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Woodie Flowers

Oct 23, 2019 Written by Frank Merrick.

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Remembering Woodie Flowers FIRST Robotics Competition

I remember when I met Woodie for the first time. I had been employed by FIRST for only a few months. Having mentored a FIRST Robotics Competition team before I joined FIRST as an employee, I had known of Woodie but had never met him. I was at work on a Saturday morning for a game design meeting, on the first floor, getting ready to take the elevator up. No one else was around. I pushed the button, and suddenly Woodie came around the corner. I instantly got nervous – this was Woodie Flowers – hesitated a moment, then introduced myself. And of course, he was kind and smart and gracious and radiated calm energy. He was all the good things in one person.

 

Woodie and his wife Margaret often attended the FIRST Holiday parties. A few years ago, I was leaving the party just shortly after they did. They were walking into the parking lot as I was and were maybe a dozen steps ahead of me. No one else was around. Woodie reached over and took Margaret’s hand, and they completed the walk to their vehicle hand-in-hand. This was a simple act of genuine affection between two people who had loved each other for decades. Woodie's humanity shone even when there was no spotlight on him.

 

In 2013, Woodie and I stood field-side together at an event for a few matches of Ultimate Ascent. One team had a particularly unique mechanism they were attempting to use to score frisbees. I pointed it out to Woodie and added: "I haven't seen it work yet." Woodie said, "I bet they haven't either." Woodie was always gracious, but he was also always honest and did not shy away from giving a genuine assessment of a situation, sometimes in a way only Woodie could.

 

Last year I attended an educational conference in Atlanta. Woodie was there as well, as an invited speaker. We were chatting near the FIRST booth at the conference – I don’t recall the exact topic – when the conversation paused and he asked me “Do you have a 10?” For a split second, I started reaching for my wallet. If Woodie Flowers needed a $10 bill, I was giving him a $10 bill, no questions asked. When he was part of FRC game design, if he had told me the process required him to have a pickaxe, a bouquet of petunias, and a potbellied pig, I would have gotten him two of each to make sure he had spares. It turns out he meant “Do you have an iPhone 10?” After he asked the question, he immediately pulled out his phone - luckily before I pulled out my wallet - and showed me a neat trick it could do. He took an almost childlike delight in technology sometimes. Some might say my gut-level response to his question suggests hero worship. Yep. Woodie was my hero.

 

I spoke to Woodie for the last time on the phone about a month before his passing. He was at home making breakfast. We spent a very few minutes talking about his health, but most of our discussion was about important cultural issues involving FIRST. "Good stuff" as Woodie would say. Knowing now that conversation would be my last ever with Woodie, do I wish it had gone differently? Honestly, I don't think so, and I would bet Woodie would feel the same. We were talking about important things that went to the heart of FIRST, and, hopefully needless to say, the topic of robots never came up.

 

Woodie was far more than just a great man. He was a good man. FIRST has lost much with his passing. I believe it will take the efforts of all of us to keep our culture of Gracious Professionalism a vibrant part of FIRST. Woodie used to say that Gracious Professionalism meant, in part, acting in a way that would make your grandmother proud. Now I think we can say Gracious Professionalism is acting in a way that would make Woodie proud.

 

Frank

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Comments

"FIRST has lost much with his passing." The world has lost great man. No longer can students sign his signature shirt, nor can they meet their idol in person. But that does not mean the world has lost his ideals. His teachings and insights continue to live on, not only in digital media, but more importantly in us, those still here. It is our job to continue his message. Woodie has inspired us to achieve greatness. We must now inspire the world to achieve more.

I was very grateful to have met this man who always had an insightful way of looking at things in life in general, not just the technical stuff.  He was gracious enough to spend time with the students at the competitions.  He knew that the students are the real reason FIRST exists.

 

For some strange reason, we saw Woodie Flowers at most of the events our team attended the past couple years. He exemplified how I strive to live my own life, as is probably common with most FRC coaches. Our second to last time to see him was at the Monterey Bay regional, where our team members were ecstatic to talk to him, sign his shirt and experience his enthusiasm.

The Monterey regional was magical for us, and I’d like to think for Woodie as well. Our team did better than it ever has in the 20 years it has existed, and we won our first ever regional competition. Our robot was badly damaged at the semifinals, and both finalist alliances rushed to help us. We were able to swap out a belt drive for a chain drive in just 3 minutes thanks to the gracious professionalism of those teams. That coopertition was astounding and exemplifies Woodie’s mark on FIRST. We went on to win, and had a last chance to see Woodie at the Houston championships. We miss him, but those of us who knew him even a little have a mentor and path to follow.

That is the title of one of my favorite songs, It seems particularly relevant to me right now.  I always hoped to meet Woody.  I am sad that it will not happen, but I find myself pondering all the "endings" that have happened this year.  Kendrick Castillo's death, Don Bossi stepping down, now Woody's death (and some personal losses), and I find myself wondering what new things are we on the brink of?  As much as I love Dean and Woody, Don and Frank, if it's just about them then FIRST will end with them. That would be a sad waste. With that in mind, I find myself wondering, what new things are we called to do in the future?  What new horizons to explore? 

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