay. I said, "Mother, you're pretty sharp; I hope
I'm as sharp as you are when I get to be your age." She said, "You're not that
Q: But why Arizona?
Rountree: Well, when my grandfather Johnson died, my
grandmother moved to Phoenix. She had, as you might expect, she had a
significant interest in Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, which is 3M, which
is headquartered in St. Paul, because my grandfather Johnson was a close friend
of the president of, CEO, of Minnesota Mining. So in 1947, she probably had
four, five thousand shares of Minnesota Mining. Now, today that'd be worth about
twenty-two million dollars, and translated to about a hundred thousand or more,
two hundred thousand shares.
Q: Did they have interest in Phoenix?
Rountree: No, no. She just moved there. Became a charter
member of he Unitarian Church there, was a charter member of the Arizona Country
Club, the only woman charter member of any country club in the history of
Arizona at that time.
Q: Are you a golfer still?
Q: I just saw a lot of golfers in your
Rountree: I mean, Phoenix was like 120,000
Q: It was a wide open place.
Q: So your grandmother was there--
Rountree: Mother moved my sister Isabel and me there on
February 2, 1947.
Q: How did you feel about that?
Rountree: I revolted. I was 13. And moving away from
Q: And you went into public school.
Rountree: Went into public school. Got out of a car, said
hello to my grandmother, embraced her, saw some boys playing basketball at a
place next door, I went over there and within 15 minutes had broken my left
foot. So I went to school the following week with a cast on my left foot and saw
guys playing basketball on the hard surface court and I went out there and
played with that on and did okay, and broke four casts in three weeks. And
finally the doctor said, "Mrs. Rountree, it won't do any good to put the cast
back on that boy. Just let him play."
Q: So you stayed in Arizona, in the Phoenix area, and went
on through the University of Arizona.
Rountree: I did.
Q: Did you play sports there?
Rountree: I did.
Q: Did you play football?
Rountree: I played football and basketball in high school
and basketball in college. Was co-captain of the team in '54, '55.
Q: What position were you?
Rountree: I was a guard at that time, a sophomore. For the
University of Arizona.
Q: I've got to ask you a question. And this is just before
the break. I told you that I was raised in Southern California. And we all grew
up with the idea that the University of Arizona was a party school.
Rountree: You were right.
Q: That if you couldn't get into USC, or whatever, God
forbid, Stanford, you went to U of A, you could go and just party. Was that
Rountree: That's about it.
Q: Well, come on.
Rountree: Of course, now, I had scholarship offers from
USC, to play football, okay? Jess Hill was athletic director at USC, came to
Phoenix my senior year in high school and recruited me and four or five other
football players from high schools in Phoenix. And the scholarship offer, this
is 1951, okay? Put that in perspective. Room, board, books, tuition fees and $75
a month; I had never seen $75 a year, much less a year.
Q: Because you charged everything.
Rountree: I did charge everything.
Q: So you turned it down.
Rountree: I turned it down. I had a girlfriend. I had a
Phoenix girlfriend, pretty little girl.
Q: Romance rears its head.
Rountree: Well, testosterone--
Q: What was that conference then?
Rountree: That was the Border Conference, the old Border
Q: Who were your competitors?
Rountree: Texas Tech in Lubbock; West Texas State in
Canyon Texas, Hardin-Simmons in Abilene. Now, let me tell you, go there by bus,
it's a two-day trip. I thought it was like the Pony Express. Yeah. Now, we
stayed in Demming the first night. Now, I tell you, Demming was not exactly the
bastion of five-diamond resorts, so we stayed in a hotel where the bed was
concave, and I kept rolling down the middle this bed, see, and there were all
kinds of coyotes outside, and everything, and I don't believe I
Q: Now, did you have on your team some of these veterans
coming back? That was the surge of World War II veterans coming back to
Rountree: No question about it.
Q: Interesting mix--
Rountree: Old men.
Q: That's what I'm saying, a mix of--
Q: So there you were out there, a carefully raised young
man from the south in the Wild West with Gila monsters and all the rest of it,
Q: Were you coming back to Wilmington at all?
Rountree: A couple of times.
Q: And you liked it?
Rountree: Well, eventually. What happened I was a
sophomore in high school and my English orientation teacher taught a two-hour
course, told my mother that I'd never amount to anything. "Your son will never
amount to anything." My mother had gone to see the teacher because I got a C in
English, and my mother said, "You speak correct English, you can write lucid
English, properly punctuated with good spelling, correct spelling, with syntax
that makes sense. I don't understand why you're making a C in English, I'm going
to find out." She goes, and "Mrs. Rountree, your son makes A's in every test but
he talks in class and he just interrupts things and he'll never amount to
anything." Mother moved my sister and me to another school, to another high
school district. The following year I went to West Phoenix High School,
transferring from North Phoenix High School. And the coach there became my real
mentor. And his name-- basketball and assistant football coach. His name was
Lincoln A. Richmond, been an All-American third team at Arizona and I would have
run through a wall if he told me to. Whatever he wanted me to do I would do.
Because he came to me the first day of school and he said, "Young Rountree, if
you do what I tell you to do, you gonna be something. You're gonna be
Q: In that case, mother knew best.
Rountree: Mother did know best.
Q: Well, teachers can make a huge difference.
Rountree: So, I suppose that I-- had I remained here in
the rut of tradition, whether I would have ever come out of the shell or not, I
don't know. I don't know. What I do know is that I owe such a debt of thanks to
my mother, whom I did not appreciate at the time, 'til later, for moving me out
of an environment where it was important who your father and mother were, and
grandfather and grandmother, into an environment, that it makes no difference.
It's who you are, what you do, what you accomplish and what kind of a person you
Q: Well, Phoenix was very raw and open; they probably
didn't even have some of that same--
Q: Oh, there was.
Q: Was there an aristocracy?
Q: Well, yes, there was. Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's
not for now, but yes, there was.
Q: But you didn't belong to that and you didn't need to
belong to that?
Rountree: No, you didn't. And I tell you, it was a great
feeling to walk into a public restaurant as a senior in high school and hear
some people say, that's George Rountree.
Q: That was sports visibility.
Q: Basketball, big, big deal there?
Rountree: Huge deal. Huge deal.
Q: And then you went to the University.
Rountree: I was fortunate enough to be All-State football
and basketball because this coach believed in me.
Q: George, did you get your law degree at the University
Rountree: I did. I did.
Q: At Arizona?
Rountree: In Tucson, uh-huh.
Q: Now, wait a minute, Phoenix is the University of
Rountree: No, it isn't; Tucson is the University of
Arizona. Phoenix is Arizona State, actually it's Tempe, which is 8
Q: So where was your undergraduate at?
Rountree: University of Arizona in Tuscon. And then I went
in the military. I mean, back then, it was Korea. If you didn't-- if you weren't
in the ROTC program, your little butt was going to get drafted, and the life
expectancy in Korea in combat at that time was about 22 minutes. That's not very
good. And so notwithstanding the fact that I did not like the constriction and
the regimen of military at the time, I entered ROTC. Somehow I became cadet
colonel of the ROTC program at Arizona by the time I was a senior.
Q: Were you bigger then? Were you bigger than the rest of
Rountree: Oh, yeah.
Q: How tall are you?
Rountree: I was about six-- I've shrunk. I'm getting
Q: Because the camera only has you sitting
Rountree: I was six-three at the time.
Q: So you were a big guard then; that was kind of early
for that whole concept of a big, big guard.
Rountree: Well, there were four of us about six-three and
one center six-five.
Q: Most of them from the southwest?
Q: They grow them big out there.
Rountree: We had a player from Fairfax High in L.A., a
really good, good friend of mine, Jackson Eddie. We had a Mormon from Mesa, we
had a Tucson High guy, we had a couple from West Phoenix with me, we had one
from Miami High School; Miami, Arizona. We had one from Clifton, a mining
Q: Do you still stay connected with that whole program? If
you're an alum--
Rountree: I do.
Q: And yet that school has just skyrocketed in size and
Q: Well, the whole state of Arizona and all those
Q: What is it? In the Pac 10.
Rountree: Pac 10 now.
Q: We've got two minutes left, do you want to take a break
now and put in a new tape. I've got some questions I want to ask.
Q: We do get to his career eventually
Q: We never did get the 1898 connection. Was one of your
relatives from the stories of your family involved in that particular
Q: Which one was that?
Rountree: My grandfather, George Rountree, was counsel to
the Wilmington nine. That's Hugh McRae, that's Walker Taylor, that's seven
Q: I've never heard that and that's in all the papers on
1898 but that's interesting.
Rountree: That was a group of nine professionals who were
concerned about the deterioration of law and order in Wilmington in the days
that preceded November 1998.
Q: And the carpetbaggers--
Rountree: The stories about white women being molested by
blacks or white women being forced off the sidewalks by blacks were rampant.
Blacks held a majority of the elected offices in Wilmington and New Hanover
County. A black man was collector of customs, the highest-paid public employee
in the state of North Carolina. He made something like 4 or $5,000 a year. The
black newspaper was more prominent than the white paper and--
Q: The perception by this group was that there was a
deterioration. We aren't there so we don't know if there was a deterioration.
You're just saying that their perception was that there was a deterioration
Rountree: That's exactly right, and the Wilmington Nine
spoke for moderation but when things deteriorate moderation is abandoned with
rapidity and when the reactionaries took over there was no turning them back,
and so there was a huge uprising. How many killed, whether that was two or 50--
What I do know is that one of the Wilmington white leaders advised one of the
U.S. senators from North Carolina to advise the President that he should not
send any national guards people in to Wilmington 'cause the Gatling gun was on
Q: If they were coming across the bridge to get
Rountree: They would have to come through a
Q: Who got the Gatling gun?
Rountree: Well, Colonel Walker Taylor was in charge of the
constabulary so to speak.
Q: He was one of the nine?
Rountree: He was one of the nine.
Q: Did you ever talk to your grandfather?
Rountree: I never talked to him about it but my aunt Meda
is the source of all my information about it. She remembers a lot.
Q: Has she written down all of her memories--
Q: Then you see--
Rountree: Okay. Well, the Democratic party leadership in
North Carolina determined that my grandfather would be the Democratic candidate
in 1898 from Hanover for the North Carolina House of Representatives for the
sole purpose of drafting the suffrage law which would govern North Carolina
electoral voting for 50 years.
Q: He did--
Rountree: And he did. He was elected and served and he
drafted. It was his--
Q: As a northerner, I said to you that's perceived as a
Jim Crow law. That's not how they would perceived that. Was this the
codification of return of--
Rountree: Well, he- my grandfather thought it survived the
Jim Crow concept because if your father or grandfather had voted you were
eligible to register to vote.
Q: This is the new law or the old law?
Rountree: This is new. Now--
Q: They call this the suffrage vote?
Rountree: That affected whites too. Okay?
Q: Yes, it did.
Rountree: There is-- My grandfather wrote extensively in
hand notes which I have about that, why he thought that was okay.
Q: It was a controlled law to see who could vote, not all
these newcomers, not all these interlopers of any kind who have all recently
moved here, were disenfranchised North Carolina--
Rountree: Correct. His view about it was that the role of
the elected officials was to control the taxation of the people. If you didn't
own property, you ought not to vote to tax people who do. Okay? A simplistic
thought. On the other hand, I see that the general assembly now has authorized
counties to conduct referenda to determine whether or not there will be an
increase in the real estate transfer tax so 25% of the people don't own
anything. They won't vote to increase the tax on me 'cause I own land. Okay? If
you don't own land, you don't have to worry about paying any tax to transfer it.
Now does that make sense to me? Huh uh, but that's the way it is. On the other
hand, what also doesn't make sense is this university requires a great deal of
philanthropy to perform its mission.
Q: You're speaking of this university?
Rountree: Yeah, and every- any public-- The University of
Arizona where I contribute a lot of money every year and Rosemary wants me to
give a lot of money every year and I have up to now and I'm looking at it and
seeing the extent of the very liberal faculty who teach that the role of society
is to support not only the weak and the helpless with which I agree but also the
person who is somehow downtrodden, who has not taken advantage of opportunities
presented to him or her and so is in a downtrodden position he ought to be or
she ought to be helped. That's where I differ and what I would hope is they'll
be given an equal opportunity for a conservative, business-oriented professor to
be employed by the business school at UNC Wilmington so you have a liberal dean.
Is he going to hire a conservative professor? I don't think so--
Q: But the outside world has a perception that somebody's
view, liberal and conservative, has a lot to do with who's hired and my
perception is that it almost has nothing to do with how they're hired. They are
hired for subject specialties and expertise and we hire specialists in crabs and
we hire specialists in finance who worked on Wall Street. We hire specialists in
political science and all stripes and--
Rountree: I am glad to hear that.
Q: --and how the person perceives and liberal,
conservative almost never comes up in the process in my sitting on faculty
sessions. It is much more about the subject area and in fact the basketball
coach they probably don't ask liberal or conservative. It's about basketball. So
the perception that somehow in the hiring process there is a filtering-- In
fact, I can't even tell you the politics or attitudes of the deans and I see
them all the time. They're interested in filling positions with top-quality
people about the specialties--
Rountree: That requires supplemental money from outside
sources to be competitive--
Q: Right, but all I'm seeing in the selection process I
never-- It could be possible that in the political science department someone's
orientation could make a difference because they're teaching that but that's
just an aside and it's a valid comment because it shows something-- There are a
few professors on campus who will agree with what George is saying and I've
heard what they say.
Q: You're done. You're out of law school. What's
Rountree: Well, I practiced law in Phoenix for about a
Q: What type of law?
Rountree: I was just a general practitioner, had- handled
domestic cases, personal injury cases, collection of debts cases--
Q: That's because you were new--
Rountree: --bankruptcy case. Yeah, I was the new guy on
the block. I wasn't going to turn down anything that was honorable and
Q: What do you specialize in?
Rountree: Now I am basically three things. I'm a civil
litigator, I am supposed to be an expert in admiralty law, maritime law, the law
of the sea, and I handle some commercial transaction.
Q: What's a civil litigator?
Rountree: That's contrary to a criminal litigator. A civil
litigator is a person who gets involved in an automobile accident and sues
another person or a person who has a contract to buy a business and the other
guy declines and you sue the seller--
Q: Between corporations? Do you work many times with
Q: --this is a--
Q: When you say admiralty law, that piques my interest
because I know that is pretty much of a narrow area. Is it--
Q: Do you often have to go to Washington and New York for
Rountree: No, because I'm older now, Carroll, but I send
younger people off to--
Q: Your minions, right.
Rountree: To-- Well, to maybe Seattle, maybe Long Beach,
New Orleans, Gulfport, Mississippi, Miami, Savannah, Jacksonville,
Q: Are there specific courts that only handle maritime or
is this because the suits--
Rountree: No. There are specific-- Well, the admiralty
jurisdiction of the United States vests in the Article 3 courts. That's the
United States district courts. It's not exclusive. The state courts have
Q: But there's not a separate court system
Rountree: No, but when I early came along in order to
argue a maritime case in federal court one had to pay a special fee and be
designated a proctor and so the Maritime Law Association of which I am a member
of the proctor admission committee has a special designation, proctor status,
meaning that a person with that status has a recognized degree of knowledge and
experience in maritime affairs and cases.
Q: There was a lot of maritime law in Arizona at the time
Rountree: Actually, there was although there is federal
admiralty jurisdiction in Lake Mead--
Rountree: --because it borders on two states.
Q: Did you--
Rountree: So I wrote an article about that--
Q: Did you come to Wilmington then next or did you
Rountree: I went to- came to Wilmington next in
Rountree: Well, my father asked me to come back here and
practice law with him.
Q: You had kept the relationship going over that
Rountree: Not really.
Q: Reconnected with Wilmington.
Rountree: But I somehow thought it would be the thing to
do to come back and try to reestablish the reputation of excellence in politics,
business and law that my grandfather had left behind and my father is kind of a
James Dean personality, didn't care.
Q: When did he die?
Rountree: April the 19th, 1979.
Q: Give me a sense of '62. We got your early impressions
of '45 to '47--
Rountree: Here is '62--
Q: What's '62?
Rountree: There are 34 lawyers in New Hanover and Pender
Q: At that time.
Rountree: At that time.
Q: How many hundred--
Rountree: It is probably 600, 700.
Q: And they knew each other--
Rountree: And they knew each other.
Q: Brunswick wasn't a player--
Rountree: And of course I moved with alacrity from my
office to the courthouse. I was going route ____________. I was moving.
Everybody else was just kind of ambling along. My gosh. I was in the courthouse
and back by the time they got to Third and Princess.
Q: You're bringing both a basketball and a southwestern
Rountree: Well, I believe in speed of execution. If you
can't execute rapidly, you need to go on and do something else.
Q: When you came back to Wilmington to practice law with
your dad what type of cases-- He had give you some to get started.
Rountree: Well, yes. I worked on admiralty
Q: So you really--
Rountree: Uh huh.
Q: That was a quick study then. Right?
Rountree: That was OJT, on the job training.
Q: Were there hardly any other folks in town who even
wanted to mess with that--
Q: Was it because of money or complexity?
Rountree: I don't know whether complexity is the proper
noun or whether it's unusual application of principles. You had the evolution of
admiralty law that came to the common law of England from the Hanseatic League
and the Laws of Oleron and some of the great decisions of the Supreme Court have
been in admiralty cases.
Q: I think we forget how pivotal--
Rountree: Ocean commerce contributes to the success of
Q: --and still--
Rountree: Is. If you see the number of containers coming
in to the United States from the Far East--
Q: Or your old stomping grounds, California. That whole
state runs on shipments-- No, but-- Los Angeles-- I'm saying even today
Rountree: The Florida beach is huge.
Q: Long Beach definitely and then of course you go further
Rountree: San Francisco, Seattle--
Q: And Katrina kind of pointed out we had forgotten New
Orleans is just huge. Houston is much larger than New Orleans--
Rountree: River traffic, barge traffic in New Orleans and
Houston are huge.
Q: We forgot that but you didn't forget that. Were your
Rountree: Here is what has happened. In the admiralty
practice there is a relatively small group of people and so as you move up the
ladder of knowledge there is a relatively small group of folks who are in your
sphere of influence.
Rountree: There are probably 15 in New York. There are
four or five in Norfolk. There are four or five in Charleston, four or five in
Savannah, and we all know each other and so we don't need to document a lot of
things in writing. If I call Hamp Uzzelle in Mobile and say, "Hamp, I'd like 30
days' extension to answer this complaint," fine. We don't have to worry about it
'cause we trust each other.
Q: Is that still the case--
Rountree: Still the case.
Q: Do you think that's going to stay that way or in
today's world is that going to change? That's--
Rountree: I hope it stays that way. Do I think it will? I
am very pessimistic about it because the notion of instant gratification
overwhelms honor. It's like political office. Political office is the anvil on
which honor and truth are placed to be crushed. The higher the political office,
the finer the crush. It's very simple.
Q: That definition is something else. I want to get back
to one thing as far as the admiralty law is concerned. Am I correct in saying
that-- You mentioned some legal issues that came down from the Supreme Court.
Not everybody can practice before the Supreme Court.
Rountree: That's correct.
Q: There was a couple. This man used to be a judge
advocate general. They call it that, the naming, and Admiral Storren [ph?] and
his wife, Ralphene Storren, was one of the first women who was credited for
hearing a case in front of the Supreme Court. When he retired they opened an
office in Maryland not too far from Baltimore and they evidently just had loads
of business. Of course, the fact that he was also a retired three star admiral
didn't hurt but he told me and Ralphene told me that the amount of almost
pirate-type situations were still going on in various ways. That's a terminology
necessarily and that the Supreme Court didn't really want to hear these
particularly but being close to Washington they would get more done going in
other routes. Can you comment on that? Did you have to practice it--
Rountree: The Supreme Court has undergone some significant
change in the last 35, 40 years. When I first started practicing law the Supreme
Court acknowledged that its role was to interpret and determine the maritime law
of the United States.
Q: So they were active in the Supreme Court--
Rountree: Very active.
Q: Do you yourself practice at different courts up and
Q: That's what I was getting at because--
Rountree: Now the Supreme Court is- has abdicated its
position and allowed it to re-vest in the state courts and I'm saying, "Wait a
minute. What is this? What is going on?" The admiralty law of the United States
historically has been determined by the Supreme Court.
Q: Because it's a national issue. Right?
Rountree: Because the same rule ought to apply to mariners
whether in Long Beach or Wilmington. It's foreign commerce or interstate
Q: And we are a maritime nation.
Rountree: We're a maritime nation. Now the Supreme Court
in the last 15 years has gotten to the point where the federal nature of our
system with the federal government over here and the state government over here
has been distorted to reduce the inclination of the Supreme Court to determine
maritime matters. In the last term of the Supreme Court, the court had the
opportunity to say, "The rule is this in admiralty matters with respect to
shipments portal to portal" and it declined to do that. It said, "Well, we're
going to decide what the law is from the time the product left Kobe, Japan,
until the time it reached Charleston. The inland carriage we're going to leave
to some other venue, some other rule, and I'm saying, "Wait a minute. The bill
of lading covers portal to portal. What are you doing? You're just opening the
system to multiple interpretations, applications, so--
Q: Who would they expect to then handle that? Just a state
Rountree: Right, a state court of South Carolina or
Q: When you're dealing with some shipping issue that's
multiple state what happens? Many of them must come in--
Rountree: Of course.
Q: So you've got to go a state court in every one of those
to try to--
Rountree: It depends on where the product was allegedly
damaged, where the damage was discovered, and then how do you know where it
occurred? You don't. It's been in a container from the time it left Kobe until
the time it reaches Joplin, Missouri. In the interim--
Q: Which is in the middle of the country--
Q: Now they say--
Rountree: And how many carriers have handled
Q: You've got an ocean and then you've got a river. Look
Rountree: Well, and then you've got an inland carrier,
you've got a trucker.
Q: But look at this current one that-- You have a Chinese,
the Ukraine thing coming in. That's going to be lawsuits up and
Rountree: Oh, we're involved in that right up
Q: Your company is-- Where is the jurisdiction on that? By
definition it's another country.
Rountree: Well, we've got the case pending in the U.S.
Q: You did get that one in the district court. For the
Rountree: But the question is not where the action is
pending but what law applies, federal maritime law or the commercial law of the
state of North Carolina or the commercial law of some other state.
Q: Did they even try to drive it down to New Hanover
County because that's where the--
Rountree: No. You don't get involved in
Q: Is it still pretty much a smaller society of attorneys
who are involved in that?
Rountree: It is.
Q: So you must all pretty much either know one another or
know of one another and in that--
Rountree: It would be very unusual for someone not to know
the name Rountree applicable to maritime law in Wilmington, North
Q: With that would go the reputation of such up and down
honesty, experience, etc., so is it not a way of doing business, making it
easier since you know these people?
Q: He's uncertain whether it will continue. If
Rountree: Well, it's going to continue as long as I live
'cause we don't do it any other way in my firm. There's a right way. We don't
cut corners. We square corners. There is no other way to do it than honorably.
If I found out a lawyer did it dishonorably, he'd be gone. There'd be no
explanation, no second chance.
Q: How many attorneys do you have in your
Rountree: We have nine-- We have eight today. We'll have
nine later in this month and we're working on ten or 11 now.
Q: You do much more than that--
Rountree: Yes, we do.
Q: It's a full-service--
Rountree: We do many-- We do not do any bankruptcy. We do
very little domestic. We don't do any securities work. We don't hold ourselves
out as income or inheritance tax experts.
Q: That's interesting.
Rountree: Now I know-- When you're as old as I am you've
picked up a lot about a lot of things but you don't- you're not necessarily an
expert at anything so I do know enough to know when somebody ought to be called
in who knows more than I do.
Q: You also talked about the changing face of law here
with the numbers and the specialists. Back in '62, there weren't those
Rountree: No, there weren't.
Q: Was almost everybody a general practitioner
Rountree: Well, just about, which is why business
developed in Charlotte and Raleigh and Greensboro and Winston because those
places commercially allowed the development of a larger law firm, that is a law
firm with more people, and that fact admitted to expert concentration. And one
of the things I learned very quickly is a legislator's delight in changing the
relative balance in society. A social evil is perceived-- Okay. We have a law to
change. Without considering what that law requires for enforcement, what it
requires with respect to incarceration, what it requires in relation to public
payment for people in jail-- That-- It costs money to keep a guy in jail. I mean
when I was in legislation we learned it costs $25,600 a year to keep somebody in
jail. And so what I've noticed is there is very little effort by legislative
bodies to determine whether the present system affords a remedy for this evil
that has manifested itself and number two, what is the gross cost to society of
adopting a new regulatory scheme which means you got to have a bureaucracy to
articulate it more fully and a different level of enforcement and a different
number of judges and district attorneys and prosecutors.
Q: We don't study the unintended consequences sometimes.
Right? We're surprised by what happens.
Rountree: I am amazed at the lack of perspicacity of
legislators throughout the process.
Q: Does it also not hold true sometimes on the judiciary
side where they seem to have sometimes become almost legislative, these rulings
Q: --the recent--
Rountree: Well, look at the Supreme Court, what it did in
1934, said FDR's grand society was unconstitutional, in 1936 came back and said
we've made a mistake and we're going to allow it. It's fortunate for the country
that that occurred.
Q: The judiciary also sometimes makes rulings. I'm
thinking of something as basic as whether the fees from the red light go to the
schools, and now many of those programs are going to close down. They didn't
care. It was just--
Rountree: Here is the biggest problem that I see in the
legal niche. If there is not a precise rule against it, it's okay. Now when I
grew up my mother and father said, "Adhere to the right. Avoid the wrong. If
there's a question in your mind, consult the Bible. It's very simple. Besides,
we have brought you up to understand you don't steal from somebody, you don't
take something that doesn't belong to you, you don't assume that something you
find is something you can keep, you don't walk in somebody's house without
announcing yourself, you don't covet somebody else's property or things, if you
want something you work hard to get it, and you're not entitled to a damn
Q: That's sort of an old concept these days.
Rountree: You're not entitled to anything except what you
earn and life's not fair in the sense of equitable all the time. Show me, young
George, where fair is found in the Bible other than as an adjective describing
the appearance of a woman. Okay. Where? Name me one place or-- I can't find it.
I've looked for 45 years. There are 72 or 75 references in the Bible to "fair"
but that's a fair maiden, a fair vision. It's adjectival to describe pretty or
attractive. Now-- So I grew up in that deal so when I came back here I knew I
had to work harder than anybody else in order to get where I wanted to be. Now
where did I want to be? I wanted to make enough money to make a difference for
my family and for the community 'cause I believe, as my mother and father said,
"You have a duty to the community to give back. You have that duty. That's your
obligation. You can't do that unless you attain some sort of commercial success
and how do you do that? You work hard and you're honest 'cause you're not that
bright, young George. I told you--
Q: I thought you were explaining to me--
Rountree: No. That's what my mother and father said,
"You're not that bright. You're not smarter than other lawyers. You just got to
Q: Was your dad an out-worker--
Q: But your grandfather was.
Q: But your grandfather was.
Rountree: Was and his father--
Q: Obviously, the Davis that we talked about
Rountree: No question about it.
Q: --a worker.
Q: But you--
Rountree: --and did it honorably. You don't have to take
things from people. It'll come to you if you work hard and you're
Q: That's true. That was a way of life that has
Rountree: And I'll tell you there are not many lawyers in
Wilmington who make as much money as I do. Okay? But for a long time I worked
for not much but I was patient and the young people now are not
Rountree: In 1962--
Q: That's when you returned.
Rountree: --I came here and worked for $75 a month and
room and board. My father paid for my room and board and gave me $75 a
Q: No family at the point? You were just a single
Rountree: A single guy. I drove in to Wilmington in 1962
with a 1962 Chevrolet that was mortgaged for much more than it was then worth
and all my physical possessions in the back and in the trunk and $300 in my
pocket. Okay? That's all I had and I said, "I'm going to improve that and that's
up to me, not anybody else, not my dad, not my grandfather's reputation. I'm
going to do it. If it can be done, I'm going to do it."
Q: Tell us about getting married. Tell us about how you
happened to go to the state senate and you said you were there two terms. I'd
like to hear your views on civic activities. I want to hear where you think
Wilmington is today, where it's going, what you would change, any improvements,
just little things, not bare your soul but to kind of bring us up to date. Let's
get on to your two terms in the senate and beginning--
Rountree: No. I was-- I ran for the North Carolina House
of Representatives in 1970 against a fellow named Ed Snead. [ph?] Ed Snead was a
Democrat. There were-- Seventy-five percent voters in this country were
Democrats, 25% Republicans, and I beat Snead pretty badly. I then in 1972 ran
for the state senate. That was the year that--what--Hubert Humphrey ran against
Nixon or some very liberal ran against Nixon and the registration in Pender and
New Hanover, which was the district, was very heavily Democratic and I won 60%
of the vote.
Q: This was name recognition, reputation--
Rountree: Well, I just worked hard. I went out and beat
the bushes and it was all over.
Q: How did you do it in those days? Small-time
Rountree: Well, the--
Q: --at the time you didn't have to have millions of
Rountree: I spent I think $8,000 to get elected. Anyway, a
News Observer guy called me the morning after I was elected and said, "Senator
Rountree, you're the first Republican elected to the North Carolina Senate in
eastern Raleigh this century." I said, "I didn't know that." He said, "How did
you do it?" I said, "I didn't know I couldn't do it. You didn't tell me I
couldn't do it. I assumed I could do it. I assume if I work hard enough I could
do it. Are you telling me now I can't do it?" He didn't know how to answer that
question and we had a very pleasant conversation after that. I just thought
Q: But you weren't running on a national ticket. You were
identifying local issues I assume.
Rountree: I tell you what I did. I said, "Let me tell you
what the Democrats have done about the highway system in North Carolina. They've
made Market Street a four-lane road by changing the painted lines in the road.
Now that's the Democrats' answer to highway improvement. My answer is to spend
more money." There wasn't any answer they could give to that.
Q: Who did you run against in the--
Rountree: Jim Nelson.
Rountree: Jim Nelson was a very successful practicing
criminal lawyer in Wilmington, a native, the son-in-law of Mike-- He used to own
a drugstore down on Castle Street. I can't remember his-- Mike Hall.
Q: How long did the senate run? Six years?
Rountree: No. That was two years and I was in the middle
Q: I don't think people realize that the senate only
Rountree: Uh huh. Two years, uh huh.
Q: Is that still that way?
Rountree: It's still that way.
Q: Are you going to start running again if
Rountree: Oh, yeah.
Q: That's the problem. Did you go longer than the two
Rountree: No. I ran for reelection in '74. By that time
Nixon's Watergate had hit the _____________ and Bill Smith, a Wilmington lawyer,
beat me by 1400 votes.
Q: You did not run for the house. The first time you did
and then two years--
Rountree: Seventy for the house, '72 for the senate. I won
Q: That's all I wanted to know.
Rountree: And then after I was defeated in '74 for the '75
session general assembly, Jim Holzhauser [ph?] named me as legislative counsel
to the governor so my state senator--
Q: The governor was--
Rountree: Jim Holzhauser, James E. Holzhauser Jr. So the
state senator from Wilmington, Bill Smith, called me and said- one day and said,
"I thought I beat you. Now you're more important than I am up here." It
irritated the crap out of him--
Q: This guy was a Republican governor?
Q: That was unusual too. Then what--
Rountree: Well, he got elected because Skipper Bowles, the
father of Erskine Bowles, and Pat Taylor-- Taylor was the lieutenant governor.
Skipper Bowles was in the senate from Greensboro and they went at each other
with such vengeance in the primary that when Bowles emerged as the Democratic
nominee the- he didn't have any support from the Taylor folks.
Q: You mentioned that Nixon was extremely popular at that
Rountree: At that time, particularly in North Carolina
versus the Democrat.
Q: He carried lots and lots of states so that wasn't-- The
national does make some difference but you still thought yours sometimes was the
local ability to get elected.
Rountree: Well, I never thought about it. I thought I'm
going to run. I expect to win--
Q: Did you choose to run because you felt that was
service? Is that the reason or did you have an earlier interest in politics
Rountree: I had no earlier interest in politics. I ran
because I wanted to understand the process by which legislation was enacted in
North Carolina. At that time the general assembly in North Carolina was the only
Democratic body in the world that did not have a veto power by an executive.
Whatever we did was the law. The governor had no anything.
Q: You're kidding.
Rountree: I'm not kidding a bit. So in 1977 or '8 Jim Hunt
comes along and wants the general assembly to give the people the right to vote
on whether the constitution of North Carolina should be amended to give the
governor veto power, and so I'm talking to the legislature. "What are you boys
doing? You're the most powerful legislative body in the free world and you want
to give that up?" Come on." "Oh, well, George. Oh, well. Jim Hunt's hard." Well,
they gave it up and they'd never get it back ever.
Q: Because the legislature hasn't tried to
Rountree: Well, it'd have to be a constitutional amendment
Q: That looks kind of greedy, doesn't it--
Rountree: Well, yeah, that looks-- It looks
Q: Inappropriate, yeah.
Rountree: Right, to say the least.
Q: In spite of the fact that the majority of voters,
period, as well as house members and so on were registered Democrats, did you
find at all that they began to change their thinking when Barry Goldwater ran
for office 'cause he lost but didn't he make some sort of an impact and enable
to change their registration? I think that the statistics have shown that a lot
of southerners voted for him. Was it a conservative Democratic party? That's the
point. It wasn't--
Rountree: I believe the answer to your question is yes and
I believe that because in my travels through eastern North Carolina politically
there is a clear understanding of most of the Democrats who are not minorities
that on the federal level the moderate party is Republican. On the state level
it's fine to be a Democrat 'cause this moderate is not going to get out of
Q: This is what I thought. I have heard--
Rountree: And that's changed.
Q: I've heard people say they would vote for-- I've never
changed my registration and my daddy would turn over in his grave-- What is New
Hanover County now though for Republicans?
Q: That's an inflow. Right? Do you think--
Rountree: Well, and I think it's young people have gotten
over the college influence of equality and understood that performance
Q: They've got to pay the rent now.
Rountree: There are a variety of reasons but yeah, there's
a lot of influx, a lot of retired people--
Q: What's Brunswick County--
Rountree: Now that is- that's--
Q: Maybe even--
Rountree: Brunswick and Harnett and--what's the county
that's--Johnston are counties in North Carolina that are all their
Q: Brunswick County--
Rountree: When I was in the house--
Q: --or New York actually.
Rountree: When I was in the house I was a member of the
house judiciary committee. David Garner's brother, Jack Garner, a member of the
committee from Johnston County. We are considering a bill to enable bastard
children would inherit from parents without a will just like natural children,
children born within marriage. It sounds reasonable to me. Okay? It wasn't the
child's fault. So I make a motion to give the bill a favorable report. Garner
stands up and pounds the table and he said, "I don't care what you boys do." We
were all men at that time. There were no women in the judiciary committee. "I
don't care what you boys do with that bill. When it gets to Johnston County we
will take care of it." And I said, "Wait a minute. What are you talking about?
If the bill becomes law it's law in every one of the hundred counties." He said,
"You watch us." I said, "Hello?" Now you get some of that in Harnett County,
Dunn, Lillington. You used to get a lot of it in Brunswick, the good old boy
syndrome. It's what the sheriff said, what the clerk said. That's not so
prevalent anymore in Brunswick because Brunswick now has enjoyed an expansion of
which no one could possibly envision--
Q: It's outsiders, not just northerners but even from the
South, creating this inflow, change of population.
Q: We were talking earlier about race relations in an
interesting sense and you want to get to some of his sense of where we're going.
Sitting in the law world, are you starting to see the in migration of the
Hispanic population to even affect courts and law issues or is that still a
little bit away--
Rountree: I haven't seen that because in my sphere that
has not been a factor. What I have observed is in construction projects as I'm
driving around town there are many Hispanic workers. They do a good job. They
work hard. They expect to be paid only for what they do, not entitled to
Q: But they are making tremendous inroads-- I didn't know
if in a legal sense whether you had started to see that because it'll
Rountree: Right. It will come.
Q: And of course in the maritime law you must have worked
with every country around the world, haven't you--
Rountree: A lot of them.
Q: Have you had to actually travel
Rountree: No, I haven't. I--
Q: You weren't forced to go to Europe to defend a case or
Rountree: No. I thought I was going to have to but we
settled the case so--
Q: A few minutes ago you mentioned how you have become
successful in many ways and it is well known that you do donate to a number of
organizations. Do you have any particular civic roots or whatever that you are
particularly fond of and that you pay particular attention to?
Rountree: Two things as far as groups. The American Cancer
Society or cancer hospital, New Hanover Regional Medical Center. My wife and I
have donated--I don't know--100, 200,000.
Q: Is this for a purpose--
Rountree: Yeah. There's-- Yes. Sylvia had contracted
cancer about 17- 16 years ago and is a survivor and she and I are very
interested in promoting an environment in which other people can be survivors
Q: This is your wife?
Rountree: Yes, my wife, Sylvia.
Q: Her maiden name--
Rountree: Was Hinson [ph?] from Panama City, Florida, a
very dedicated woman, a great woman. And the American Heart Association. My
mother died of a stroke. My father had poor circulation so that's something that
I'm very sensitive to.
Q: Thank you for that.
Q: Particularly the cancer.
Rountree: And then my primary focus is to help young
people in- go to school.
Q: This is what I wanted you to get to. I thought
Rountree: Yeah, help, because when you get to be my age if
you don't believe in young people you have nothing in which to believe.
Q: Are there any particular groups in town that you are
Rountree: Well, I'm- I give a scholarship to each high
school for a graduating senior every year.
Rountree: And I have committed to give $50,000 to the Cape
Fear Community College for the basketball players' program. I have a scholarship
funded out here for UNC Wilmington and I give money to the university here. I
give quite a bit of money to the University of Arizona. I have a large endowment
there for athletic purposes--
Q: Good for you.
Rountree: --and I give $50,000 a year to the athletic
program there because it helps young people.
Q: You talked about a scholarship that you could have
gotten but passed up on and so forth but what it costs today to go to school
people like you make such a difference. Even though you know it's a reasonable
cost considering how much it really costs, it's still expensive to go to college
Rountree: Very. I give a scholarship to a law student of
each class every year at Arizona--
Q: Good for you.
Q: You have parameters that they must fit
Rountree: Oh, I don't select them. I give the
Q: I know but--
Rountree: Well, that- there is a list of parameters and of
course I get all the CVs and the persons are actually selected and I have
breakfast with them at least a couple times a year out there.
Q: How about children of your own?
Rountree: I don't have any lawyers. I don't
Q: Do you have children yourself?
Rountree: I have-- We have-- I adopted my wife's four
daughters. After each was over the age of 18 she asked me to adopt her, which
may be the biggest compliment I have ever gotten from anybody.
Q: Over the age of 18. Isn't that something?
Rountree: For a young girl to ask a stepfather to adopt
Q: That's great. How old were they when you became their
Rountree: Well, the youngest was I think 9.
Q: That was an age where it must have been trying if there
were four daughters, the youngest was 9.
Rountree: Well, my wife was in control. Let me tell you
something. Sylvia was in control. There is no question about that, which I have
admired. Here we've got a registered nurse. We've got a Carolina graduate who is
a homemaker. We've got a Columbia master's degree, a graduate who is now married
to a guy in New York, and we've got a
daughter who is a master's degree, a graduate of ECU who supervises student
teachers at this university now.
Q: Have they adopted your values about working and taking
care of themselves and so forth--
Rountree: They don't expect anything for free.
Q: I'm saying although you mentioned where--
Q: I would bet you're most proud of them as people
Rountree: No question about it.
Q: That's wonderful and it's wonderful to hear that from
Rountree: Now they got a lot of that from Mama because
Q: A single man who married a woman with four
Rountree: Right. Mama was up until the last one came in
and the last one was supposed to come in at midnight whether she was at college
or wherever. If she came home, you're going to abide by our rules, and Mama was
up. There wasn't any sneaking in and they all knew that and they all said, "Oh,
this is terrible. We're the only people we know who've got to come in at
midnight. This is unbelievable and this is _________________ environment. What
is this?" I said, "Let me tell you something. You have a mother who cares. Okay?
She cares enough about you to want you to be in at midnight and I want you to
know something. Nothing good ever happens after midnight, nothing, and my mother
told me, 'Son, you can do everything before midnight you can do afterwards and
you do it a whole lot better. You're a whole lot smarter. You're a lot more
alert. You're a whole lot more capable.'"
Q: There again raising kids has changed. What would you
like to see happen in this town that you have so much history in and you've come
back to it and helped out immeasurably here that's not happening now? Where do
you think we're going?
Rountree: Let me answer the last question first. I think
Wilmington is going in to a multicultural evolution that will produce a
significant ascent in the cultural field, arts and music and painting and
architecture, that never before has been experienced in Wilmington. I think
people- with influx of people with money who are interested in the fine
Rountree: --is affording significant momentum to those
kinds of thought. I think that Wilmington is going to continue to be a very
attractive pace- place for young people to return. When I was growing up there
was no objective, practical reason for anybody to return to Wilmington unless
his father was already there or a business--
Q: Opportunities just weren't there, yeah.
Rountree: Just wasn't. I think that's dramatically
changed. I think there's every reason to return now. The community is not
dominated by a series of families. The Trasks and the whoevers and the Camerons
and the whoever are not in control. There isn't anybody in control.
Q: That's what I wondered. No one's in
Rountree: No one's in control.
Q: And no one's--
Rountree: Right, and what a wonderful thing. This is not a
hierarchy of past. If there is a hierarchy, it needs to be the hierarchy of the
Q: Of course, the university I think has gotten to a size
where it makes a difference--
Q: I don't think it--
Q: I don't think we're a university town. We're not like
some places where if--
Rountree: Well, Tucson's a university town.
Q: There are some--
Rountree: Half a million people.
Q: We have the arts. We have a medical center-- But we're
big enough to make a difference in the number of professors, the number of
students. Twelve thousand students makes a financial difference so we're a
player but I we're not a university town.
Rountree: No, but I think it's going to be- I think the
university's going to exercise an increasingly important role in the evolution
of Wilmington as a first-rate community.
Q: How about the medical? You've been involved in
medicine. Where would we be if we didn't have serious medical facilities here? I
don't know who would move here. Right?
Rountree: Nobody. Nobody with money would move
Q: You wouldn't have the retirees-- That's what I'm saying
because one of the first questions they ask is, "Do you have the capacity to
take care of me?" I don't know if you've been able to see one of these. I won't
tell you who it is on tape but I asked a man who I admire greatly-- He is a
long-time Wilmingtonian family and I said, "What do you think?" It was during a
time when there was a lot of to-do again about the convention center and I said,
"What do you think about this? What do you think of all these proposed changes,
applying and the river front and convention center?" He said, "I love it" and he
told me why and I've heard this, just as George has said, from a number of the
Rountree: Well, here's where you are really. You either
got to grow or you die. There's no maintaining the status quo. That does not
happen. That defies reality so you're either going to grow and change and
improve and construct or you're going to be destroyed and that's the real
Q: It doesn't necessarily mean we have to get bigger too
fast or it doesn't mean that we have to do it stupidly but you're
Rountree: And sometimes you do do it stupid but that's
okay 'cause then you got to go back and change it and that adds to the change. I
remember when I was president of the Cape Fear Country Club back when I was
young and the- I went in as president and the flatware was-- Oh, it was kind of
like Whitey's restaurant and the--
Q: Now don't--
Rountree: And the dishes were antiquated and the glassware
was chipped and we had 300 and some thousand dollars in the bank. I said, "Wait
a minute. We're going to get some new stuff. Okay? We're not going to be Joe
Schmuck the rag man. We're going to be a dad-gummed country club." By the end of
my two-year term as president, we had embraced liquor by the drink, got rid of
the brown bag, and we had spent every dime in that account, but when I went in
we had 38 vacancies in membership. When I left we had a waiting list of 41
Q: They wanted change too?
Rountree: Yeah. Well, people want change. People want
things to improve. They don't want things to stay the status quo. The only
people who wanted things to stay the status quo are dying people and I've got a
lot of friends who--
Q: I've got to tell you that we could go on and on because
I've got a lot of questions here but that'll be another time. I think this has
been very enlightening. Thank you. I'm very, very glad that you came and done
some of your--
Q: It's been very interesting to me to see you in a
different light and to learn a little bit more and I'm so glad that you gave
us-- This is history definitely and that's why we're doing this program so I
thank you for being a part of it. Thank you very much.
Rountree: You're quite