Charlie Woodford, Belleville East’s most loyal supporter and namesake of the Lancers’ football field, died Sunday. He was 96.
Woodford had been involved at Belleville East since 1966, when his son Wick was a student. He was instrumental in the formation of the athletic program’s booster club.
Over the next 52 years, he missed just three Lancers football games and very few basketball games.
“Since 1966, he’s been a huge part of Belleville East and, in particular, the sports program,” said Belleville Township High School District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dozier. “He was ahead of his time when he started the booster club. There’s no way to total it, but I’m sure over the years the boosters have donated millions of dollars to the sports programs.”
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Beyond his leadership of the East booster club, Woodford continued to volunteer his time to the program and has visited the school at least annually to speak to students about his war experience.
Woodford had served as a tail-gunner on a B-17 bomber during World War II and earned two Purple Hearts. He spent nearly seven months in hospitals recovering from those injuries.
Keith Padgett, a social studies teacher and former coach at East, invited Woodford annually into his classroom to relate his war experiences to the students. His presentations were later shared with other classes, which crowded as many as 120 students into the school’s library to hear him speak.
“He held the kids attention,” Padgett said. “He had a model of his airplane and a map to show where he got shot down in England. He would talk for 55 minutes and the kids didn’t say a word. They were mesmerized by what he said.”
Padgett recalled one of Woodford’s presentation when he continued speaking beyond the bell of the school day’s final class hour.
“Charlie didn’t always hear bells by that time,” Padgett said, “but here it is 3:25 in the afternoon, it’s the end of the day, he had talked for 55 minutes and the kids did not move a muscle and did not say a word. Some of the other teachers and I were looking back and forth at each other; the kids wanted to stay and hear what else Charlie had to say.
“He had a way of telling a story that was amazing.”
A favorite story among the students, Padgett said, was about how Woodford hitch-hiked 10 to 12 hours from his military base to his Iowa home each weekend so he could spend his Saturdays with Phyllis, his girlfriend and eventual wife. She preceded him in death.
“My favorite moment was some time after 9-11,” Padgett said. “A student asked a question about it and Charlie said ‘If America needs me today, I’ll sign up tomorrow.’ He was in his 80s at the time. Powerful ... amazing.”
Last fall, Woodford was summoned to the high school by Belleville East Athletic Director Mark Larsen. He was presented a football field-shaped cake with the words “Charlie Woodford Field” written across the 50-yard-line in icing.
“No ... I don’t believe it,” said a humbled Woodford when informed the field would be rededicated in his name. “It’s awesome. I never thought something like this would ever happen to me. I’m just honored. Words can’t describe how I feel.”
Through the years, Woodford and his wife, Phyllis, were regulars at the field that eventually came to bear his name, as well as the gym at the center of the school’s campus.
“I can’t think of any thing we ever did that was more enjoyable on a Friday or Saturday night than watching Belleville East play football or basketball,” he said in an interview with the Belleville News-Democrat in August 2017. “It’s just been a lot of fun. I still love to go.”
Funeral arrangements were still pending as of Sunday morning. Dozier said District 201 leaders are discussing “appropriate” ways to mark Woodford’s loss and his contributions to Belleville East.
“It’s obviously a huge loss,” Dozier said. “We’re so glad we named the stadium after him last year and he was able to enjoy that. We know it meant a lot to him. As far as what we do now, we’re just starting discussions about what’s appropriate.”
Woodford was also a longtime member of the Belleville News-Democrat Readership Advisory Board.