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The Roanoke Times, Va., Dan Casey column
[February 21, 2013]

The Roanoke Times, Va., Dan Casey column

Feb 21, 2013 (The Roanoke Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- An extraordinary guy died Tuesday. His name was Clifton A. Woodrum III, but friend and foe alike knew him as "Chip." He was an honest and caring state lawmaker, a fount of wisdom who brilliantly represented the Roanoke Valley's interests for 23 years in the Virginia General Assembly, a partisan Democrat, a talented lawyer and always a gentleman.

On Wednesday, many were remembering him. One was Jim Mullens, a business broker in Roanoke. Mullens recalled the winters of 1989 and 1990, when he was 14 and 15, and long hours he spent in Woodrum's white Mustang, hurtling between Roanoke and Richmond on the weekends.

During those General Assembly sessions, Mullens was a Woodrum-appointed page in the Virginia General Assembly. That gig relieved Mullens of eight weeks of schooling at Patrick Henry High School. But he learned a lot that turned out very useful later in life, both inside the Capitol and in Woodrum's front seat.

One lesson was "hold on for your life," Mullens told me. Woodrum was not exactly a timid driver. He paid little attention to the 50 or 55-mph speed limit on U.S. 460, Mullens said.

"He'd always be running late," Mullens recalled. Lack of pocket change to pay for tolls was rarely any big deal for Woodrum. "We scurried through the tollbooths," Mullens told me. "He'd say, 'We're on official business here. They can come find me.'" It was in the halls of the Capitol in Richmond that Mullens watched and listened to Woodrum in action as a state delegate. "I learned the art of making a deal from him -- of putting a deal together, and compromising and negotiating," Mullens said.

"The way Chip did it was unique. He used his good-old-boy charm. He had a quick wit that would set the mood, break the tension. He was never the slick politician. He was a friend to everybody, on both sides." The lessons in the white Mustang were more personal. Mullens recalled a Woodrum lecture about girls and women.

"It was, 'Watch out for the fast ones.' That was his underlying message." Woodrum grew up in a large house on Robin Hood Road in tony South Roanoke. Because it was on the east side of Jefferson Street, it was technically in the city's southeast quadrant. His grandfather was a congressman and his dad was a lawyer who had served in the Marines in World War II, said Ralph Baker, a childhood friend.

When they were little boys, "he went to Crystal Spring [Elementary School] and I went to Highland Park," Baker recalled. Their friendship grew after they both matriculated to Lee Junior High, where the Poff Federal Building now stands. Woodrum was a scrawny kid whose trademark quick wit was evident even back then.

Soon after school started at Lee, "one of the bullies lined up all boys from South Roanoke. He was going to beat them all up," Baker told me.

"He asked Chip, 'Where do you live ' and Chip said 'Southeast.' The guy said, 'You live over on Arbutus Avenue ' It was a blue-collar street.

"And Chip said, 'Yeah, that's good enough,'" Baker recalled. Woodrum avoided a beating.

After junior high, Woodrum's parents sent him to prep school at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, where one of his fellow students was John McCain, the future prisoner of war, U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate.

Apparently, Woodrum learned his lessons well there, said Chan Bolling, another longtime Woodrum pal.

"He could recite Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' from beginning to end -- in old or middle English, whatever it was written in," Bolling recalled. "He had the accent down perfect. Some of it was racy. Some of it was dull. Chip made it very entertaining." After high school, Chip went to the University of North Carolina. He wrestled on the UNC team, always in the lower weight ranges. "He couldn't have weighed much more than 120 pounds," Bolling said.

After college, Woodrum earned his law degree at the University of Virginia and returned to Roanoke to practice law. For a long time, that was at Dodson, Pence, Viar, Woodrum & Mackey. After that partnership dissolved, he practiced with his brother, Lanier, in an office on First Street downtown.

Unlike many attorneys in the General Assembly, "he was a real lawyer with real clients who went to real courts with real judges," said Jay DeBoer, who served in the House of Delegates with Woodrum from 1983 to 2001. During part of that time, they sat next to each other on the House floor, and their offices adjoined as well.

"As a lawmaker, he was aggressively diligent," DeBoer told me. "He wasn't in it for the glory and he wasn't in it for the flash. He was in it because it was important, and he was good at it." Bill "Reddy Kilowatt" Crump, a longtime lobbyist for Dominion Virginia Power, fought some high-profile battles with Woodrum over the issue of electric deregulation -- even though off the clock they were great friends.

Woodrum, a diehard deregulation opponent, served as vice chairman for the General Assembly's joint Commission on Electric Utility Regulation, which dealt with the subject for many years. "He would tell me right in front of everybody, 'We deregulated the airlines in Roanoke. That was called, catch a bus.' "He and I would sit there and yell at each other all day, and then go out to dinner at night," Crump recalled. "Lobbyists were supposed to buy the dinner [for lawmakers]. And he'd say, 'No, I'm buying YOUR dinner.' He'd pay for it out of his pocket. He was so clean that he'd list it on his [legislative] disclosure form." Former delegate Steve Agee, who's now a judge on the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, served in the legislature with Woodrum for 12 years. At the time, Agee was the only Republican who represented the Roanoke Valley in the House of Delegates.

"Whether in the legislature or since then, he was ... always the master of the repartee," Agee recalled. "You never knew quite what he was going to say. I might not have agreed with him, but it was always entertaining." Woodrum often directed his most biting barbs at Republicans. One of his most famous followed the first General Assembly session after which Republicans had taken control of the House of Delegates. This was back in the mid-1990s.

"It only took a hundred days to see why it took them a hundred years to get the majority," Woodrum jabbed.

Those are merely highlights of many laudatory words uttered about Woodrum on Wednesday in the halls of Richmond, along Roanoke's sidewalks, and in telephone calls and emails flying around everywhere.

All of which is to say, Chip Woodrum will be missed by many.

Rest in peace.

___ (c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.) Visit The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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