Bill Wood, Sorensen's Founding Director, died Friday.

Nov 19 2012 - 6:17pm

Bill Wood and his wife Carol Wood attending a Sorensen Institute event.

Bill Wood, Founding Director of U.Va.’s Sorensen Institute, Dies at 69

November 18, 2012 | Marian Anderfuren

William H. Wood, the former newspaperman who became founding director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, died Nov. 16 at home. He was 69.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer's. Wood died only weeks after he and his wife Carol had moved to Birmingham, Ala., to be near their son and his family.

Wood launched the institute, an educational and training organization for Virginia's emerging political leaders, at U.Va. in 1993. Today, more than 1,000 Virginians have graduated from the Sorensen Institute's programs. Many of the graduates, who are of all political stripes, hold elected and appointed office in Virginia, from school boards to the state legislature.

Bob Gibson, who now directs the Sorensen, said he considers Wood his role model. "Bill could listen to anyone on any side of an issue and find points of agreement or common interest with them," he said. "Behind his mild manner lurked a wonderful sense of humor that could catch people by surprise because he could deliver any message with perfect timing and a deadpan delivery."

Wood stepped down as executive director of Sorensen in 2005, and was recognized with a joint resolution by the General Assembly, commending him for his long career in journalism and his leadership of the institute. He continued to work part time until 2007 as editor of the Virginia Newsletter and director of the publications division of the University's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

A well-known and widely respected journalist, Wood had spent 26 years in the newspaper business before coming to the University - the last 10 as editorial-page editor of The Virginian-Pilot. As a reporter and editor, he covered the Virginia General Assembly for two decades.

John O. Wynne of Virginia Beach, former CEO of Landmark Communications, which owned The Pilot, and former rector of the University, said Wood's editorial philosophy was a good fit with that of Landmark Chairman Frank Batten Sr. and publisher Perry Morgan.

"All of them hated editorial pages that stuck to ideologies - they were always predictable," he said. "They thought newspapers had to do fresh thinking about issues and really inform readers. Bill absolutely did that."
Like Morgan and Batten, Wood worked hard to make sure he was being fair, Wynne said.

Wood began his interest in politics when, as a 14-year-old in Luray, Va., he handed out campaign literature for the successful 1957 campaign of Gov. J. Lindsay Almond. After graduating from Duke University, where he was an editor at the student newspaper, he went to work at the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg.

In 1970, Wood joined The Ledger-Star in Norfolk and for the next 13 years covered police, courts, city councils and the General Assembly and served a stint as sports editor. In 1981, the Ledger merged with The Virginian-Pilot and Wood became the newspapers' second ombudsman. In 1983, he was named editorial page editor.

Gerald L. Baliles, former Virginia governor who now directs U.Va.'s Miller Center, knew Wood from his days in the General Assembly. He said Wood personified civility, sought to elevate and educate, and wrote with clarity and conciseness.

"He was courteous to all, even those with whom he shared a different opinion," Baliles said. "I valued his friendship and respected his judgment." He noted, with a smile in his voice, "I still treasure his endorsement when I ran for attorney general."

Wood, a pitcher for the Duke baseball team, loved the game and especially the Dodgers, starting when they were still in Brooklyn. He played a mean game of tennis, running opponents all over the court, and was fond of beach music, doo-wop and dancing.

In 2005, Wood, then 62, received a diagnosis of a type of dementia that took aim at his speaking, reading and writing abilities. As the old Bill began to fall away, his core remained - his sweetness, his laughter, and his jitterbug wiggle.

Wood is survived by his wife; their son, Zachary Mather, and daughter-in-law, Kate Mather; three grandchildren, Will, Julia and Griffin of Birmingham; and his sister, Sally Heath, of Charlottesville.

A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 2 p.m. in the University of Virginia chapel. It will be followed by a reception at Carr's Hill.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent in Wood's name to the Sorensen Institute, P.O. Box 400206, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4206.

Published on UVAToday on Nov. 18, 2012.

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