Woods, William P. (1907-1990)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 9/10/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7918
William P. Woods was a civil engineer who worked his way up from pipefitter’s helper to corporate leader in the natural gas industry. A native of Selma, Alabama, he was named president of the Washington Natural Gas Company in Seattle in 1960. He helped transform what had been a small gas utility into a broad-based energy company, now part of Puget Sound Energy. Woods also became a civic activist in his adopted community. He was known as a premier fundraiser, particularly for organizations serving the needs of youth or promoting human rights. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors selected him as First Citizen of 1969, citing his work with the Washington Region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Seattle Young Men’s Christian Association, and the Washington State 4-H Foundation, among many other groups. The realtors found it “both unimportant and of relative significance” that Woods was “a foster son” of Seattle -- a transplant who had made a significant mark on the community in a relatively short time.

Social Activist

Photographs taken of Woods in his later life show a remarkable resemblance to former President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). Like Johnson, Woods was a child of the segregated South who came to embrace the cause of civil rights. He once told a reporter that as a young man in Alabama, he had been befriended by one co-worker who was black and another who was Jewish. The experience, he said, encouraged his lifelong interest in social justice.

According to his son, William P. Woods Jr., of Ellensburg, Woods’s closest friends in Seattle were William J. Sullivan (b. 1930), a Jesuit priest and former president of Seattle University; and Raphael H. Levine (1901-1985), former rabbi at Temple de Hirsch. Woods was a Presbyterian, of Scottish heritage. "Those three -- a Catholic, a Jew, and a Presbyterian -- had some interesting conversations," says the younger Woods (interview).

Family members describe Woods as a fiscal conservative and social progressive. He was appalled by the federal budget deficits of the 1970s, which amounted to about $60 billion a year by the end of the decade. "We cannot continue to enjoy this type of deficit financing and keep America secure," he said in a speech at Seattle University in 1978. In the same speech, he expressed concern about "the energy crisis," and said he was disappointed that "no fair and just peace settlement has been reached as yet between Israel and the Arab nations." He might be disappointed to see that so little has changed in nearly 30 years -- except the size of the deficit, which is expected to exceed $425 billion for 2006.

"People in Seattle used to tell me how conservative he was," Woods’s daughter, Katherine Needs, of Delta, Utah, says of her father, "and I would simply laugh out loud and say: you have no idea where he came from, do you?" (email).

Alabama Boy

William Peacock Woods was born on February 3, 1907, on a family farm outside Selma, Alabama, the sixth of seven children of Marion T. B. Woods and Anabelle McIlwain Woods. His father -- the superintendent of a sweet potato curing plant in Selma -- died of heart failure in September 1921, when Woods was 13. The young teenager found an outlet for his grief in the local YMCA. He became a competitive swimmer, and participated in basketball and other sports at the "Y."

At one point, he thought he might make a career out of working for the YMCA. He said later that he accepted the chairmanship of the Seattle YMCA’s Development Campaign in 1962 because of the organization’s influence on his own formative years.

Woods attended public schools in Selma and then worked his way through college, graduating in 1930 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). With the Great Depression underway and the unemployment rate exceeding 25 percent, he had difficulty finding a job. He worked briefly as a substitute teacher at Selma High School and tried his hand at selling life insurance before being hired by the Alabama Gas Company as a pipefitter’s helper, digging ditches at a salary of 27 cents an hour.

Woods rose quickly through the ranks at Alabama Gas. In 1936, the company sent him to West Palm Beach, Florida, as a superintendent. One of the utility’s customers there was a science teacher who insisted there was a gas leak in her classroom laboratory. He sent out an inspector, who found no evidence of a leak. The teacher continued to insist she could smell gas in the classroom. Woods, irritated, reportedly said: "Damn it, I’m going to get that hook-nosed old maid off our backs once and for all -- I’ll fix it myself." The "hook-nosed old maid" was Caroline Oliver, a local beauty who had recently returned from a screen test in Hollywood. The young superintendent fixed the Bunsen burner that turned out to be leaking in her classroom but found a number of other reasons to continue calling on her. The two were married on June 24, 1940.

Business Career

Woods worked for gas companies in Georgia, Texas, and Washington, D.C., before joining the Stone & Webster Service Corporation -- a Boston-based utility consortium -- and settling in Westchester, New York, in 1946. He was named president of Conversions and Surveys, Inc., a subsidiary of Stone & Webster, in 1948; and was elected a vice president of the consortium itself in 1954. By his count, he helped initiate natural-gas service to more than 500 towns and cities in the United States and Canada while working for Stone & Webster.

Washington Natural Gas recruited Woods as president in 1960. He and Caroline settled into a house in Bellevue with their three children: William P. Woods Jr., born in 1942; Caroline Lucile, born in 1948, and Katherine Louise, born in 1952. After living in about a dozen different cities in half a dozen states, Woods had made his last move.

He retired from Washington Natural Gas in 1980, after serving 10 years as president and another 10 years as chairman of the board and chief executive officer. By the time he left, the company had grown from 45,000 customers to more than 200,000 and acquired subsidiaries in oil and gas exploration, bio-waste technology, coal, and other energy-related businesses. Woods oversaw the establishment, in 1977, of the Washington Energy Company, a holding company that included Washington Natural Gas. Twenty years later, Washington Energy merged with Bellevue-based Puget Sound Power & Light (a private electric power company) to create Puget Sound Energy, today the state’s largest energy utility.

Woods was active in several trade organizations promoting either the natural gas industry or business in general. He served as president and then chairman of the board of the American Gas Association; was a member of the policy committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and a director of the National Association of Manufacturers. He also held leadership positions with the Washington State International Trade Fair and the World Trade Commission.

His participation in an effort to generate interest in the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair brought him into the orbit of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). In March 1962, Woods traveled to New York City as a member of a delegation of business and political leaders trying to drum up publicity for the fair, which was built around the theme of science and the space age in "Century 21." While on the East Coast, he attended the second National Conference for the Peaceful Uses of Space, sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and held in Washington, D.C. President Kennedy stopped by for a "photo op" with Woods, NASA director James E. Webb, and Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989).

A few years later, Woods was photographed with another American president, when Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) presented him with a certificate for "outstanding contributions to the Export Expansion Program of the United States of America."

Civic Life

Woods’ civic resume could fill several pages. At various times, he was a trustee of Greater Seattle Inc.; a member of Forward Thrust; a past president of the Seattle and Bellevue chambers of commerce; a past president and member of the board of governors of the Washington Athletic Club; Seattle Metro chairman of the National Alliance of Businessmen; a trustee of the Seattle World Affairs Council; and a member of the boards of directors for the Bellevue Art Museum, the Seattle Symphony, the American Cancer Society, the United Good Neighbors, the Salvation Army, Junior Achievement, Inc., the Boys Clubs of King County, and the Boy Scouts of America.

Friends said he always seemed to say "yes" when asked for help. "He really believed in giving back to the community," James A. Thorpe, chief executive officer of the Washington Energy Company, told a reporter for the Bellevue Journal American after Woods’ death in 1990. "He believed in instilling in youth the need to believe in each other and for all mankind to be brothers."

Woods established a close friendship with Rabbi Raphael Levine shortly after moving to Seattle. The two worked together on several community-service projects, including one to provide job training to members of racial minority groups. In 1968, when Levine and the Reverend William Treacy, a Catholic priest, founded Camp Brotherhood -- an interfaith and interracial center at Mount Vernon -- Woods became its first president. He and Levine both served on the Washington State Commission on the Cause and Prevention of Civil Disorder, established in response to racial tensions in the late 1960s.

Woods remained involved with Camp Brotherhood for many years, and encouraged its expansion to include a family retreat in the mid-1980s. In his 1985 book Profiles in Service, Levine credited Woods with helping develop the "novel approach" of "using a camp setting to work with troubled families" (Levine, 229).

The Washington Region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews gave Woods a Brotherhood Award in 1968. The Jewish National Fund named a reforestation project in Israel in his honor in 1972. "William P. Woods may not be the first person to heed his social conscience, but he ranks high among those who have given it voice through personal involvement," the organization noted, in a tribute presented to Woods.

A self-described "staunch Scottish Presbyterian," Woods ended up deeply involved with Catholics at the Jesuit-run Seattle University. He was appointed to the university’s board of regents in 1964. He became a member of the governing board of trustees in 1971, when the university opened that board -- previously limited to Jesuits -- to businessmen. "Those were very difficult times," the Reverend William Sullivan, Seattle University’s president, recalled later. "That was a time when the enrollments in a lot of the private schools dropped way off. He helped support the university through those days" (Journal American).

The university acknowledged Woods’s contributions by awarding him an honorary degree in 1978. "From the day you arrived in Seattle in 1960 as one of a new generation of Northwest business leaders, you have demonstrated a sincere commitment to improving the quality of life for all of this region’s citizens," Sullivan said, in presenting the award. "Apart from your success in the business world, however, the energy, enthusiasm and dedication which you freely donated to community organizations in Seattle ... represents a priceless gift from you to the present and the future of our Pacific Northwest" (1985 commencement program).

Woods died on November 30, 1990, at the Bessie Burton Sullivan Skilled Nursing Residence on the Seattle University campus, of congestive heart failure at age 83. His death came just five months after he and his wife, Caroline, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Besides his widow, he was survived by his son, William P. Woods Jr., and daughter, Katherine Needs. Another daughter, Caroline Lucile, died in an automobile accident in 1967.

"He was a real ecumenical leader in the community," Sullivan said after Woods’ death. "He had an interest in Christian/Jewish causes and relations between the races. He was a man of very broad interests and concerns, both on a religious and racial front" (Journal American).

"My father," adds his son, "was a ‘Southern Gentleman’ who really did respect all people equally" (Woods interview).

Sources: Cassandra Tate interview with William P. Woods Jr., Seattle, August 15, 2006; 1969 Seattle First Citizen banquet program, in possession of William P. Woods Jr.; remarks by William P. Woods to the graduating class of Seattle University, June 4, 1978, text in possession of William P. Woods Jr.; Katherine Needs email to Cassandra Tate, August 24, 2006; "41 ‘Sell" Seattle Fair," The New York Times, March 30, 1962, p. 36; Raphael H. Levine and Anne Barlow, Rabbi Raphael Levine’s Profiles in Service: Stories of People Who Help People (Seattle: Evergreen Publishing Company, 1985); "William Woods, Who Always Said ‘Yes’ to His Community, Dies at 83," Bellevue Journal American, December 1, 1990; Seattle University, 1978 Commencement program, in possession of William P. Woods Jr.; "Service Set for William Woods," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 3, 1990, B-2; Constantine Angelos, "William P. Woods, Former Chairman of Energy Firm, Human-Rights Activist," The Seattle Times, December 1, 1990, C-9.

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