Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
James "Jim" Wood, Jr., has been many things in his life: a military serviceman; speech writer; newspaper reporter, publisher and owner; state legislator; trustee, community servant and fund-raiser.
After this weekend, he will be able to add "Honorary Doctor" to that list of titles. Clayton State University has announced that Wood, 84, who is the Clayton News Daily's founder and original publisher, will receive an honorary doctorate from the Morrow-based school. He has been a member of the Clayton State University Foundation since its founding in 1974.
The honorary degree will be conferred upon him by Clayton State President Tim Hynes, during one of the school's commencement ceremonies on Saturday.
"My wife [Martha] was an instructor at Clayton State at one time, and my son, Chris, has a doctorate from the University of Georgia, so I'm finally amongst the elite of my family," Wood joked during an interview on Thursday.
"I feel like it's kind of a vindication of the 63 years where I didn't use up my G.I. Bill of Rights money, because I had a little bit of it left after I finished school [in 1948, at the University of Alabama]."
Wood is being honored by Clayton State "in recognition of his long career in public service and journalism," according to a news release from the university. The long-time Clayton State supporter jokes, however, that "I guess they felt I needed to be getting an award before I conked out."
Wood, a native of Lanett, Ala., studied journalism at the University of Alabama, with the intention of making a life-long career in the field. After graduation, he had stops as a reporter at the Marietta Daily Journal (where, he says, he lasted only three weeks), and at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. In 1963, he explained, he came to the Southern Crescent, when he became the owner and publisher of the Fayette County News.
He said he was lured to Clayton County later in the 1960's, by George Kilpatrick, who ran Clayton County Federal Savings Bank (now called Heritage Bank, he added). Wood said Kilpatrick and other wealthy, influential residents in the county, including Ed Kemp, Walter Spivey, and Gray Lindsay, wanted to build up a new, daily newspaper to cover the county.
"They had been noticing what I was doing with the Fayette County News, and was wondering if I would be interested in doing the same thing here," Wood said.
Wood agreed, with the stipulation that he have 51 percent ownership of the newspaper, and a new, Jonesboro-based weekly newspaper was started, called The Clayton County Journal. He eventually sold the Fayette County News in 1970.
The newspaper's owners also bought the Forest Park Free Press in 1970. Immediately, they began planning to merge the two newspapers. "That was not as easy to do as it sounds," Wood said. "There was great jealousy between Jonesboro and Forest Park ..."
The new, merged, daily newspaper was born in 1971, and it was named the Clayton News Daily.
Bonnie Pratt, the Clayton News Daily's current publisher, said Wood was "one of Clayton's most respected and influential men" during his time at the newspaper's helm. She also said he is a great source of information about the county's history.
"Once Jim's mind gets rolling, the memories come out in prefect precision," Pratt said. "He can remember more people and dates that are important for this newspaper, and this county, than you'll believe. He is a wealth of information on the earlier days of Clayton County."
Indeed, Wood was able to relax in a chair in the study of his Jonesboro apartment on Thursday, and, seemingly effortlessly, recount in great detail the establishment and growth of Clayton State University, budget battles in the Georgia General Assembly, and how the Clayton News Daily came into existence.
Three years after the creation of the newspaper, Wood was asked to be a founding member of a foundation that would be tasked with raising money to provide scholarships for Clayton State students. Wood had long been an advocate of the school, which was then just a two-year, junior college. "Anybody who was opposed to the college, I was suspicious of," he said.
In the 1960's, he was writing editorials for the Clayton County Journal to drum up public support for a bond referendum to pay for the founding of the school. The other founding members of the foundation were wealthy residents of the county, including Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, Wood explained.
"I was brought on because I was the publisher of the News Daily at the time, and the head honcho of the county," Wood said. "We formed, and I looked at each one of the other guys sitting at the table at our first meeting, and they were all millionaires, and I know what I was making editing the paper was not nearly as much as they were making. So, I guess they got me there to be a drum beater."
Wood is the only founding member still holding a seat on its Board of Trustees, according to the university. He said he has watched the school grow from an idea in the mid-1960's, to a "glorified high school," when it opened in 1969, to a four-year institution that now offers undergraduate-and graduate-level degrees.
Chris Wood, one of Jim and Martha Wood's sons, said that while his father remains a faithful supporter of the University of Alabama, "it seemed like closest to his heart, was closest in proximity, and that was Clayton State." Chris Wood, who attended Clayton State when it was a junior college, added that the entire Wood family is "certainly excited about dad being honored ... This is a great honor for him."
From 1976, to 1982, Jim Wood also served in the Georgia General Assembly, as a state representative from Clayton County. He served on the Clayton Legislative Delegation with such well-known political figures as Terrell Starr, Bill Lee and Jimmy Benefield.
In the House of Representatives, he said, he and other Clayton legislators found themselves in a race with then-State Rep. Al Burruss, from Cobb County, to get legislative support for colleges in their communities. In Burruss' case, the school was Kennesaw Junior College (now Kennesaw State University).
"Kennesaw State was our big rival," Wood said. "Every time Al would come up with something to benefit Kennesaw, we'd furiously work to quickly do something for Clayton State to match it. Of course, Al usually won."
In 1982, Wood left the General Assembly to challenge Newt Gingrich for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a year after he sold the Clayton News Daily. Wood lost the battle against Gingrich, who went on to eventually serve as the Speaker of the U.S. House in the late 1990's.
In addition to his ardent support of Clayton State, and his position as the founder of the Clayton News Daily, Wood has made his name in several other facets of the Clayton County community. He began holding tomato sandwich parties, first as a campaign fund-raiser for his re-election bids in the general assembly in the late 1970's, and later as a fund-raiser for the Mental Health Association of Clayton County. The annual parties are now used o raise money for the Good Shepherd Clinic, in Morrow.
Martha Wood jokes that her husband has also been a member of virtually ever civic board and community group "at one point, or another" in his life.
He said he is currently a member of the Clayton County Board of Health's Board of Directors, the Good Shepherd Clinic's Board of Directors, and a Lay leader at Jonesboro United Methodist Church. He has also been a member of the Clayton County Rotary Club for several years.
After this weekend, however, when he walks into those board meetings, everyone will be able to call him "Dr." Jim Wood.