By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Jan. 3, 2020
Robert D. “Bob” Woodward, a decorated Drake University journalism professor, died Thursday. He was 82.
”He died peacefully beside my mother (in the morning) watching the news,” his daughter, Meredith Woodward King said in a statement.
The wild-haired, scraggly-bearded Walt Whitman look-alike inspired legions of journalists and other students at Drake with his passion for the craft and intellectual curiosity.
He shared a name with the Washington Post investigative reporter who worked on coverage of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, but Drake student’s knew him as “our Bob Woodward.”
I hear the old man’s voice in my head as I write his obituary. He disliked dependent clauses — that’s the bit between the commas. He thought they slowed stories. He advocated for specific nouns and strong verbs.
He didn’t care for the Register’s practice of putting people’s nicknames inside quote marks. He thought that confused readers.
“The reader does not need an excuse to quit reading,” Woodward told his classes.
He also nixed opening paragraphs that began with the words: “It is.”
Sometimes, he would point to a dictionary, open at all times on a lectern in his classroom.
“There are 171,000 words in the English language,” Woodward said. “Surely you can find two better than ‘it’ and ‘is’ to start a story.”
Diane Graham, a retired Register managing editor who was a Drake student when Woodward joined the journalism school, said he pushed his students to be the best.
“He was always trying to make every story you wrote better,” she said. “He was always refining your story idea and constantly helping you tweak your work.”
Woodward famously kept a string pinned to the bulletin board of his office. Each time one of his red, felt-tip pens went dry from editing student stories, he hung the caps on the string.
“By the end of the semester, it looked like a string of scalps,” Graham said.
Those same pens scrawled compliments in the margins in all capital letters, such as “TOP-FLIGHT REPORTING” or “HIGHLY INTERESTING SUBJECT.”
Woodward connected with his students at a deeply personal level. He was like a father figure who could be stern, but also loving and mischievous, his students recall.
“Even today, 40-some years into my career, I still want to make Woodward proud,” said Lee Ann Colacioppo, a Woodward pupil and editor of the Denver Post.
Woodward grew up in Rodney, a city of about 60 near in Monona County near the Little Sioux River. He studied at Indiana University, where he learned to speak Swahili.
He worked at the now-defunct Washington Star as a copy editor and later a news editor.
He edited the columns of the late Mary McGrory.
When blizzards battered his home state, Woodward slipped briefs about snowfall amounts into the national report of the Washington, D.C., paper.
He was preparing to lead a bureau in Africa for the Star when the paper changed strategic direction and decided to focus more on local issues. Woodward quit and became a teacher, landing at Drake in 1972.
“Woodward was one of the professors that showed interest in a student who was clearly talented and those who were uncertain,” said Tom Hallman, a Drake alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Portland Oregonian. “I was one of those who was uncertain. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t think I was very good at it, but he encouraged me.”
Hallman remembered his final day in Woodward’s classroom. Woodward told the class: “This is now just the beginning of your education.”
“That always stuck with me,” Hallman said. “There’s no finish line to this. There’s always more to learn.”
Woodward was an early adopter of the importance of the Iowa caucuses. He encouraged his students to follow the news media to see how the events were covered.
“Always ask yourself, ‘If you had to write the big story of the day, how would you say it?’” Woodward told his students. “How would you make your story stand out from all the others told that day?”
Woodward was a pioneer in teaching the internet as a news gathering and news distribution medium, teaching about the fast-evolving web as early as 1994.
Woodward could be blunt. He once pulled me aside while I was a student at Drake to tell me a column I’d written for the Times-Delphic, Drake’s student newspaper, should have been spiked. (That’s industry-speak for not published, ever.)
“If that had crossed my desk when I was an editor of the Washington Star, I would have thrown it right in the wastebasket,” he said.
I was crushed. The next week, he cornered me again and handed me a second-hand book. It was a collection of Jimmy Cannon columns from various New York newspapers.
“See if this gives you any ideas,” he said.
If my home caught on fire, that would be the one book I tried to save, not just because of the content but because of the man who gave it to me.
Woodward retired from Drake in 2004, but he returned periodically to teach honors classes or plumb the library archives for one of the scores of projects that interested him.
He was particularly interested in monarch butterflies. He grew milkweed in his yard to attract the orange-and-black-winged insects.
His students returned to him for advice years after they left his classroom. He re-centered us and reminded us why we chose this oft-maddening trade.
“Woodward gave us the foundation,” Colacioppo said. “The business has changed so much. When I was his student, we were still using typewriters. But the foundation remained the same. Do the work. Get it right. Be accurate. Tell the truth.”
Woodward is survived by his wife, Georgia; two daughters; and several grandchildren.
I lost count of how many stories I’ve written a long time ago, but truthfully, every one was written with Woodward’s voice pushing me to make it special for the reader.
And now, even with him gone from this earth, I hear his voice:
“Accuracy. Accuracy. Accuracy,” he commanded, quoting Joseph Pulitzer.
And, of course: “Spell all the names right.”
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.