For his first visit to San Diego, Robert Brockway didn’t fly ... because San Diego didn’t have an airport yet.
Brockway, who turned 100 on April 12, was one of La Jolla’s most prominent tax attorneys for 50 years. Estates, trusts and real estate were his specialty. He wrote the lease for one of the first Toyota dealerships in the United States. (It was on Pearl Street.)
But the widower spends this afternoon, as he does most, finding things to read and do around his apartment at the Chateau La Jolla senior community. This includes playfully insulting his nurse, Alma.
“Would you like to sit on my lap for the photo?” Brockway asks her. (Alma laughs as she fixes his shirt collar because she knows he’s kidding and because nobody, apparently, wants to apply #MeToo to a centenarian.)
When did you first come to San Diego?
I first came to California in 1927, by ship from New York City with my parents and two sisters. It took 28 days through the Panama Canal. I’m originally from a town of 1,200 people in Upstate New York called Clinton, which is my middle name.
We settled in Los Angeles but my father brought us down to San Diego for the summer so he could look for work in the lumber business. We lived near Balboa Park, in the second story of a two-family house. I was 9 at the time. I remember it very well. Can you imagine 1927? That’s going to be 100 years ago soon.
Did your father ever find a job here?
No. There was only one lumber yard and that was it, so we had to go back to L.A. But every day for that whole summer of 1927, my two sisters and I went to Balboa Park. They let us feed the animals in the zoo. They let me help feed a 26-foot-long python. We had the run of the place. It was free. For 10 cents, you could ride on the merry-go-round. It was just great.
When did you return to San Diego after that?
I finished college in 1940 at the University of Michigan. I worked in Los Angeles for a short while. Then the senior I was working for up there asked if I wanted a job at the aircraft company down in San Diego — Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft. They built flying boats, Catalina bombers. Everybody knew there was a war coming, but the United States hadn’t entered it yet.
Did you fight in World War II?
I was in the Navy in the war. I didn’t fight, but I was in the Pacific, Atlantic and Cuba. I was a sailor, and then I became an ensign and lieutenant.
Then, when the war was over, I ran the tax department for Consolidated-Vultee downtown and lived in Point Loma. When Consolidated-Vultee was purchased by General Dynamics in 1946, they offered me the same job — only I would have had to move to St. Louis. So I talked to my wife about that and she said — very sensibly, I thought — that people spend their lives earning enough money in St. Louis in order to retire to San Diego — and we’re already here!
Tell us more about your wife.
I met Emmy in 1944. I came back from the Aleutian Islands when that campaign was over and I went to Boston. Emmy was a hostess at the officer’s club there and I asked her to dance. She was a very nice girl, a typical southern girl. But the war was going on, so we didn’t know when we would see each other, or even if. But a month or two later, we were married down in Richmond. Southern girls make good wives.
When did you lose her?
Emmy died 15 years ago of cancer. She was 82. When she died, that’s when I moved to Chateau La Jolla. I miss her very much. But everybody has to face that. I have two terrific sons and a daughter. My daughter still lives in Point Loma, and my two sons live in Oregon.
When you decided to hang up your own shingle, how did you decide on La Jolla?
Well, it was in Point Loma first, where we lived, but all the executives from the company lived in La Jolla. I figured I might as well come here and have them be my personal clients. I visited nine attorneys out here who I thought were likely to be my competition — taxes, real estate, corporations — including one of the Scripps people. He was very nice to me. He said it would cost me $5,000 to furnish my office. I told him it wouldn’t cost me that because I’ll use a door for a desk!
Did you enjoy contract law?
It was good. Once the law firms from L.A. invaded us, it became less fun because you couldn’t really trust them. People from Los Angeles assumed they could come down here and take advantage of us. But it was good for a while. The Corey family were one of my clients. They owned a lot of La Jolla. I wrote a lot of leases for them. One of them was for a little storefront on Pearl Street that was one of the first Toyota businesses in the United States. They had room for two cars in their showroom and that was it!
Where was your office?
Where Vons is now on Girard, on the second floor. When they built the building that used to be there, they had to put it at an angle to leave room for the water coming down Torrey Pines that crossed Girard and came through an open area that become the patio. There was a big hole in the ground there that took the water into the ocean. That’s why Vons is still at an angle to the street.
What changes have you noticed the most about The Village?
La Jolla was the same as it is now only not quite as big. I remember driving down from Los Angeles. You came down right on Route 1 on the ocean, through Oceanside and Del Mar. That was the way you got here. It was a four-hour drive instead of two-and-a-half hours.
On the beach below Torrey Pines Park, there was a lighthouse-looking restaurant that I stopped at for breakfast once. I can’t remember the name, but it was beautiful. San Diego was not much. The population couldn’t have been more than 100,000 people before the war.
I’ve got news for you … It’s a four-hour drive again!
(Laughs.) Yeah, so I hear.
One time, a client came in and told me he bought a lot above Black’s Beach. He said he only had to pay $50,000 for the lot. And I said, “You paid $50,000 for a piece of property there?” I told him it was a terrible move! (Laughs)
Did UC San Diego change La Jolla as much as people think?
No. Of course, it made a huge difference to the mesa where it was. But here in The Village, the town was here first, and there were not very many places for students to live. Where I went to school in Ann Arbor, the whole town is University of Michigan. But it never became like that here.
How does it feel to be 100?
I don’t think it’s any special feeling. It feels about the same as 95. My knee is the only problem I have. There’s no cartilage in there. You can hear it, so I wear a brace. I needed a knee replacement, which I never wanted to do when I was younger. Now, they won’t let me because they’re worried about my heart.
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