Coming of Age

P.C. Wu: A Lifetime of Service

When P.C. Wu says it’s the people that make Pensacola such a wonderful place, one can’t help but think that he perfectly exemplifies his own point. Truly, one of the nicest people you will ever meet, Wu is also incredibly down to earth. Born the son of Chinese immigrants, Wu grew up in Savannah, GA working in his father’s Chinese restaurant for much of his young life. The first of his family to go to college, Wu really made it count, earning a bachelors, masters and doctorate from Florida State University. Wu and his wife Judi moved to Pensacola in 1977 and since then he has contributed untold hours of community and volunteer work to the community he calls home. A member of the Pensacola City Council since 2004 and a man of many accolades, Wu counts his marriage of more than fifty years, his children and grandchildren, and the impact he had on his students while teaching at the University of West Florida among his greatest achievements. He and his wife have two children, Christopher and Ashley and two grandchildren, Kai and Claire. They are active members of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church where Wu has been a chalice bearer for many years. Coming of Age had the opportunity to talk with P.C. Wu about his life, his family, and his thoughts on a life well-lived.

Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. I understand that your parents were immigrants and they had a Chinese restaurant in Savannah, GA?

I was raised in Savannah, Georgia and my father opened a Chinese restaurant there in 1930. My father came over when he was seven years old. He didn’t speak a word of English. He tells me he had 25 cents, but I don’t know how in the world he even had 25 cents. He came by himself. He had relatives that were already in Jacksonville. He learned how to cook. He started as an apprentice and ended up opening the first Chinese restaurant in Savannah. It was open from 1930 to about 1993. It was a long time. He ran it until he retired and then my sister and brother ran it for a while. It was a very hard way to make a living. In the early days, he was open at least 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The only two days he closed was Christmas and New Year. It was very hard work. They cooked on woks—they had three of them and he was the only cook in the beginning. The kitchen wasn’t air conditioned and the woks were gas fired, so imagine cooking on those three woks for 14 hours a day. I look back at it and I’m amazed how the man did it. Back then, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. My father came from Canton and the restaurant was named after the city.

My mother was from Shanghai. She came in the 50s. She came over to marry my biological father and he passed away. So, she was a single mother raising me. Single mothers are absolutely amazing. You have to picture that this woman didn’t speak English very well and so everything was harder for her. She moved to Savannah when she remarried—to my adoptive father. She worked in the restaurant with him, but her hobby was helping about 100 to 150 people legally emigrate to the U.S. She did that sitting in the restaurant after it closed with her Chinese-American dictionary looking up every word she needed to fill out the forms. She did this for so many people and she did it all without ever charging anyone a penny. She did it mainly because she loved this country so much and she wanted other people to have the same benefits that she felt like she had gotten. She was given a gold medal from the DAR, the Bar Association of Savannah gave her a Liberty Bell Award, and if you go to the federal district courthouse in Savannah, there is a bronze plaque in her honor hanging there.

I spent a lot of years working in the restaurant. I worked in the back prepping food and mopping floors, busing tables, you name it. People now ask me if I get tired with everything that I do and I say, ‘No—not after having that background and working like that, nothing has been really hard after working for my father.’

What was your boyhood like?

As a little child, the first thing I discovered was the public library. It was about five blocks from the restaurant. The library to me was like getting a key to the world. You’re able to get a book and the next thing you know you are traveling the world and you are learning that other people have difficulties and hard lives as well. One of my early joys was reading. One thing that had a tremendous influence on me when I was young was that I joined the Boy Scouts. I absolutely loved the Boy Scouts. I became a member of the Order of the Arrow. It’s a group within the Boy Scouts. They take you out and let you spend a night by yourself and it’s based on Indian rituals and they do Indian dance. I became an Eagle Scout and I look back at those days and I think that had a tremendous influence on how I developed. When I was young I also joined DeMolay. They are part of the Masonic group. I later became a Mason and a Scottish Rite Mason and then ended up being a Shriner and 32nd Degree Mason.

How do you think growing up the son of an immigrant shaped your life?

The interesting thing is that the early part was a little rough—being a little different and everything. That ended when I went to high school. From high school on, it was smooth sailing. I was Presbyterian and I was sent to a Catholic school. Back then, probably a quarter to a third of Catholic schools were Jewish. My best friend was Jewish. One day a week I would go to the Presbyterian Church and drink grape juice, the next day I’d be singing a Gregorian chant in a Catholic choir, and the third day I’d be eating a kosher meal at one of my Jewish friend’s houses. I grew up thinking everybody had that experience—that people move within religions. I found out later that the world is not like that and it’s a shame. People get locked into their group and it’s their group against the other group instead of their group with the other group. As a result, I’m very comfortable no matter what group I’m with. I look back and I’m very thankful that I had that. The high school I went to was started in 1912 by Benedictine monks and it was a military school. The monks had permission to hit us if we misbehaved. We had M1 rifles and we dressed in military uniforms. We’d get demerits—if your hair was too long or your shoes weren’t polished, you’d get a demerit. If you got over five demerits, every demerit was an hour on the parade ground marching with your rifle.

You received your bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from Florida State University. What did you study and why did you choose Florida State?

My bachelor’s degree was in Political Science and I liked math so much I took math classes as electives. I was one the few people who took calculus classes as electives. I also met my wife at Florida State and last year was our 50th anniversary. I was the first person to go to college in my family and my wife was the first in her family. She’s Irish, by the way. We were going to stay in Tallahassee, so I could either teach or work for the state. I was hired to teach math at a middle and high school. In order to continue teaching, I had to take classes in the college of education. A friend said, “If you are taking classes you might as well get a degree in education.” So, I got my masters in educational leadership and my doctorate was in educational administration.

I was honored in 2013 by the College of Education at Florida State. They made me distinguished alumni in the area of government and community service. At that time I told them that the reason I ended up at Florida State was that I had applied to the University of Georgia and they did not accept me. Somebody asked if it bothered me. I said, ‘Well, I met my wife who I’ve been married to for 50 years, and I ended up with a doctorate degree. I should be sending the University of Georgia a contribution for not taking me.’ I think the simple answer is that Florida State took me and Georgia didn’t. Why didn’t they take me? It was 50 or 60 years ago, it was a different time. Did that have anything to do with it? I don’t know.

Tell me how you met your wife.

At Florida State, I joined a fraternity called Lambda Chi Alpha. My wife was at a sorority called Sigma Kappa. There were probably about three Chinese students at FSU at the time. I was one and my cousin was another. What was strange is that my cousin was in Sigma Kappa and my wife was my cousin’s sorority sister. At Florida State, I didn’t have a lot of money. One way I fed myself was that different sororities hired fraternity guys to serve the meals. So, we would have to go to the sorority and we would have to enter by the back door. We had these nice little white jackets and the girls would ring the bell and we would go over and they would say, “Can we have ketchup or salt or gravy?” We would go get it for them. The rule was you could not date the girls in the sorority if you worked there. They didn’t want a breakup to cause any bad vibes. So, I tell people that I didn’t date anybody in the sorority; I married somebody in the sorority. I remember the first time I met her because she wouldn’t go out with me. There was a hurricane coming and they were having hurricane parties. I invited her to one of the parties and she very readily suggested some alternate people that I might invite. So, I thought well, I don’t know if this is a good sign.

How did you win her over?

I would say persistence. It must have worked, because like I said, we’ve been married for 50 years. We were married in the place where she grew up—Sanibel Captive Island. It’s like a tropical island. It’s like going to the Bahamas without leaving the country. There’s only one stoplight on Sanibel. About 80 percent of it is a nature preserve. So we got married in an Episcopal Church on Sanibel in 1967 and we were so poor—it was three years later before we could have a honeymoon. We went to Saint Thomas Virgin Islands and we ran out of money at the end! I was only making $4,600 gross a year teaching.

How and when did you end up in Pensacola?

I came to Pensacola in 1977. I ran a program called Teacher Centers for years. The state mandated that teachers had to have in-service training. So, the University of West Florida would contract with all the districts between here and Tallahassee to provide in-service. I was a conduit between the counties and the people at the University. When the Teaching Center ended, I went into teaching full time. I taught educational leadership in the graduate school. The Santa Rosa County School District superintendent, Tim Wyrosdick, is a graduate. The principals of Escambia High, Washington High, and Pensacola High are all former students of mine. Norm Ross, the Escambia County School District deputy superintendent, is also a former student of mine. It’s a marvelous feeling. I drive an 18-20 year old car because teaching is not the most lucrative business to go into, but I tell people looking back, I’d pick the same profession because nothing has been more rewarding than to see my students go on and accomplish what they have. 

What did you think about the community in 1977 and what made you want to stay here?

Everyone will probably tell you the same thing—they fall in love with the place. They fall in love with the place for two main reasons. The main reason is the people. They’re just nice, down to earth, warm, caring people. Not only in Pensacola, but I was teaching classes all over Northwest Florida and the people are just wonderful everywhere you go. One reason that I got into politics is that the community has been so good to my family that I just wanted to repay that somehow. I look at being in politics as a way of trying to repay. The other thing that Pensacola has is the beaches—they are just visually beautiful—especially in 1977. When people come here, I say welcome to Paradise. You’ve found a hidden gem.

How many children do you have and what careers are they pursuing?

We have two children–a son, Christopher who lives in Tampa and a daughter in San Diego. We have two grandchildren with my daughter. My daughter is a speech pathologist.

What do you like best about being a grandparent?

The nice thing is watching them grow. We go out to San Diego about twice a year together and the wife goes more often on her own. They are sweeties.

You’re involved in numerous civic organizations and charities, including the Council on Aging board of directors. What interested you in serving on the Council on Aging board and what do you see as the important issues facing seniors?

I have always had a lifelong passion for seniors and part of that stems from the fact that in the Chinese culture, the older you are, the more respect you are given. I even know of Chinese folks that will lie about their age to make them seem older. It’s almost the reverse of our society where everyone wants to be young. So, I’ve always had a great love for seniors from a cultural standpoint.

My love for Council on Aging is that it does so much for people who have done so much for others. We are talking about our parents, our aunts and uncles and so on. What I also love is that the Council on Aging hits almost every aspect of aging you can think of. I love the Meals on Wheels program. By the way, Congress is thinking of doing away with a lot of programs and one of them is community block grants, which provides a lot of funding that ends up in programs like Meals on Wheels. The program takes care of the physical needs in terms of nourishment, but we also have things like conjugate meals where people can come together for community because a lot of times seniors end up living by themselves and they have no interaction with people. One of the things about Meals on Wheels that is so great is that it provides someone to bring the meals, so not only are they getting nourishment, they are getting interaction with the person bringing their meal. Another aspect is that it is an opportunity for the person bringing the meal to check on the senior and make sure they are alright. The other thing that Council on Aging has is senior daycare. You can drop a senior off and they have activities for them. The people in the daycare program get to enjoy each other’s company, but it also gives relief for the person who has dropped a senior off because they may be the primary caregiver and they get a little break.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

My children and grandchildren. My marriage of 50 years. Being the first to go to college in my family. Being the first elected official from Pensacola to be elected president of the Florida League of Cities. I’m also proud of being in my second term on the board of the National League of Cities. Every year, the Northwest Florida League of Cities selects an outstanding municipal official. Several years back they named the award after me. When they did, I asked if they knew something about my health that I didn’t because usually you get something like that posthumously.

As a son of immigrants, what do you think about the current attitude toward immigration in this country?

Let me start off by saying that one of the activities I do that I get the most fulfillment from is to speak to newly minted immigrants. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a naturalization ceremony, but there are few things in life that will move you as much as seeing somebody who has spent their life somewhere else and on that day becomes an American citizen. I think we have a Catch-22. On one hand, despite problems here and there, we’ve made this the best country in the world and as a result, everybody wants to come here. So, you can’t fault anybody for wanting to come. The dilemma we find ourselves in is that there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. So, even though you can’t blame somebody for wanting to come, I think what you need to do is follow the rules that we have for coming in and doing it the right way. In terms of immigrants, the bottom line is that other than Native Americans, we are all immigrants. When you get to legal versus illegal, it’s another area. We are a country of laws and it’s hard to say you obey some laws and not others.

How did you become involved in rotary and why is rotary so important to you?

I became involved in rotary through John Fogg. When he was mayor, there were several shootings at several clinics. John Fogg put together a top notch committee to discuss how to reduce violence. On that committee you had the president of the junior college, the president of the university, the sheriff, the newspaper publisher. I don’t know how, but I ended up on it. I noticed that a good number of people on this committee were Rotarians. One day John and I were driving somewhere and I asked him about rotary. The next Monday he took me to his rotary. This was probably 1995. I loved it from the very first moment. There are probably about eight rotary clubs in this area. The largest one is the Pensacola Downtown Club. They have about 275 members. My club is Five Flags. We are capped at 150 members. One great achievement was getting to be rotary governor for our region. The reason I like rotary is that one of the mottos is service above self. So what Rotarians are trained to do is serve others and to think of ways they can help people. My club has probably done at least 12 Habitat Houses and I’ve personally worked on 27. I cooked at Loaves and Fishes once a week for five years. I’ve been a bell ringer for the Salvation Army for 16 years. We look at how we can make the world better and how we can help people. There are things we do globally and things we do locally.

What’s on your bucket list?

One thing that was on my bucket list was to be the president of the National League of Cities. I ran last year and did not win. Personally, I’ve been so blessed that there are not many things that I can think of that I’ve wanted to do and been unable to do. Number one, to have a wife who has tolerated you for over 50 years and to have beautiful children and grandchildren. To have a parent who came over with a seventh grade education and for me to have the opportunity to earn a doctorate degree and teach graduate students. To run for politics and to get on city council and to become president of the Florida League of Cities and to serve on the national board. I’m so extremely blessed. I’ve never put much stock in the material stuff, so on my bucket list, I don’t want to have a BMW. I don’t want to have a yacht. I don’t want a gold chain. All those things in the money realm don’t appeal to me. What appeals to me is seeing people do well. On that note, the whole time I was in administration, I had three secretaries. I hounded all three until they went back to school. All three ended up getting their bachelor’s degrees. I lost them to better jobs once they got their degrees, but even knowing that I still hounded them. That’s one of my crowning achievements.

You are known as one of the nicest guys in town and for your positive outlook. Have you always been that way?

I believe so. I think partly I heard a long time ago that one of life’s most important lessons is to be grateful. Start looking for things you can be grateful for—the fact that you are alive, that you are breathing, that you have people who love you, that you have food and a roof over your head. It shifts us away from what we don’t have. We all have problems, but I try to focus on the fact that we are all blessed.

What’s your secret to staying spry of mind and body?

Part of it is that I’m a workaholic. I think you have to like what you do, otherwise it’s hard to bring enthusiasm to it.