In Memoriam: James Frank Surface, Jr.

In Memoriam: James Frank Surface, Jr.
James Frank Surface, Jr.

March 15, 1938 to July 17, 2020

James Frank Surface, Jr., a “rainmaker” in every sense of the word both professionally and personally, passed away suddenly of a heart attack July 17. He was 82.

Known as “Big Frank” to his family and friends, Surface was a larger-than-life kind of guy who worked as a successful corporate lawyer and entrepreneur, founding several lucrative businesses including the former Stand N Snack franchises, Lakeshore Dry Storage Marina, Costa Verde Plaza and Vista de Mar, the first condominiums in Jacksonville Beach, and Vesta Property Services, which is headquartered in Riverside. Most of all, Surface was a man of integrity and the kind of family man who adored his wife and three sons, Frank III, David, and John, their wives, and made it a point to nurture a special relationship with each of his eight grandchildren.

“He built a life that was as big as his imagination and did things a lot of people only sit and think about,” said his long-time business partner Bryan Simpson of Ortega. “Things happened with him. He was a doer in business and in his private life. He saw opportunities when others saw trouble or confusion. He was a pretty remarkable man.” 

His daughter-in-law, Heather Surface, agreed. “He went from being Superman to just gone,” she said, noting he worked hard up until the last and his death came as a surprise to many.  “He was strong, honorable and kind, just the best person I’ve ever known. He was very positive and very supportive. He was Mr. Everything, and then he was gone.”

A native of Salem, Virginia, and the youngest child of John Frank Surface, Sr. and his wife, Myrtle, Surface made his way to Jacksonville at an early age after his father was appointed area sales manager for the Jergens Soap Company. 

A life-long Christian who was raised by a “tough-as-nails” mother, Surface had two older sisters, Bobbi and Jackie. After his father died when he was 21, his mother remarried Admiral Herman S. Duckworth, a man Surface adored. 

As a child, he attended West Riverside Elementary, John Gorrie Junior High, and Robert E. Lee High School, and it was there he began life-long friendships with Bob Feagin, Tom and John Donahoo, Kirby and Tommy Alexander, Kim Weller, and Charlie Commander among others. Feagin’s father, Robert, former president of Florida Publishing Company and founder of The Players Championship, was his mentor. 

Surface’s first job at a young age was as a pin setter in a bowling alley where the current Shoppes of Avondale are located, said his son, David. “He would sit above the pin area and then drop new ones by hand into a cradle which was then lowered to the floor,” he said. “Before school he also had two paper routes having earned enough money to buy a Vespa and thus improving his efficiency. When he was older, he worked summers as an electrician’s mate at the old Jacksonville Shipyards downtown.”  

 A 1956 graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, Surface excelled at academics, athletics, especially football,and served as captain of the basketball team. He often told of playing football for Lee and catching a pass “backwards” for a touchdown against Andrew Jackson High School during the annual Thanksgiving matchup in the Gator Bowl, recalled Frank III, his son.

Surface graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in 1960 with a Bachelor of Science degree in business management. In college, he was president of the student body, dorm counselor, a member of Omicron Delta Kappa fraternity, and captain of the basketball team, where he proved himself to be a determined defender against future National Basketball Association greats such as Hot Rod Hundley, Hal Greer, and Jerry West, who he proudly held to a career-low point total while wearing worn-out Converse shoes that exposed his feet, said Frank III. “Frank also guarded Hal Greer from Marshall College who went to the NBA and was a big-time star for Philadelphia,” said Simpson. “Frank said, ‘I knew I was between him and the basket, but he jumped right over me, over my head.’ But Frank stood steadfast and ready to block him.” 

Washington and Lee University was always close to his heart. Following in his footsteps, all three of his sons attended the prestigious school. Later he served on the school’s board of trustees for nearly a decade and was sworn in as rector in 1997, serving in that position for six years. As an alumnus, he was also a founding member of the school’s Institute of Honor, which was established in 2000, and chaired his 50th reunion, which endowed the Class of 1960 Professorship in Ethics. He was committed to supporting his alma mater’s student-run honor system, which provides an all-encompassing system of trust on campus. 

James Frank Surface, Jr. and his family in Africa in 2018
James Frank Surface, Jr. and his family in Africa in 2018

While attending Washington and Lee, Surface met the love of his life, Sally Holcomb, a student at nearby Hollins University, and they married in 1961. Later Sally worked as a librarian at the University of Florida, while he attended law school at UF, eventually graduating with honors. During this time, Surface also served in the ROTC/Army Reserve in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps at Camp Blanding. “One story he told was of leading his Army convoy on an unauthorized drill onto the beach in South Ponte Vedra and then north past the Ponte Vedra Inn and Spa,” remembered David.“It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the scene created quite a panic, yet he somehow was able to avoid getting disciplined by his superiors.”

Following law school, Surface began his career as a practicing attorney at Mahoney, Hadlow, Chambers and Adams, where he eventually became managing partner of the firm. It was there he met Simpson in March 1968, who had been assigned to work with him. “It was a great gift to me, that assignment,” said Simpson. “He was blowing and going. He and some of his friends acquired three sandwich shops and in another four or five months they had taken those sandwich shops public. They paid $600,000 for the sandwich shops and had taken the idea and franchised it nationwide raising $10 million. Then five months later, that same $600,000 purchase was valued at $55 million.” 

The sandwich shops became the Stand N Snack restaurant chain – home of the Big Frank hot dog – and that was just the first of many successful business ventures he implemented during his life including Adcom Metals and Lakeshore Dry Storage Marina. He also pioneered the construction of several condominium buildings – Vista del Mar and Seascape – in Jacksonville Beach with partners Charlie Commander, George Dickerson, Joe Hixon, and Simpson. “When we went to the lenders some didn’t even know what a condominium was when we started,” said Simpson.

“He was a magician with spread sheets. He would take up an idea, make some assumptions and the next thing you knew he had a great looking pro forma and the energy to push it through. He was busy, energetic, and swinging for the fences hitting a lot of good balls,” said Simpson, who worked with him on the condominium projects. “He was a doer and he stayed a doer his whole life. He was a rare combination of intellect, energy, persuasiveness, determination, and imagination. He was the most fun partner you could have been associated with, and we were business partners for 50 years.”

In the 1970s, Surface and his partners also formed the Bold City Travelers, which chartered jets to transport hundreds of skiers each year to most of the western resorts, a business that continued for 15 to 20 years, said Archie Jenkins of San Jose, his close friend from college. Surface first met Jenkins, who graduated from Landon High, briefly in 1953 when they played basketball against each other in high school, but the two because fast friends at Washington and Lee when they pledged the same fraternity. “Frank and I would often race head to head down the long slopes until one day we were forced to stop by our wives who, for fear of injuries, threatened to leave us,” Jenkins said. 

When his sons, Frank and David, played football at Washington and Lee, Surface took time off from his law practice to go to Lexington and teach at the school’s law school as an adjunct professor just so he could watch the games and practices. “He taught a law seminar that he devised on law and entrepreneurship, and it was perfect for him,” said Simpson. Surface also served on the Institute for Honor Council, which promotes the school’s honor code and student self-governance, which he firmly believed helped to develop character and honor in young men and women.

Surface finished his law career Of Counsel with LeBoeuf, Lamb, Green and MacRae. Later he decided he wanted to embark on something new so he co-founded Vesta Property Services, where he served as chairman and chief executive officer for the past 25 years. Under his leadership, Vesta grew into one of the largest property management companies in Florida, providing community and amenity management, financing, and ancillary services to master-planned residential communities.

Always a champion for Downtown Jacksonville, Surface was involved in many civic initiatives. “He gave himself credit – unconfirmed – for suggesting the name of the old Jacksonville Landing,” said David Surface.

Active in the community, Surface served as a founding member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Day School, the Jacksonville Zoological Society, Enterprise Florida and Central Jacksonville, Inc. He was also chairman of several local boards including Leadership Jacksonville, the March of Dimes Campaign, and the Jacksonville Charter Revision Commission, as well as serving on the board of The Bolles School, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Foundation and the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

 A man who liked to keep his good friends close, Surface was a member of two local monthly lunch groups, the No Purpose Lunch Group (NPLG) and the Good Guys Club, which he enjoyed for more than 30 years. 

He enjoyed hunting ducks at Maryfield Plantation, his property in southeast Georgia. And he and his wife loved to travel and generally took a big trip once a year visiting Asia and Europe. In 2018, the Surfaces treated their large extended family to a trip to Africa for three weeks.

As a man who loved to fish and dive, Surface began taking his family boating in the Bahamas in the early 1970s, first to Walker’s Cay and Bimini in his boat, Sundancer, and later to Elbow Cay on the Sunbird,” David remembered. Over the decades, the excursions turned into guy trips, with many of his friends, such as Jenkins and Royce Hough. “The adventures in the Bahamas were legend,” said Jenkins. “We would have the families with us in the early years, but when we then became more adventure-some we wanted to go into the far reaches where fishing and diving was better and less crowded. There was a paucity of infrastructure where we cruised, so the families stayed behind, and our cruises became guy trips, and we experienced a more modern Robinson Crusoe lifestyle living off sea creatures and speared lobster, fish of all varieties, land crabs, which we’d procure, clean, cook and eat within one to two hours. It was fresh seafood for sure. Frank did all the heavy lifting in all phases, except for cleaning up!” he said, noting on one trip they spotted a white lobster while diving and decided to found the White Lobster Society, a Bahamian enthusiast group, which became a cult of sorts with initiation, bylaws, and traditions. He also helped form Hopetown Rising, a non-profit organization that provides hurricane relief funds to the Abaco Islands.

Surface also loved cooking and was famous for his key lime pie. Simpson recalled a time in the islands when he was making a pie and discovered there were no ingredients for the crust. “We had no graham crackers or anything else, so he made a crust out of crushed up M&Ms. It was delicious,” Simpson recalled. “He never let little hurdles slow him down.”

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