Larry Woods is a delightful old man full of insight and experience. He speaks with the charming southern drawl reserved for a character in a John Ford film. His droopy and bespectacled eyes show the sweetness of age like ripe California grapes.
Larry Woods is likeable. Simple as that. But God Almighty is he a show off.
Like the time he gave Hunter S. Thompson a rifle lesson on the gonzo journalists own property.
Thompson woke up kinda late; around three in the afternoon, as woods says he would often do during the interview. Holding a jug of scotch on his right shoulder and a rifle in his left hand, Thompson asked Woods if he felt like shooting.
Outside, Woods lines a miniature glass bottle in his scope (the kind of bottle you get on an international flight) and fires. Pow! Pow! Pow! He blows three dry bottles of booze to smithereens.
“You shootist son of bitch!” Thompson shouts in surprise.
“Hunter,” Woods says, as he turns towards the writer, “I told you earlier I’m a Tennessee boy.”
Then there’s the time Woods out drove Arnold Palmer at the first hole in a friendly round of golf.
Palmer drove first, a beautiful shot right down the center of the fairway, as one would expect from arguably the greatest golfer, pre Tiger. “Alright Larry,” Palmer says mockingly, “Show me what you got.”
Shaking, struggling to keep the driver steady, Woods approaches the tee, camera’s rolling and finally sends the ball sailing past Palmer’s, which was lying on the fairway like a toothpaste stain on one of Palmer’s Green Jackets.
I say finally because Woods didn’t hit a straight shot till his third attempt. His first two shots actually trickled behind him. But still, credit where credit is due.
By now you may have realized that Larry Woods is a journalist. But more then that he is an honored and respected journalist. A Google search of his name shows Woods worked as a correspondent at CNN for twenty years. While there he won an Emmy award, an A.C.E award for reporting as well as the Edward R. Murrow award for a years worth of work in 1989. And for a few hours last week, USF journalism students were able to listen to Woods speak in great detail about his 50-year career in the newsroom.
The Why, Woods says, is the foundation for good writing. So I asked myself why, besides his engrossing stories, am I writing about Larry Woods? Well, because any student who is interested in journalism, or writing in general for that matter, could learn a great deal from him.
So here they are: four nuggets of gold, straight from the sage himself, to help any student win that Pulitzer or just pass rhetoric 250.
1.) Read a lot. “Even chick books fellas”.
When Woods began college at The University of Florida, he thought he would like to be an engineer. Going to school courtesy of the G.I. Bill after spending a few years in the Air Force flying atomic bombers, engineering would seem the obvious choice. Unfortunately, there was a small snag in Woods plan known as the periodic table of elements.
On the first day of chemistry class Woods was introduced to the most basic aspect of the subject and he said to himself, “I don’t believe I’ve heard of this thing” (rather terrifying if you consider Woods was responsible for transporting live atomic bombs just a few months before). He knew he would have to get out of that class.
So Woods went to his class advisor and said, “Hey sport, I gotta problem here” and like many class advisors do, he told Woods tough luck, that he would have to suck it up.
After skating by with a “gentlemen’s D” Woods changed his major to literature, and the rest, as they say, went a lot like this:
“I learned to write,” Woods says, “by reading some of the best writers.” But reading is not enough. You should engage in the book as well. Underlining passages and lines that resonate with you to help them stick in your memory, says Woods.
And if you are a virile young man, Woods suggests reading “chick books” like Eat, Pray, Love to best “learn how a woman thinks.”
Woods himself just read the Elisabeth Gilbert novel and was “underlining everything.”
2.) Do your homework!
Just like preparing for a final in existentialism or public speaking, if you study hard enough before hand, you go into the test confident that you will knock it out of the park. Usually, depending on the size of your hangover, that is true.
That same strategy applies to interviewing interesting people, says Woods.
At the very least he adds, doing your homework show’s the interviewee you can be trusted, that you are genuinely curious about them as a human, not a subject. “People are always suspect,” Woods says of working for the press, “so you have to get their trust.”
One such instance came when Woods was interviewing Billy Graham, famous Evangelical Christian Pastor and spiritual advisor to many U.S. presidents.
“I read two or three books on his life,” says Woods, “so I really felt like I knew the man.”
That includes Graham’s reputation as the best kisser in his high school class of ten to twelve students. When Woods brought this up, Graham apparently stopped dead in his tracks and asked Woods, “How did you know that?”
The rest of the interview was a relaxed look “into the soul” of one of the most iconic figures in American spirituality, completely free of ideology all because as Woods says, “he liked that I did my homework.”
3.) “Don’t be afraid to go to the top…”
As Woods says, shaking his finger at us students like a clean-shaven Uncle Sam. Although he was fortunate enough to have titles like Time and CNN to back him up, Woods reminds us that there is nothing to stop a student from calling a CEO or the president of a school or an elected Senator or Representative.
“They aren’t gonna come to you,” Woods points out.
After all, what is the worst thing that happens if you ask Gavin Newsom for a Foghorn interview, he says no? It is safe to say, Larry Woods owes a lot of his career to his wife.
After graduating from The University of Florida Woods was already the father of four so he took a job writing sports stories at the Gainesville Sun. Besides the obvious benefit of being able to travel with Florida’s football team, Woods enjoyed writing sports stories because, he says, it got all of the adjectives out of his system.
From Gainesville Woods moved to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, where, actually, he worked with USF’s very own Michael Robertson. While there, Woods’ wife was hired as personal secretary to Ted Turner. Turner is, says Woods, “a very wealthy man with a colorful personality” and a media mogul.
Woods was told by his wife about Turner’s plans to start a 24-hour news channel, which eventually became CNN.
First thinking, “That will never work,” Woods went to apply and after being told he was overqualified took a job working a desk but after six months he was, in his own words, “bored as the dickens.” After asking for a new position Woods became a field reporter and spend the next 20 years reporting on the countries most unique personalities. “If 100 cats wander from home and 99 come back,” says Woods, “at the end of the day we are concerned with the one cat that’s missing.” It is the missing cats of the world that keep Woods only semi-retired.