Friday night I drove to Callaway-Jones Funeral Center to pay respects to a gentleman whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing since 1993, Gene Woodell. It was going to be hard to say goodbye, even if Gene lived 91 wonderful years, because he was so timeless to all who knew him. The welcome smiles of my work colleagues who opened the door for me, Jon Shirley and Morgan Shirley, made my visit comfortable immediately.
As I signed the guest book, Marissa Crouch and Ricky Alderete greeted me as all around me I saw a beautiful display of photographs, awards, certificates, and more. I already knew Gene was legendary in his career—and yet, seeing all the framed accolades reinforced my awareness of what I already knew. We’d lost a legend, on so many levels.
My eyes immediately located a framed photo of Dixie and Gene, from their 50th Wedding Anniversary party at First United Methodist Church, and all of us there (virtually the entire church membership, plus neighbors and friends who’d filed through en masse that day) had signed the now framed matte board surrounding their wedding photo. At the end of his life, Gene and Dixie had marked 63 years of marriage, and all who knew the couple smiled in awe of the joy they showed whenever they were together.
Greeting Gene’s widow, Dixie, and his sons, Gene Martin and John, I knew to expect their strength, but as the beautiful video that Gene Martin had created was showing, it was truly a lifetime of love that was Gene’s greatest legacy to all of us. Even though the light of their lives had been extinguished on January 11th, the Woodells were such gracious hosts to all of Bryan-College Station who came through to share a hug, a tear, and so many memories.
I am continually humbled, when I see the “greatest generation” show up en masse, no matter what kind of impediments might try to dissuade them from paying respects. To be sure, in attendance were several Millenials, including Clayton Cates who came in, who’d known “Mr. Woodell” as the senior usher at First United Methodist Church, the man whose heart was filled with the incandescent countenance of grace and peace. John Woodell had asked Clayton to be an usher for the next day’s service, as Clayton was one whom Mr. Woodell had known from birth.
Trying to count the number of ushers who were asked by Mr. Woodell to work with him on Sunday mornings, I gave up—too many to count. He was truly a pillar of the church. In the past year alone, First Methodist has lost many pillars but Gene Woodell was one pillar for which it was almost too hard for me to say goodbye to, and I’m well practiced in saying goodbye bravely. After I’d paid my respects, I saw more of the photographs of the Woodells’ lifetime of love. They brought me to near-tears.
Fortunately, Rose Cates spotted me and we visited and reminisced about what Gene meant to our church, and as others came in, we knew they were from other parts of the Woodell’s lives. Whether it’s visitation or a funeral, we all need closure, we need people to be there with us and for us, which is the most important reason for a visitation, as you are not alone in your grief. Others miss whom you miss. Others remember what you remember, and together there is comfort.
Taking time to see all the names in the visitor registry, I smiled, because the lives that Gene touched in his lifetime were those from Grapeland, Texas, from his career position with Merck, Sharp, and Dohme (now Merck & Co.), within his church, and in an established Bryan neighborhood of longstanding. Everyone smiled as they shared their memories of Gene with his family.
The lights came on early Saturday morning in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Bryan, at 28th and Houston, as a special event was to take place, with the public arriving for a 11 am funeral to pay final respects to one of the true “pillars of the church.”
It would be the first special occasion in the past 67 years in the life of the church where Gene himself was not present to open the doors. Instead, we the massive group of friends, family, fellow church members, neighbors and Bryan-College Station residents filed in to fill the pews for Gene’s Life Tribute service.
My door was opened by a professional teen usher whom Gene inspired and trained, Clayton Cates. That door was originally Gene’s to open, as he did virtually every Sunday of his 67 years as a member of the church now in its 150th year. Imagine…a man who has been part of a church for almost half of its existence. Truly, this is an awesome achievement. I was one of hundreds who processed through those portals over various years. He took the time to greet everyone by name…he brought a great “Welcome to your church” to visitors and guests alike.
For the funeral, pews held so many of the subsets of the church membership, one pew holding the surviving spouses of former FUMC ministers and their friends, another pew holding members of the 2x2 Sunday School class, of which Dixie and Gene were members, yet another pew with many of the Wesley Sunday School Class, another pew with a beloved former senior pastor and his entire family, on and on, as you then saw pews of others you didn’t know, but you’d come to know as the service proceeded with James Polasek on the organ with the prelude.
After Ricky Alderete led the family in to their reserved pews, Pastor Rick Sitton welcomed everyone and the music began. Young Michael Bettati perfomed a sterling violin solo as the opening then Rev. David Henry led the Sanctuary Choir in “On Eagle’s Wings” and all was right with the world. The FUMC Sanctuary Choir is one of the reasons many people return each week, to hear whatever they’ve worked up next as their gift to the congregation. Gene Woodell was another reason people returned each week.
Jeff Hobbs, Children’s Minister at FUMC, read from the Psalms, and took his rightful place as one who deserved to be part of the final farewell. Gene had watched him become the church leader he is, encouraging him all the way, sometimes good naturedly, but always with a smile. Count on Dr. Tim Scott to share from the lectern and keep everyone’s attention in a positive way. First, Tim read John’s tribute eulogy to their dad, and then it was time for the congregation to sing “Blessed Assurance,” always a favorite. Michael Bettati performed a powerful version of “Long Time Traveler,” and then it was time for the Eulogy.
Tim invited anyone who wished to come forward to share “I am thankful for Gene Woodell because…” and as people filed up there, including Texas State Rep. John Raney (who came down from the choir loft to do so), and wife Elizabeth, to Gene’s neighbors, friends from Grapeland, and other church members, the accolades flowed beautifully and smoothly.
Tim then continued by sharing the contents of a beautiful anonymous note that the Woodells had found in their mailbox one day. For four years a student had ridden his bike down their block, en route to classes at Texas A&M, and every day when Gene was outside, he would wave and smile at the student, neither party knowing the other’s names.
The student was just about to graduate and decided on that occasion that he wanted to thank the “resident” there for his daily encouragement that was, some days, what kept him going in his journey and through his education challenges. Imagine the power of a single wave and smile. That was Woodell Wattage light that flowed through him wherever he was.
Tim reminded so many of us of the truly sainted man who’d grown up in Grapeland, after having lost his dad very early in his life, one reason Tim projected that he’d been such a loving and caring father to their sons. Gene had co-founded “The Better Men of Grapeland” as a young man, vowing not to drink or smoke or swear, or go with girls who did. That’s an achievement to admire…without a father figure in his life, Gene and his friends decided early what kind of men they would be. Who does that anymore? Only special people with special gifts.
He shared how Gene wanted so much to join the Boy Scouts, even at age 13, but he’d learned the age of entry was 14, and the Scoutmaster wouldn’t make an exception. So, he went to the library and read up on the rules, and learned that you could join at 13 years old if there was a board member to sponsor you. One day the scoutmaster was out of town, so Gene sought out a Boy Scout board member to sponsor him. The man was so impressed, he agreed to sponsor him, and he hired him to work in his business. The man was Otto Walling, whose family had been in Grapeland, forever it seemed.
Otto hired Gene and that was the beginning of his interest in drug stores and in pharmaceuticals.
Gene was definitely a people person, so he combined his people skills in a business that made people feel better, a representative of a major pharmaceutical company, one that he devoted 37 years of his work life to serving, Merck & Co. Seeing some of his award plaques at visitation was so as you’d expect…for all the years I knew him, he never once mentioned an award. You just “knew it,” but doctors in town and their office teams always respected him. Gene was like no other in what he did and how he did it. Hard to quantify in words.
The sermon delivered by Pastor Sitton was as you’d expect, hard for him to deliver, as clearly he respected Gene so much, but he made it meaningful to all who heard him. What do you say when a visible pillar of your congregation is no longer there to welcome you each week? Many pastors and their spouses were in attendance on Saturday—they know exactly how Pastor Sitton felt. As Pastor Sitton said in closing, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Amen and amen.
The concluding hymn was “Because He Lives,” and it was almost as though someone was picking favorites out of the old Cokesbury Hymnal, and nothing would have made Gene happier. Well done, Rev. David Henry.
In any church, in any career, and in any community, you come across people who improve your life, and those of all around you, simply by their indefatigable smiles, their optimistic outlook on life, and their ability to be calm in any crisis. It reminds me of what Fred Rogers used to say to young children who were being taught what to do when there’s trouble around them. “Look for the helpers,” he’d say. For most all of his 91 years, in life you could say, “Look for Gene Woodell, he will help you.”
Dr. Fran Kimbrough is responsible for the takeaway remark of the individual eulogies…paraphrasing as closely as I can, she said, “For mumble-something years, I’ve known the entire Woodell family, as a lifetime member of this church, and my two favorite ushers of all time are my uncle, Jim James, and Mr. Woodell. And I know for a fact that one day when I get to Heaven, there will be two ushers standing at the door up there as they always did down here, and that will be my uncle, Jim James and Mr. Woodell.”
And that, of everything I heard and appreciated yesterday, made me smile the most.
The lights of the sanctuary in First United Methodist Church glowed brightly again this morning, and will every day hereafter in which any worship service occurs in the now 150th year of that church.
But the lights in the night skies, when they can be seen, will undoubtedly be stronger and brighter, and light-years away someone has already said, “Hey look, Woodell has arrived!”
Following the benediction, the family paid final respects in passing the casket for the last time en route to the reception in the church’s Fellowship Hall. Larry Whitlock and Zach Johnson had joined Ricky Alderete in folding the U.S. Flag draping Gene's casket, a reminder of his service to country in the U.S. Army. The rest of the congregation followed behind them.
In the Fellowship Hall, at every table you’d find people gathered together in rapt conversation, talking about how they first came to First Church, how Gene had welcomed them, and invariably the statement, “This church will not be the same without him.” A beautiful collective of church women acted as hosts for the reception, providing recognition and regard for all who attended, ambassadors of FUMC as Gene would so have loved.
However, rather than drop into deep depression, you could be uplifted as you’d see only the countenance of calm on Dixie’s face, the active and appreciative way in which both Gene Martin and John engaged in conversation with all who came to speak special words. It would be a long day for their family as the interment would take place at Bethel Cemetery on Hardy Weedon Road, and final goodbyes would be said.