Scenic Heroes: Charles Floyd | Scenic America
Scenic Heroes: Charles Floyd

When Charles Floyd passed away on October 15, 2020, the scenic community lost one of its strongest and most passionate heroes, and Scenic America lost one of its founding members. A retired professor, Charlie dedicated the second half of his career to fighting billboard blight, authoring paper after paper decrying the ruthless tactics and questionable practices used by outdoor advertising companies to further their gains at the expense of scenic beauty. It was a cause that he championed even in the last months of his life.

Photo: Ryke Longest

“Just a few weeks before he passed away, he sent me a draft of a new paper he was working on about the billboard industry,” recalled Scenic North Carolina President Dale McKeel, a longtime colleague. “It was called ‘The Pampered Polluters.’ He truly was working on this issue until the very end.”

A passionate patriot and Army veteran, Charlie developed an appreciation for America’s beauty over the course of his lifetime. Born in Salisbury, North Carolina, he earned undergraduate and doctorate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For forty years, he served as a professor of real estate at the University of Georgia—a position that deepened his interest in regional economic growth and the environment. As he traveled across the country and around the world, he often took note of the differences between the billboard-littered roadways of North Carolina and the more thoughtfully curated highways in other states and countries.

Even while still working in academia, battling billboards became Charlie’s primary pursuit. He became the go-to authority on the topic and was called upon to testify before Congressional committees. He worked on billboard legal cases in 26 states and wrote several influential papers and books about the visual environment, including Highway Beautification: The Environmental Movement’s Greatest Failure (1979), which exposed the ways in which the Highway Beautification Act failed to live up to its promise.

“Charlie believed that it was a great injustice that American taxpayers should have to fight to keep public rights-of-way clear, and that it was hypocrisy that leaders would override local control to allow billboards to go up on public highways,” said Jason Walser, former executive director of the Land Trust for Central NC, and one of Charlie’s close friends and colleagues.

Ed McMahon, Scenic America’s first executive director, recalled Charlie’s ability to tell a story and hook the interest of the media to highlight the wrong-doings and chicanery of the billboard industry. In the mid-1980s, Ed joined forces with Charlie and John Miller, another figure in Scenic America’s early history, to bring the story to media outlets across the country, from Time Magazine to Reader’s Digest.

“He had a great way of talking to the press and telling stories about the outrageous and corrupt shenanigans of the billboard industry,” Ed stated. “Communities were getting nothing as their trees were getting cut down and landscapes were getting destroyed.”

A consummate storyteller, Charlie also made several national TV appearances as a billboard authority. Once, as Jason noted, Charlie starred in an ABC News segment with Sam Donaldson in which they drove around with a film crew, with Charlie pointing out violations of the Highway Beautification Act along the way.

“He loved being the national expert on billboards,” explained Jason. “He thought that a billboard was the first toe in the door for ugliness. It provided an excuse for litter or poor land use and bad development.”

In addition to telling his billboard stories to the media, he also caught the attention of funders. He pitched the scenic cause to funders to secure the initial resources to start the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, the organization that would later become Scenic America.

Charlie’s critics paid attention to what he had to say—so much so that the Outdoor Advertising Association ran a regular feature in its newsletter in which they would attempt to refute his research.

“He took all kinds of grief from the billboard industry, but he was not an easy person to intimidate,” said Ed.

While relishing his role on the national stage, Charlie recognized the importance of coordination and collaboration at the state and local level as well. Ryke Longest, former Scenic America Board Chair and Duke Law Professor, first got to know Charlie as the Tar Heel affiliate prepared to fight new billboard policies at the state level.

“When I first met him, I was struck by how intensely he focused on the strategic aspects of the scenic movement. He recognized that the players on the billboard side had a long-term interest in increasing their presence and profitability, and that they were going to do that by eliminating local control wherever they could,” said Ryke.

Charles with Ryke Longest in San Francisco, photo credit: Ryke Longest

“He knew that scenic conservation couldn’t be done at just one level. It had to happen at the local, state, and federal level. Each level had a role to play, and where there were gaps, uglification could come along,” Ryke added.

Indeed, Charlie fought against the “uglification” of America on all levels. In describing his work, Charlie noted, “I learned that ugly is not good for business. And beauty, conversely, sells. Beauty leads to quality development… but beauty is harder to sell. We let people get away with ugly when they shouldn’t.”

Friends and colleagues admired Charlie for his professional conviction, but also recalled his personal magnanimity. He and his wife, Rebecca, worked diligently to preserve her family’s farm, located about 20 miles outside of Salisbury. Charlie secured conservation easements for the property, which will go to the Central North Carolina Land Trust upon Rebecca’s death.

Those who knew Charlie well described him as a man with conviction and a streak of stubbornness.

“He never gave up, never conceded a point. He stood firm in his beliefs and argued them forcefully. He always pushed others to keep up the fight,” noted Dale. “When I worked with him at Scenic North Carolina, he would close a conversation with, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ He pushed us. He made us all better.”

“He had tremendous love for beautiful things and the finest in life, but he had no pretention. He always impressed me with his accessibility and lack of ego,” said Ryke.

“He was cantankerous, indefatigable, and probably one of the best advocates we ever had for billboard control,” notes Ed. “He knew that no place in America today is special by accident.”

Related Topics