Contributed to Momentum by David Soileau
This month, we mark the 97th anniversary of the birth of Woody Baldwin, founder of Prime Timers Worldwide and Prime Timers Austin. The story of this native Texan and distinguished academician is well worth recalling.
The Texas Panhandle
Woodrow Wilson Baldwin was born on March 28, 1920, into tough pioneer conditions in Dumas, Texas, in the still newly settled northern Texas panhandle. He grew up in a family of strict Southern Baptists during the Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Woodrow was the youngest of the five children of Claude Horace Baldwin and Emma Leora Gray. His older sister, Vada, was 18 years older than Woodrow. Then came his sister Zada, then his brother Olbert. His three oldest siblings were all married and beginning their own families by the time Woodrow was five. Only his sister Leora, six years older, was around Woodrow as he grew up.
Woody described his family as “poor, but full of love.” His dad was a farmer, but not a very good one. Without electricity, farming was a disaster for his family. At the age of three, Woodrow talked his family into moving to Amarillo so they could have indoor plumbing. In Amarillo, his dad began work with the local John Deere farm implement dealer. His mother busied herself with housewife duties.
As a child of an economically struggling family, young Woodrow quickly learned the value of work. He began by going door-to-door selling, first, his mother’s petunias, and later, magazines. At age 13, he was working full time in a drug store – and going to school full-time).
Red-headed and freckle-faced, Woodrow was always among the smallest in his Wolflin Elementary School classes. Only in junior high school did he grow to “average height.” Woodrow became skilled at staying out of arguments and fights. But Woodrow always had the highest grades of any male student in his class. Because of his intelligence, and because he was “cute,” he says he got more attention from his teachers.
Wolflin Elementary served one of the best neighborhoods in Amarillo. The Baldwin home was on the edge of the school’s attendance area, and the other students Woodrow met at Wolflin broadened his perspectives. Instead of setting as his lifetime aspiration becoming a laborer like most poor kids, Woodrow aligned his vision of his future with those fellow students whose goal was college.
In the fifth grade, Woodrow was elected class president, a position he held in every one of his subsequent classes until his graduation from Amarillo High School. He also eventually became president of every organization he belonged to, both in high school and in his later years.
Woodrow and his father were never close. His parents divorced when he was 13. While in junior high school and high school, Woodrow lived with his mother.
In the 1930’s, pre-college school had only eleven grades, so normally Woodrow would have finished high school in 1937. In the heart of Depression, though, scholarships and government loans were not available. Either you had money for college or you worked. The Baldwins did not have the money for college. Woodrow intentionally dropped one course in his last normal year so he could stay in high school an extra year. His only classes during his extra year were typing, shorthand and bookkeeping. He wanted the skills necessary to work his way through college.
During Woodrow’s last year of high school, his shorthand teacher was the school’s dean of women. Her administrative duties meant that she was frequently called out of class. She had the class elect a substitute teacher on those occasions when she was called away. With Woodrow’s usual luck, he was elected.
This new responsibility changed his life. Until he was elected substitute, Woodrow was struggling just to get by in shorthand. With this new responsibility, though, he spent every minute he could spare working on shorthand. Since Woody was spending eight hours a day at his drug store job, spare minutes were hard to find. Still, Woodrow became very good at shorthand. And his election as substitute changed his entire future academic career.
Woodrow’s long working hours limited his social life in high school. He dated, of course. It was “what you were supposed to do.” Because he had no car, he tended to double date with friends who had cars. There were no birth control pills and no easy access to condoms, and nobody wanted to get a girl pregnant, so Woodrow remembers that “after the show, or whatever the date was centered on, we’d park and the worst we did was kiss.” After taking the girls home, though, the guys were “still horny,” he said, and “we did what teenage boys do…But we never touched each other.”
During Prohibition, the drug store where Woodrow worked sold liquor illegally out of the prescription room. After Prohibition ended, his boss also opened a “bottle store” next door to the drugstore. During Prohibition, Woodrow delivered illegal booze to three or four clients, including two women who provided young Woodrow with his first encounter with adult sexual activities. Some of the older men who bought whiskey from the drug store and later from the “bottle store” were also happy to provide teen-aged Woodrow with oral sex. Woodrow did admit to one regular, surreptitious romantic relationship with a senior high school English teacher. Otherwise, he was very private about the sexual escapades of his youth.
After graduating from Amarillo High School in 1938, Woodrow spent his first two years at Amarillo Junior College (AJC), graduating in 1940. He paid for his schooling and supplemented his income by working at a clothing store in Amarillo. That experience, as well as his serving as a model in local fashion shows, gave Woodrow an appreciation for fine clothing and a sense of style.
At AJC, almost everyone majored either in engineering or business administration. Not being mechanically inclined, Woodrow headed toward a business administration degree. His high school dean of women had written a letter on Woodrow’s behalf to the chairman of the AJC Secretarial Studies Department describing Woodrow as a “shorthand whiz.” He took another shorthand course and again became the “teacher’s pet.”
At AJC, in addition to winning broad recognition for his dictation and shorthand skills, Woodrow was secretary of his freshman class, vice president of the northwest Texas Intercollegiate Student’s Conference, and president of the YMCA-YWCA, the largest club on campus.
After his two years at AJC, Woodrow enrolled in the University of Oklahoma. At OU, Woodrow became Woody.
University of Oklahoma
Woody brought with him to OU another letter about his shorthand prowess, this time from his AJC shorthand teacher to the chairman of the OU Education Department. An OU doctoral student, Vernon Musselman, needed a graduate course that was being taught at a time that conflicted with an undergraduate shorthand course he was scheduled to teach. He hired Woody, a college junior new to the OU campus, to teach the shorthand course and to supervise six practice teachers.
Woody continued to work every job he could find. In addition to his own classwork and his OU teaching and supervising schedule, Woody worked as a secretary for a psychology professor, taught a shorthand class for adults one evening a week, checked out playing cards and dominoes in the Student Union, washed pots and pans at a fraternity house, and worked in and modeled for an Oklahoma men’s store.
Somehow, Woody managed to find time for a social life. He was a member of Delta Chi fraternity and dated a good bit. One of his ladies once cornered him into a serious discussion about marriage. Telling her that he “didn’t believe in marriage before military service” because he might not survive World War II did not quash her marital hopes, so Woody raised one other issue: He also enjoyed the company of men. That seemed to work.
Private Baldwin and New York City
Woody received his Bachelor of Science degree from OU in 1942 and promptly donned an Army uniform and became Private Baldwin. He hoped to go to Officer Candidate School and become a commissioned officer. To his great disappointment, because of someone’s error, that became impossible.
The error was that, upon his enlistment and without first going to basic training, Private Baldwin was ordered directly to the assembly arena for General George Patton’s First Army Corps. Private Baldwin was then sent from the assembly arena to New Jersey, where the First Armored Corps became part of the Western Task Force for Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of French North Africa.
When Private Baldwin got to New Jersey, however, he found himself in a “Catch 22”: He couldn’t be sent overseas because he had not had basic training. But he had arrived at a port of embarkation, so he could not be sent back for further training. Private Baldwin could not go overseas but was stuck stateside. Without basic training, he had no chance of becoming an officer. For the first 20 months of his military career, he was stuck in the replacement pool with no chance of promotion.
Eventually, Private Baldwin was assigned to the station hospital and served as secretary to the head of psychiatry there. When his boss was promoted to head the entire medical branch of the hospital, he brought Private Baldwin along. It was a pretty sweet assignment. For a long time, though. there was still no open slot into which he could be promoted. Eventually, however, Private Baldwin became Corporal Baldwin.
The Army kept Woody busy from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. Weekends, though, were spent in New York City, just an hour away from the hospital and his barracks. In New York, our country boy found city life and culture: Broadway shows, opera (for which he never developed a real love), and ballet.
During his time in the barracks in New Jersey, Woody found no sense of oppression toward “alternative lifestyle” sexual activities, if the activities were not too overt or too public. He felt welcome to gather with likeminded men at the Astor Hotel bar and in a few bars in Greenwich Village. But Woody avoided bars that were exclusively gay.
It was while he was in the Army that Woody had his first significant romantic relationship. He had a “glorious affair” with Russ Jenter, a Navy chief petty officer from Los Angeles stationed in Philadelphia. Before Russ was shipped out to the Pacific, he and. Woody had agreed that, when the war was over, they would resume their romance. Meanwhile, both were free to “play the field” while they were separated. Thus began what was, for Woody, the most promiscuous time of his life. “New York was very exciting to a young ‘hick’ from Amarillo,” he said.
Woody’s mentor at OU, now Professor Musselman, was a Navy officer. For some of the time Woody was in New Jersey, Musselman was stationed nearby with his wife and Woody spent a few weekends with them. Later, when the Musselmans were transferred to California, Woody kept in touch with them.
As his time in the Army ended, Woody thought that, as a homosexual man, he should live in California. He told Professor Musselman he wanted to get a master’s degree from a California school and asked to which school to apply. Professor Musselman strongly recommended UCLA.
In 1945, armed with a letter of reference from Professor Musselman, Woody arrived at UCLA. It was too late for him to sign up for the fall semester, so he lined up a few jobs and planned to begin his studies in the spring semester.
Thanks to his letter from Professor Musselman, Woody was hired as a shorthand teaching assistant before the end of his first semester. When the regular shorthand teacher retired at the end of the semester, Woody was given a permanent position on the UCLA faculty.
Woody spent 10 years at UCLA, receiving both his Master of Arts degree (1947) and his Doctor of Education degree (1952). Though he hated the topic, Woody was forced by his primary advisor for his dissertation committee to write “A History of Shorthand Instruction in Schools of the United States.” His major interest was in teaching methodology and the psychology of skill learning.
Woody loved teaching at UCLA. He had a reputation for being informal and for showing interest in his students, who considered him tough and picky, but fair. Woody was very proud that he was twice selected as UCLA’s most popular professor. One of those honors carried with it the title of “King of the Mardi Gras” at the annual UCLA Mardi Gras sponsored by campus fraternities, sororities, and other social groups.
This was the time of McCarthyism, and as college professors, Woody and his colleagues were under careful scrutiny. Suspicion was fact, and those accused of being Communists or “sexual perverts” were harassed, fired from their jobs, and denied employment. Woody had moved to Los Angeles because it would be the best place for him to be comfortable in his own skin, but Los Angeles in these days were tragic times for a gay man.
While at UCLA, Woody developed a Business Communications correspondence course and taught courses for the American Institute of Banking. He did consulting work for Lockheed Aircraft Company, Twentieth-Century Fox Studios, and the Crosby Foundation. He also spent two summers teaching at the University of San Francisco and one summer as a “ghost writer” for a revision of a Gregg Publishing Company textbook. The work on the Gregg textbook led later, while Woody was at Simmons College, to his being asked to author the text “Gregg Speed Building for College” and to write “A Guide for the Teaching of Shorthand and Transcription.” The royalties from which paid for his Boston home.
During his time at UCLA, Woody served for a while as president of the California Business Education Association. One of his prized possessions was a letter from Ronald Reagan, then head of the Screen Actors’ Guild, declining an invitation to attend a CBEA meeting.
When Woody’s friend Russ Jenter was discharged from the Navy, he joined Woody in Los Angeles. Apartments were tough to find in Los Angeles at the time, but eventually, Woody and Russ moved in together in an apartment over a garage. Their “open” relationship lasted about four years, until Woody called it off. “I think he over-worshipped me,” Woody said. “He was too subservient.”
During the remainder of his years at UCLA, Woody saw several other men and women, but only one person ever moved in with him. He had a relationship with gentleman (never identified out of respect for his privacy), an insurance clerk, for about six years. The guy moved in with him shortly after the break-up with Russ and lived with him for about six years, following him to Boston in 1956. But Boston wasn’t for him, so he moved back to LA, leaving Woody better able to make the best of his full-time teaching job at the prestigious Simmons College.
Simmons College and Boston
One day, after delivering a lecture at UCLA, the president of the Gregg Publishing Company invited Woody to accept the position of Director of the College of Management at Simmons College, a four-year women’s college in Boston. Woody loved his life at UCLA and was reluctant to leave, but the offer would double his salary! He liked what he saw during his visit to Simmons, accepted the position, and in 1956, Woody moved to Boston.
Woody was brought to Simmons to change the entire direction of what had been known as the School of Secretarial Science, and he did just that. He transformed the school from one that trained its graduates for secretarial jobs to one that prepared women for careers in business management. Later, through Woody’s efforts and dedication, the school became the Simmons School of Business Administration. He developed a new concept in teaching business which tied together business and student groups in real life analysis of business situations, not just textbook cases.
While at Simmons, Woody moved through the ranks of the Boston Chapter of the Administrative Management Society, a professional society promoting the application of management methods to increase productivity, lower costs, and improve quality. He served as president of the Boston Chapter and chairman of the New England District, later serving many years on the international board of directors of the society.
In the early 1960’s, Woody decided that Boston needed a restaurant guide. Using the pseudonyms “Woody Hub” and “Bill Boston,” Woody and his good friend Bill Bonomi wrote, published, and distributed “Boston Dines Out,” seeking to identify the most popular Boston dining establishments.
In Boston, Woody was a well-known public figure. While sexual activities were changing in the 1960’s, Boston was not a safe place for Woody to indulge what he saw as his normal sexual orientation. New York City, while still a place where gay bars were frequently raided, was far enough away that, by socializing there, Woody felt he was not putting his entire career in jeopardy. In 1967, at a friend’s private club in New York, just a few weeks shy of his 47th birthday, Woody was introduced to the 37-year-old John T. “Sean” O’Neill, the man who would become the love of his life and with whom he lived in an “open relationship” for the next 37 years.
Woody stepped down as department chair in 1977 and he and Sean moved from Boston to Reading, MA. But Woody continued to teach at Simmons until 1982. When Sean was invited to Woody’s retirement party, Woody realized for the first time that his Simmons colleagues knew he was in a relationship. At that party, the past president of Simmons College said of Woody: “If ever there was an animal that embodied Woodrow’s qualities, that would have to be the unicorn – a unique, rare, beautiful, and legendary creature.”
One summer after his retirement, Woody took a consulting job in New York City. For the first time in his life, he had to be in the office Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. The experience of the daily surge of activity on the crowded sidewalks and in the subway fostered in him the feeling that “for the first time … I was filling my niche in the brotherhood of man… I loved the feeling that all these people – including me – were cogs in the machine that made the world function. It takes all of us in our separate ways to make life work.”
After 36 years telling people how to run businesses, Woody decided that, after his retirement from Simmons, he would try his hand at running one himself. For two years after he retired, Woody set up “Woody’s Goodies,” a “popcorn boutique” operating out of a cart on the sidewalk in front of Filene’s Department Store in Boston. His business objective was “To earn enough money to maintain my standard of living.” Soon after he started, he needed help, eventually hiring his friend Sean away from his banking job to become “General Manager.” Particularly after he was featured on NBC’s “Today,” “The Popcorn Professor” became a local celebrity, with many of his popcorn patrons also seeking business advice.
It was also during this period that Woody began attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans. For decades from 1978 on, he and Sean were “regulars.” His costumes each year became more elaborate and more humorous. (During the last few years, a friend was in a shop in London where he purchased and brought to Woody a post card featuring a photo of Woody in one of his outrageously bawdy costumes.) Because of his attendance and participation, Woody was made an “Honorary New Orleanian.”
Early in his life, Woodrow developed an “open-minded attitude” toward sexuality. “As long as they are not hurting others by their behavior, I am tolerant,” he said. At about 16 or 17, he realized that he had to get out of the Baptist church, so he became a Methodist. (An added incentive was that the girl he was dating at the time was the Methodist pastor’s daughter.) He found the Methodist church a bit more liberal than the Baptist, but not much. He later wrote:
I have never understood what religion has to do with sex, and vice-versa. … As a kid, I wondered about the geographical expansiveness of a Hell that could accommodate everyone who swore, played cards, danced — not to mention … masturbated or had sex out of wedlock….
I progressed — or regressed — to having my own personal religion because organized religion did not seem to fit into what my God and I considered to be natural and productive…. [Eventually], I discovered a very liberal church [the Universalist Church] which never threatened with either heaven or hell, but instead encouraged me to think. No religion I had experienced before ever gave me leeway to think; the church spoon-fed all my religion and I was obligated to believe as the church dictated. This new freedom allowed me and my God … to be comfortable in our relationship.
Because of his academic position, Woody had been unable to participate in the gay rights movement that took place around him while he was teaching. In the early 1980’s, Woody had sworn that when he retired he would do more for the gay community. Woody was a 67-year-old, retired, college professor when he created the first Prime Timers chapter in Boston in 1987.
Woody envisioned Prime Timers as a social organization where older men could enjoy one another’s company and in which the needs and wants of older gay and bisexual men could be addressed. He also wanted his new organization would have subtle political effects on younger gay men by letting them see gay and bisexual men over 40 who were having fun doing things that interested them and caring toward one another.
Woody helped start up a second Prime Timers chapter in New York City a short time later. In 1989, shortly after he and Sean moved to Austin, Woody founded Prime Timers Austin, the third chapter of what has since become Prime Timers Worldwide.
In Austin, Woody and Sean were affected by the AIDS epidemic in the same ways that others were who were lucky enough to avoid infection. Inspired by how gay men and especially lesbians pulled the community together to confront that crisis, both Woody and Sean volunteered with various AIDS agencies in Austin as long as they were physically able.
Shortly after Sean’s death, Woody sold their home and moved into The Continental Retirement Community in Austin, where he lived independently until shortly before his death on April 21. 2016, less than a month after his 96th birthday. Prime Timers from Austin and elsewhere, as well as members of the Austin slam poets were involved in both Sean’s and Woody’s memorial services.
This article is almost entirely a summary of Who the Hell is Woody Baldwin? Or More Than You Ever Wanted to Know about Woody Baldwin, by Lawrence R. Peterson. The 112-page PDF publication may be downloaded from the Prime Timers Worldwide website, www.primetimersww.com.