BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with George Rountree III, July 31, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Interview with George Rountree III, July 31, 2007
July 31, 2007
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.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Rountree, George III Interviewer: Jones, Carroll / Hayes, Sherman Date of Interview: 7/31/2007 Series: SENC Notables Length 120 minutes


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 not?

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 map.

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 right?

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 Davis.

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 both?

Rountree: Both.

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 first.

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 real world.

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 slaves.

Q: Were they adult slaves or were they young boys?

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 Richmond.

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 later.

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 particular name?

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 name?

Rountree: Certainly not uncommon.

Q: And there were lots of families of various lineage that came--

Rountree: Correct.

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 close?

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 crash.

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 Aunt--

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 home?

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, all subjects?

Rountree: Yeah. Every-- well, math, English-- French--

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.

Rountree: Exactly.

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 point?

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 generations?

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 society.

Q: And these families had been here a long time and they served the community but they knew each other and worked in those circles.

Rountree: Exactly.

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 the '40s.

Q: I'm trying to get to a point where we can compare and contrast here--

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 quite was.

Q: Did she particularly concentrate on anything--

Rountree: French literature major.

Q: What did she do with that?

Rountree: Nothing.

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 '5.

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 Street.

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: Right.

Q: 1940--

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 we'll see."

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?

Rountree: No.

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."

Q: Kindergarten.

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 through--

Rountree: First grade through 8th at that time.

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 students.

Q: I didn't realize it was that large. When did you switch over to--

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 Hawthorne.

Q: These are streets in the neighborhood called Forest Hills?

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 point.

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 II.

Q: This is what I've been hearing from all this group.

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.

Rountree: Exactly.

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 Dan?

Rountree: Oh, you've got Bruce, Dan, Hilda, Rachael, Bobby.

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 heard--

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 later?

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.

Rountree: Yeah.

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 point?

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 yeah.

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 age--

Rountree: No, he was 4-F. He volunteered and they wouldn't take him.

Q: And did he get pulled into war effort things as a--

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 stamps.

Q: And so he was a practicing attorney though through this time.

Q: Well, Mr. Humphrey was also an attorney and so was Dudley.

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.

Q: Segregation.

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.

Rountree: Yeah.

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 level."

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 sharp now."

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?

Rountree: No.

Q: I just saw a lot of golfers in your background.

Rountree: I mean, Phoenix was like 120,000 people.

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 everybody here--

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 right?

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 Conference.

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 slept--

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 school--

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, tarantulas, snakes--

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 something."

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 are.

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.

Rountree: Yes.

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 of--

Rountree: I did. I did.

Q: At Arizona?

Rountree: In Tucson, uh-huh.

Q: Now, wait a minute, Phoenix is the University of Arizona?

Rountree: No, it isn't; Tucson is the University of Arizona. Phoenix is Arizona State, actually it's Tempe, which is 8 miles--

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 them?

Rountree: Oh, yeah.

Q: How tall are you?

Rountree: I was about six-- I've shrunk. I'm getting old.

Q: Because the camera only has you sitting down.

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?

Rountree: Yeah.

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 town.

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 prestige--

Q: Well, the whole state of Arizona and all those cities--

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 here.

(tape change)

Q: We never did get the 1898 connection. Was one of your relatives from the stories of your family involved in that particular event?

Rountree: Yes.

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 more.

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 of--

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 the bridge.

Q: If they were coming across the bridge to get in?

Rountree: They would have to come through a hail.

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--

Rountree: No.

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.

(crew talk)

Q: You're done. You're out of law school. What's next?

Rountree: Well, I practiced law in Phoenix for about a year.

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 paying.

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 corporations--

Rountree: Sure.

Q: --this is a--

Rountree: Sure.

Q: When you say admiralty law, that piques my interest because I know that is pretty much of a narrow area. Is it--

Rountree: Quite.

Q: Do you often have to go to Washington and New York for that?

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, Philadelphia.

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 concurrent jurisdiction--

Q: But there's not a separate court system for--

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 or no?

Rountree: Actually, there was although there is federal admiralty jurisdiction in Lake Mead--

Q: Interesting--

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 have--

Rountree: I went to- came to Wilmington next in 1962.

Q: Motivation?

Rountree: Well, my father asked me to come back here and practice law with him.

Q: You had kept the relationship going over that time?

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 County total.

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 speed.

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. Right?

Rountree: Well, yes. I worked on admiralty cases.

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--

Rountree: No.

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 this country.

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 that--

Rountree: The Florida beach is huge.

Q: Long Beach definitely and then of course you go further north--

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 cases--

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.

Q: Peers.

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 down--

Rountree: Sure.

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 commerce.

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 court or--

Rountree: Right, a state court of South Carolina or Missouri.

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--

Rountree: Yeah.

Q: Now they say--

Rountree: And how many carriers have handled it?

Q: You've got an ocean and then you've got a river. Look at the--

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 down.

Rountree: Oh, we're involved in that right up to--

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. District Court--

Q: You did get that one in the district court. For the record--

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 ordinances--

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 Carolina.

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?

Rountree: Sure.

Q: He's uncertain whether it will continue. If maritime--

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 firm?

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 subspecialties. Right?

Rountree: No, there weren't.

Q: Was almost everybody a general practitioner or--

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 on--

Rountree: Sure.

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 thing."

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 outwork them."

Q: Was your dad an out-worker--

Rountree: No.

Q: But your grandfather was.

Rountree: Right.

Q: But your grandfather was.

Rountree: Was and his father--

Q: Obviously, the Davis that we talked about was--

Rountree: No question about it.

Q: --a worker.

Rountree: Right--

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 honest.

Q: That's true. That was a way of life that has gone--

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 patient.

Q: Sixty-two--

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 month.

Q: No family at the point? You were just a single guy?

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 politics--

Rountree: Well, the--

Q: --at the time you didn't have to have millions of dollars. Right?

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 that--

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.

Q: How--

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 of a--

Q: I don't think people realize that the senate only runs--

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 you're--

Rountree: Oh, yeah.

Q: That's the problem. Did you go longer than the two or--

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 both times.

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?

Rountree: Yeah.

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 time.

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 or--

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 run--

Rountree: Well, it'd have to be a constitutional amendment again.

Q: That looks kind of greedy, doesn't it--

Rountree: Well, yeah, that looks-- It looks inappropriate.

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 hand.

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?

Rountree: Fifty/fifty.

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 overshadows entitlement.

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 own.

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.

Rountree: Sure.

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 anything.

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 come.

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 internationally--

Rountree: No, I haven't. I--

Q: You weren't forced to go to Europe to defend a case or anything--

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 and--

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.

Rountree: And--

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 you--

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 particularly favoring?

Rountree: Well, I'm- I give a scholarship to each high school for a graduating senior every year.

Q: Excellent.

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 today.

Rountree: Very. I give a scholarship to a law student of each class every year at Arizona--

Q: Good for you.

Rountree: --and--

Q: You have parameters that they must fit certainly.

Rountree: Oh, I don't select them. I give the money--

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 have--

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 her.

Q: That's great. How old were they when you became their stepfather?

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--

Rountree: Now--

Q: I would bet you're most proud of them as people than--

Rountree: No question about it.

Q: That's wonderful and it's wonderful to hear that from you--

Rountree: Now they got a lot of that from Mama because Mama--

Q: A single man who married a woman with four kids.

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 arts--

Q: Yeah--

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 control.

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 mind.

Q: Of course, the university I think has gotten to a size where it makes a difference--

Rountree: Huge.

Q: I don't think it--

Rountree: Huge.

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 here.

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 older families.

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 world.

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 saying--

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 people.

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--

(crew talk)

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 welcome.

UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign