The Natural Georgia Series: The Fire Forest

Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Robert Winship Woodruff: Outdoorsman and Conservationist

By Sue Hilliard and Lindsay Boring

Robert Winship Woodruff was the long-time chairman of The Coca-Cola Company who left a remarkable legacy of philanthropy affecting the quality of life of many Georgians. He established nonprofit foundations that continue his tradition of generosity to a variety of charitable interests, including the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation's activities with the environment and natural resource conservation. His legacy is reflected through the Foundation's gifts to organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. It's also manifested through the Foundation's direct commitment of resources to conservation, education, and research on Woodruff's former quail-hunting plantation, Ichauway, located in southwest Georgia. Among other natural assets, it conserves over 17,000 acres of longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem.

Robert Woodruff was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1889 and soon moved to Atlanta, where his father, Ernest, became president of The Trust Company of Georgia. An indifferent student, Robert wasted no time in making his mark in business. Beginning as a salesman for White Motor Company in Cleveland, Ohio, he quickly became the company's most successful salesman and was soon promoted to vice president and general sales manager.

Meanwhile, Woodruff had invested, along with many other Atlantans, in The Coca-Cola Company, which had been acquired and taken public by a syndicate led by The Trust Company of Georgia. After the acquisition, the company fell on lean times. Woodruff was persuaded to return to Atlanta and become its president.

Barely 33 years old when he took command of The Coca-Cola Company in 1923, Robert Woodruff shaped the fledgling soft drink enterprise and its bottler franchise system into a corporate giant with the world's most widely known trademark. A man of great personal magnetism, Woodruff's influence over the affairs of The Coca-Cola Company was absolute until his death in 1985.

Over six decades, Woodruff established a remarkable record as a businessman and philanthropist. He gave anonymously to many institutions, several of which owe their very existence to his generosity. Much of his philanthropy was directed through the Trebor Foundation, established in 1937 (renamed the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation following his death). The Foundation received funds from the estate of Woodruff's wife, Nell Hodgson Woodruff, who died in 1968, and from Mr. Woodruff's estate. They had no children. Woodruff and his brother also oversaw the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Fund, whose assets were distributed in 1979 to Emory University.

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation ranks in assets among the largest private foundations in the United States, and it continues his philanthropy, currently making grants for a wide variety of charitable purposes in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Grants are made in six broad program areas including environment, health care, education, human services, public affairs and economic development, and arts and culture.

An ardent outdoorsman, Woodruff lived life to the fullest. He and Walter White of White Motor Company acquired several individual landholdings and created Ichauway Plantation, a 29,060-acre quail-hunting reserve along 10 miles of the Flint River in southwest Georgia, in 1929. Their purchase was under the advisement of Richard Tift, a regional land developer, and Herbert Stoddard, the famous Coastal Plain ornithologist who designed the classic quail management system of the Southeast, and who established Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, Florida. The land ethic advised by Stoddard stressed a style of holistic forest and wildlife management that included progressive use of prescribed fire in the woodlands. This directly resulted in the legacy of conservation of the entire longleaf pine ecosystem, including its diverse faunal community, on Ichauway to this day.

Shortly after Ichauway Plantation was purchased, a country-type home on a bluff overlooking Ichawaynochaway Creek was built. Woodruff was standing in the yard of this home one day when an elderly black man who had been a farmer on the place for many years drove up in his wagon to meet the new "Boss." As they talked, the man's hands began to shake with the tremor spreading over his body as he fell to the ground. Woodruff asked what had happened to him and was told he had malaria, which affected more than half the people in the county.

Out of this encounter, Woodruff used his influence to establish on Ichauway a facility with a staff of researchers, doctors, nurses, and technicians to provide malaria control and to research the widespread malaria infections. Emory University Field Station was active from 1939 to 1958, jointly administered by the Emory School of Medicine, U.S. Public Health Service, and U.S. Geological Survey. Woodruff footed a substantial portion of medical bills for area people for malaria medical supplies and clinic services out of his own pocket. He considered the establishment and work of the Emory University Field Station one of his most worthwhile projects. It left historic precedent for research and outreach on Ichauway.

Charlie Elliott, the renowned outdoorsman and writer who shared countless hours with Woodruff while a guest at Ichauway, wrote three books detailing Woodruff's life, both business and personal. He wrote of Woodruff's great love of the outdoors, many close friendships, and his personal practice of being quick to give credit to others while dismissing his own success. One of Woodruff's favorite quotes taken from Charlie Elliott's books illustrates his philosophy: "When I compare the things I've lost with the things I've gained, and the things I've missed with what I might have attained, there is little room left for pride."

Prominent on Woodruff's desk was his personal creed: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."

He was a remarkable man whose charitable work in many realms, including conservation, continues today through his foundation. After Woodruff's death, the board and officers of the Foundation established the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway on the property that he loved. It was named in honor of his longtime associate, former senior vice president of The Coca-Cola Company, and chairman emeritus of the Woodruff Foundation, Joseph W. Jones.

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