I am always deeply saddened when I receive word of the death of an old friend from the North Lewisburg area. Although I have lived away from the community for the better part of 39 years, my roots are still there. I look forward to the occasional trips “home” to walk the familiar streets, and to visit with familiar faces. As time passes, and death takes its toll of those I knew, I am deeply moved.
John David Woodruff -“Dave” to his family and many friends and who died just recently - was one of those familiar faces in our hometown. In the 1960s I had worked with him as an employee of the Champaign County Highway Department. He had a great sense of humor, and a knack for pulling pranks. Sometimes I bore the brunt of his jokes and pranks, but I knew it was always in fun. His laughter could light up a room. And his wisecracking was legendary.
One night around Christmas 1962, the weather had turned very severe. The wind was blowing and the snow was falling. The county road crews were called out to clear the fast-falling snow from the highways. I was attending a holiday party at the home of Tom and Evelyn Arthur, owners of the town’s I.G.A. grocery store, along with some of the other store employees. One of them happened to be Don Woodruff, Dave’s brother, who was also a county employee. When Don received the call to report to the county highway garage in Urbana, I asked him if I could tag along. He said yes, and we were soon driving around town gathering up other snowplow drivers. The trip to Urbana was slow and hectic because of the accumulating snow.
Upon arrival at the garage, the men spread out to check their trucks, to fuel up, and to prepare to head out to their assigned roadways. I followed along with Clarence Foster, and was granted permission to ride “shotgun” in his truck. The next several hours were tedious and stressful as we traveled the roadways clearing them for vehicular travel. It was dark, it was cold, the snow was still falling heavily, and we seemed to be making little progress in defeating it. Other drivers were experiencing the same monotonous drudgery. It was a tiring process, seemingly without much reward.
Suddenly, Dave’s booming voice could be heard over the radio system which united the trucks with headquarters. “I don’t care what your name is,” he shouted, “get those damn reindeer off the road!”
I don’t recall exactly where we were on one of the county’s roads when I heard that radio message. I will never forget it, or the laughter it evoked in me. In my mind’s eye, I could easily picture Dave shouting at Santa to move his sleigh and reindeer so he could clear the roadway. It was a bright and shining moment during the storm, and brought laughter to a lot of men who were performing a lonely duty that night. It broke the tension and gave us all something to talk about later in the morning.
I saw a great deal of Dave over the next several years before I moved away. He was a familiar sight at the ballpark. His son Derek played on a little league baseball team which I coached, and Dave was always there to show fatherly support. Sadly, Derek passed away earlier this year.
To Dave’s wife Karen, his large extended family, and to his many friends, I offer up my most sincere sympathies. He will be sorely missed.