Life Stories

Life Stories: Wilma Woodard's powerful career arose from downhome beginnings

CorrespondentFebruary 2, 2014 

  • Wilma Jean Cummings Woodard

    Born: Nov. 18, 1934, in Angier

    Family: The oldest of three, she lost both of her parents by age 20. She married her high school sweetheart, Warden Lewis Woodard Jr., in 1952, and they had four children: Mary Ellen Nixon-Moore, Warden Woodard III, Bert Woodard and Richard Woodard (deceased). She raised her family in Garner and retired to Beaufort with her husband. She was widowed in 2000.

    Education: Took classes at UNC-Chapel Hill but graduated magna cum laude in 1969 from N.C. State, receiving the B.F. Brown Award for outstanding liberal-arts student.

    Politics: Elected in 1978 to the General Assembly in a special Democratic caucus election, then elected in 1979 outright, serving in both the House and Senate from 1978 to 1986. She lost a race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. House against David Price, after which she retired from politics.

    Died: Oct. 29, 2013, in Beaufort in Carteret County

For the past 10 years or so, Wilma Woodard enjoyed annual get-togethers with three old friends from her days in the state legislature – Anne Barnes, Jan Ramquist and Karen Gottovi. They told the same stories every year, many of them centered on their victories during Woodard’s time in the N.C. General Assembly, and always laughed a lot.

They recalled the bill that provided licensure for hairdressers, and another that increased the wages of housekeepers working at UNC. There were those senators going through divorces who did everything they could to table Woodard’s bill granting equitable distribution of property to women. And there was, of course, the sadness they still felt about North Carolina’s inability to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment. It fell short by just one vote.

In recent years, Woodard’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and the oxygen tank she had to lug everywhere, made it easiest to gather at her home in Beaufort. Overlooking the water, with a great blue heron inevitably in sight, the group could focus on the beauty of their surroundings. There was a basket of rocks on Woodard’s coffee table – keepsakes from her world travels.

Another reunion was planned for early November, but Woodard died the last week of October. Instead of having an intimate gathering in her home, loads of friends gathered in a tent on the lawn, just as she had wanted. She had teased them for years that those who fell out of favor with her would have to rough it outside the tent. Those who helped carry her oxygen tank could earn “tent brownie points.”

She had a sense of humor till the end – an attribute that friends and family say served her well in politics.

But even more than her sense of humor, her tenacity and perseverance had the deepest impact on her political career. Woodard overcame more tragedy and challenges before she was 20 years old than many endure in a lifetime.

Raised in Carteret County, Woodard became pregnant in high school with the first of her four children and soon wed Warden Woodard Jr., to whom she was married 48 years. Soon after the couple’s daughter was born, Wilma Woodard’s mother died of a cerebral brain hemorrhage. Less than two years later, her father died in a car accident. By then, she and her husband were enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her two younger brothers were taken in by her in-laws, and Woodard and her husband were able to continue their studies.

Warden Woodard was able to study dentistry, but raising small children took too much time from education for the young mother. When their third child was born, she had to take a break from school. Once the children were school-age, however, she enrolled at N.C. State and earned a degree in Russian history.

Woodard’s political career began on the Garner Planning Board. She was a stay-at-home mother until that point, but her ability to speak her mind and focus on solutions did not go unnoticed. She was soon asked to consider running in a special Democratic caucus for a General Assembly seat in 1978. She won and won re-election the next year as well.

Her son Bert Woodard can remember the first time he heard her speak publicly as a politician.

“It blew us away,” he said. “We knew she was brilliant, but to see her in that setting, and to think on her feet as well as she did. ... She had to really prove herself in many ways.”

As a liberal Democrat working from conservative Garner, she was viewed by some as a privileged housewife who perhaps found public office more a hobby than a calling. Woodard had a lot of stereotypes to buck, friends say. She did so with grace and was also able to play the political game as well as anyone.

“For a woman on the left to prevail on a tricky issue was pretty uncommon. You had to find some allies, and you had to find ways to convince them, and it usually meant (an) ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ kind of thing,’ ” said Karen Gottovi, a former county commissioner, state representative and lobbyist.

“And Wilma got very good at that. She just understood how to make things work.”

Still, Woodard stayed true to her roots.

“I believe Wilma, who definitely loved the trappings of being a ‘senator,’ and wining and dining in the finest of places, of traveling the world and meeting smart and learned people, also came home to her beginnings of a father who was a sharecropper, a mother who worked at the barn during the tobacco season, and a table that was not always served with more than collards and dumplings,” said her brother, Jim Cummings.

“She had a penchant for those who often were not the top of the order in legislative discussions. She often talked of struggling to include in a certain budget bill or legislative matter something to help ‘her’ school secretaries or ‘her’ hairdressers.

“She took great pride in getting ‘her’ people a small raise or preventing a new permit requirement, not because these groups were going to raise her lots of campaign donations or increase her stead in the General Assembly, but because they were groups, mostly women, who rarely had others stand to defend their side.”

Her political run came to end after she lost a close race for the Democratic nomination for a U.S. House seat to David Price. After the defeat, she and her sweetheart moved out east, and her world travels began. After she was widowed, she took a world cruise that lasted for months – alone.

Woodard applied the same principles to her private life as she did her public life.

“If she believed in something,” said former state representative Anne Barnes, “she went for it.”

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