Woodson pleases others as he leads them to improve

Staff WriterJanuary 17, 2010 

— The question was whether Randy Woodson would work out, and his boss-to-be figured the answer was no.

It was the early 1970s, and in rural Arkansas a teenager with below-shoulder-length hair and little apparent interest in anything beyond guitars was hardly a prized job candidate. He did not look like the type to shoulder his share of the endless manual labor at a large greenhouse operation, nursery owner Roy Wayne Moseley thought.

But Moseley was a friend of Woodson's dad, Herb, who asked for the favor while they were fishing. "I'll give him two weeks," Moseley replied.

The ninth-grader, it turned out, was polite, showed up on time, and even started to show an interest in the intricate details of horticulture - something Moseley appreciated. The nursery owner called Woodson's dad on the phone.

"Herb," he said, "the boy's going to make it."

He did, too. Bigger than his boss or dad ever dreamed.

William R. "Randy" Woodson, now 52 and the provost at Purdue University, has been named the next chancellor of N.C. State University, a flagship campus of the UNC system and a huge engine for the state's economy - an engine Woodson vows to kick into a higher gear.

He will bring his wife, Susan, co-founder of a successful women's magazine in West Lafayette, his guitar (for informal bluegrass jamming), and the paraphernalia for home-brewing tasty - and scientifically formulated - batches of ale.

There are no guarantees he'll work out at NCSU as well as he did at the nursery and at Purdue. Woodson has said he wants to finish his academic career at NCSU so he can put his mark on the place by, as he put it, taking an already great university and making it better. But he has never run a university before. And even some among the army of admirers at Purdue say he was promoted so quickly that he didn't leave a broad track record.

"I realize that I serve at the pleasure of the board and of [UNC system President] Erskine Bowles, and I could be toast tomorrow," he said last week. "But at 52, there's time to move this institution."

It's not about him

Woodson, as anyone who spends more than a few minutes around him can attest, has extraordinary gifts, among them an ability to communicate clearly and comfortably with practically anyone, from scientists to undergraduates, state legislators to farm laborers. That's just a tool, though, one of several he deploys toward what colleagues describe as his motivation: making the place they work more efficient, pleasant and just plain better.

"He actually wants the university to grow and be a better place, and it just doesn't seem to be about him at all," said Ray DeCarlo, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who dealt with Woodson often while serving as chairman of Purdue's faculty senate last year.

That motivation started to gel at Wayne's Greenhouses. The job became like one of those coming-of-age movies where the kid with the free-spirited attitude turns out to have more in common with the adults than they figured, and everyone learns something. Especially the kid.

That's where it first occurred to Woodson that well-planned, little-noticed and sometimes thankless work can make things thrive. It wasn't long before he started asking Moseley questions: Why plant seeds this far apart? Why that fertilizer mix?

One day he came in, and the long hair was gone. It was Moseley who suggested he study plants in college.

At the University of Arkansas, he realized he enjoyed the more scientific aspects of horticulture and took a second major in chemistry. He would eventually earn a doctorate in horticulture/plant physiology at Cornell University.

In 1985, he started as a professor at Purdue, one of the nation's most respected land-grant universities. For more than 10 years, he focused on teaching and his research into plant molecular biology, sometimes coming to work in shorts and Birkenstocks.

He is an expert in the death of flowers that is triggered by pollination, which led to an embarrassing moment of fame after a CNN reporter interviewed him about flowers that die with unusual speed after the reproductive act. Woodson replied that the "death of the petals is a high price to pay for a brief moment of passion." Comedian Jay Leno named the professor when he turned the comment into a racy joke.

But the research actually has important practical implications, leading to methods that help crops last longer after harvest. One of his discoveries helped his old boss, Moseley, leading to a way of shipping hibiscus so that buds flowering en route wouldn't trigger other buds to fall off.

As much as Woodson loved research - colleagues say he still goes to lengths sometimes to remind people around him that he is a scientist - he was eventually tapped for administrative roles. He was named department chairman in 1996; then associate dean of agriculture, a role in which he sharply boosted incoming grants for research; then dean of agriculture; and then provost, which is the university's top academic officer.

'He has the vision'

Woodson held the job of agriculture dean for four years, a formative experience. Because Indiana did not have an agriculture department until recent years, the Purdue agriculture school has long state regulatory functions. The dean has an unusual amount of interaction with elected leaders, including legislators. It's a crucial background for a chancellor of a public university in North Carolina.

As provost, Woodson spends eight or nine hours a day in meetings. In a conference room at Purdue last week, the atmosphere was casual and collegial at a faculty gathering. The leader of the group had worn a red-and-white tie in honor of Woodson's new employer. At the meeting, Woodson offered his thoughts on what should be tackled after he leaves for Raleigh, likely in April. The faculty tenure and promotion rules could be tweaked, he said, but noted that an existing strength of the policy was that no single administrator could block an appointment. It was important, he said, that administrators have less individual power over professors.

Mentor Victor Lechtenberg, a Purdue vice president, said Woodson's leadership abilities were obvious, citing his communication skills, energy and record for getting things done.

"And he makes you enjoy the process," Lechtenberg added. "He has the vision, and knows where he wants to go, but you kind of enjoy the trip, too."

That easy, comfortable style developed early. Woodson was reared in Fordyce, Ark., a lumber town of about 4,800 people. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father built sawmills and lumber kilns before becoming a high school counselor.

Dating a cheerleader

He said that he inherited some of his communicating skill from his dad, who made points through storytelling and had a way of relating to everyone from loggers to engineers to high schools students.

"Common sense peppered with book learning," Woodson explained.

Like most everything else in town, the high school was small. And ninth grade was the year that all the big pieces of Randy Woodson's future started to fall into place.

Susan Wynne was a cheerleader a year ahead of him. She had known Woodson since kindergarten. It was that year, though, when she really noticed him for the first time, she said.

At first, she tried to persuade a friend to date Woodson, she said during a recent lunch interview in Lafayette that was repeatedly interrupted by well-wishers.

"Finally I asked myself, 'Hmm, why am I asking her to date him when I could be?'" she said. "He walked to a different beat, and I liked that."

They were married not long after graduating from college. They had three children.

Susan Woodson, a graphic artist, co-founded HELEN, a not-for-profit glossy magazine that champions causes such as fighting domestic violence. Not having her own job, she said, would once have been unthinkable. After a long career, though, and the magazine's success, she is looking forward to a new role: chancellor's wife.

The couple say they look forward to moving south, where they often vacationed as a family. Woodson knows his workdays are about to get longer but hopes to continue playing his guitar. He can give "Jumpin' Jack Flash" a bluegrass twang.

Moving into administration left a hole in his life after so many years doing research. To some degree, Woodson has filled that hole with brewing beer. He makes about five batches a year, including a Christmas ale that he distributes to friends.

Brewing is a precise task, and constant improvement is a goal, just as it was with the potted flowers all those years ago at Wayne's Greenhouses.

Two other kids who worked there went on to earn horticulture degrees, and a couple more became medical doctors. Moseley, the nursery owner, figures that they and Woodson surely absorbed something from his scientific approach to planting.

"Maybe he saw something about how things can thrive if you do all the work, all the right things, preparing the soil, getting the temperature right and so on," he said. "And when you're growing, there is always a challenge to grow a little better than you did last year."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service