He was the 'Andy Griffith' of Gadsden
Ex Sheriff known for his personality
You may have seen a sheriff like W. A. Woodham - on television.
As sheriff of Gadsden County for 33 years, Woodham could be tough, and he could be compassionate. He could be a man of action, and he could be a man of words.
"He was as close to Andy Griffith as you could get in the real world," Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell said. "He didn't have to flex his muscles and exert pressure. He could talk to you and get things done."
Such a man leaves a hole in a community, and Woodham left one Thursday when he died only five months after leaving office. He was 63.
Woodham died at St. Luke's Hospital/Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, while awaiting a liver transplant and heart surgery.
Amy Jo Dunbar, the oldest of Woodham's three daughters, said her father was diagnosed with liver problems more than a dozen years ago but had been in mainly good health until January, when he contracted a blood infection. Admitted to St. Luke's in late March, Woodham had been scheduled for a liver transplant this week until contracting another infection.
"Things changed dramatically the last few days," said Dunbar, who was at Woodham's bedside along with her sisters and Woodham's second wife, Karen. "He just wore out before he could have surgery."
William Albert Woodham - known as W.A. since boyhood - was appointed sheriff of Gadsden County by then-Gov. Reubin Askew in April 1971 after the incumbent sheriff died of a heart attack. When he retired in November 2004, he was the longest-serving sheriff in Florida and only a few years short of the state record of 36 years.
Woodham then ran for a seat on the Gadsden County Commission, but narrowly lost to former Midway Mayor Eugene Lamb in a race Lamb described as friendly.
"When I won, he came out wholeheartedly and supported me," Lamb said. "I was running for the seat, not against Mr. Woodham. He was not only a great sheriff, he was a good man."
Fair and even-handed
In the 1970s, Woodham shepherded Gadsden County through a period of civil-rights turmoil. He went on to carve out a reputation as a fair and even-handed white sheriff in a county whose population is 57 percent black - the only black-majority county in Florida.
Support of the black community was a key element to Woodham being re-elected eight times.
"He was good at being sheriff," said Gadsden County Commission Chairman Ed Dixon, who is black. "He knew when to lock 'em up, and he knew when the laws didn't make sense and someone just needed to go home and go to work. In this community, that made sense for a long time."
Woodham could be tough. He once wrestled a gun away from a man holding a hostage. He shot and wounded a former Florida Highway Patrol officer who fired shots at Gadsden County deputies. He directed the successful capture of Carl Clausen, a former Gadsden County sheriff's deputy who had killed his wife and shot three deputies before forcing a five-day manhunt in 1997.
"He was a very strong, courageous sheriff," said Wakulla County Sheriff David Harvey, who is now the dean of Florida sheriffs with 28 years in office. "He wasn't scared of anything. He'd go right into a dangerous situation head-first."
Sheriff was easily accessible
Yet it was Woodham's friendly, accessible personality that won him the most admiration. His office door was always open, he always answered his phone at home and he frequently went out late at night to settle disputes, answer questions and listen to residents.
Former Florida Speaker of the House James Harold Thompson, a native of Gadsden County, emceed a retirement dinner for Woodham last fall that drew more than 500 people. When Thompson asked everyone who had been personally helped by Woodham to raise a hand, "a lot of people didn't have enough hands."
"W.A. was extremely compassionate," Thompson said. "He took the time and effort with people who really had needs in our community. He was diligent in trying to help people."
A Southern boy at heart
Woodham was raised in a blue-collar family in Dothan, Ala., where his father was a roofer. He attended junior college in Marianna, then graduated from Florida State University with a degree in criminology in 1965. He spent a year as a state trooper, then worked as a Gadsden Juvenile Court counselor for four years before Askew appointed him sheriff. At 29, he was then one of the state's youngest sheriffs and one of only a handful with a college degree.
"It used to tickle me to see him interviewed on TV, and he'd come on like a country boy," Campbell said. "That was his demeanor, but that was not his brain. He was a whole lot smarter than people gave him credit for."
Yet Woodham was a Southern boy. He loved to hunt and fish and chew tobacco. He liked country music and shooting the breeze at the hardware store. And he did not like to fly, choosing instead to drive across the country to attend sheriff's conventions.
"I made fun of his driving to Phoenix - until he drove all the way to Seattle," Campbell said.
Mostly, Woodham liked being sheriff.
"He loved being able to help people," said his daughter, Amy Jo Dunbar. "He was just a servant."
The funeral service for Woodham will be held Monday at 2 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Quincy.
Rest in peace, Sheriff. This is going to be one MASSIVE funeral. Hopefully I can get myself a seat at the service.
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04-16-2005, 08:57 PM #1
Gadsden County, FL--W.A. Woodham, Former Dean of Florida Sheriffs Dies at 63
04-18-2005, 07:42 PM #2
There was a nice service for him today at the church. Dozens of LEO vehicle were in his procession. The graveside service was very nicely done. Pipers from the Tallahassee Fire Department played Amazing Grace and there was a 21-gun salute followed by the last call.
"Gadsden S.O. to Gadsden 1, Sheriff Woodham. Gadsden S.O. to Gadsden 1, Sheriff Woodham. Gadsden S.O. to Gadsden 1, Sheriff Woodham. Nothing heard at 1505. Quincy, all units, be advised that Gadsden 1, Sheriff Woodham is 10-87."
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