John T. Woodruff III as a toddler with his parents, Catherine “Cass” Woodruff and David Woodruff. (Submitted photo)

He inherited one of the best-known names in Springfield history, but his friends knew John T. Woodruff III simply as “John T” or “JT” or just “T.”

And he did have friends — lots of them. As word spread of his Oct. 24 death at age 66, pals — some of whom had been first-grade classmates with him at Rountree Elementary School — gathered from around the country for a bittersweet homecoming to lay him to rest in Hazelwood Cemetery alongside his namesake grandfather and other beloved family members.

It was the kind of reunion that John T would’ve loved, with stories and laughter and genuine affection.

The original John Thomas Woodruff is considered one of the most influential Springfieldians of the 20th century. He was a visionary developer and promoter who, among other things, built hotels and an iconic office building downtown, helped lure the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners and O’Reilly General Army hospital here, greatly expanded the local presence of the Frisco Railway and, perhaps most significantly, steered Route 66 through southwest Missouri.

John Thomas Woodruff III, 1956-2022 (Submitted photo)

John T didn’t know his grandfather, who died seven years before John T was born. His uncle, John T. Woodruff Jr., died in 1961 when John T was 5 years old.

John T’s first-grade school photo, taken at Rountree Elementary. (Submitted photo)

John T had another family name to live up to — that of his personable and popular father, David B. Woodruff, who directed Greene County’s juvenile court system for three decades. And his mother, Catherine “Cass” Woodruff, was one of Johnny Morris’ first hires, establishing Bass Pro’s women’s clothing division and managing it for many years.

Yet, despite the formidable lineage, John T is remembered by those who knew him best as “just one of the guys,” proud of his heritage but never trading on his family name, following his own comparatively low-key pathway through life — but having and sharing oodles of fun while doing so.

‘He never bragged on the family name’

“He didn’t really talk about his grandfather that much,” recalls Phil Page, who was John T’s classmate from elementary through high school and on to college. “He never bragged on the family name. I didn’t put it together until my Drury (College, now University) years when I learned some of Springfield’s history. He made his own way.”

Another of John T’s friends for 60 years, Walter George, agrees: “For the most part, he grew up unaffected by the name. There was a humility about him that I think he got from his mom and dad. He was unusually humble for someone who came from such a famous family.”

That is not to say that John T was shy or retiring.  

“JT had a gravitational pull — he loved to see people happy and having a good time, and he facilitated that whenever he could,” says Crystal Copeland, who counted the adult John T as both a professional colleague and personal friend. “He was a blast to be around because he brought out the best in everybody else. It was a no-brainer to want to spend time with JT.”

As an adult John T enjoyed riding in cars and boats — and as a child, on a donkey. (Submitted photo)

The Woodruffs lived on South Delaware Avenue between Luster and Catalpa streets, and the large English Tudor-style house was a gathering place for Page, George and other neighborhood kids and John T’s Rountree classmates in the 1960s.

“We all grew up together,” says Chuck McCann. “We had many spend-the-night parties at T’s house when we were kids. And they had a small swimming pool in the back yard that was heated year-round.”

From grades 2 through 5, John T and several classmates at Rountree Elementary played summer baseball on a team known as McGuire’s Eagles. Players included (front row, left to right) Benny Hopkins, David Freeman, Shane King, Chuck McCann, Mark Gammon and Mark Scovall; and (back row, left to right) Coach Mike McGuire, John T, Jimmy Scovall, Danny Huff, Phil Page, Craig Ellis, Roy Waddell and Tom Auner. (Photo courtesy of Shane King)

Another popular back-yard feature of the Delaware Avenue house was a basketball court. Touch football games were organized in what once had been the back yard of a stone mansion built by John T’s grandfather in what today is the 1100 block of South Glenstone Avenue and which at the time served as the offices and studios of radio station KWTO. And from second through fifth grades, many of the boys played on a Kiwanis league baseball team dubbed McGuire’s Eagles.

Father was county juvenile officer

As the boys grew older, they came to understand the implications of the fact that John T’s father was the county’s juvenile officer. 

“He was very nice to us, a real gentleman,” McCann says of David Woodruff. “But eventually we figured out that when he said something, we’d better listen.”

Page concurs that John T’s father was “always just great to us kids.” However, he does remember witnessing John T being admonished by his dad: 

“I sat through some of his lectures when John T had been late for school or hadn’t been working as hard as he should’ve. I’d say ‘I think I need to go, Mr. Woodruff’ but he’d say ‘No, no, you sit down — I want John T to know that you’re hearing this.’ And, believe me, after those lectures, I was not late or tardy for anything!”

Eventually the message took hold with John T, too — but it took a while. After graduating from Parkview High School (Class of 1974), he enrolled at Drury but stumbled a bit academically and dropped out after a couple of years, although he later finished a degree program at then-Southwest Missouri State (now MSU).

His first years out of school saw John T try a couple of different career trajectories. 

He launched an unusual business venture in what formerly had served as a city fire station in the 400 block of South National Avenue. He converted the upper level to an apartment where he lived, and turned the ground floor into a beer-and-pizza bar formally called The Backdraft, in honor of the place’s fire department history, but more popularly known as Old Station Number Three.

John T’s senior photo as a member of the Parkview High School Class of 1974. (Submitted photo)

He also got into law enforcement, first with the Greene County Sheriff’s Department under Sheriff John Pierpont, then for a longer period as a Christian County sheriff’s deputy. For a while, he lived during the warm weather months aboard a cabin cruiser that he kept on Table Rock Lake, commuting back and forth to work in Ozark. He hosted many weekend gatherings of friends on the boat as well. 

‘He always had beautiful cars’

Another conveyance — a limousine — also was popular with friends.

“JT loved automobiles,” says longtime pal Shane King. “He always had beautiful cars. He would change cars like changing hats — all kinds of different cars. He had so many cars that you just wouldn’t believe it.

“When we were finishing high school and he was starting at Drury, he had a little orange MGB-GT sports car that he really liked. But JT was crazy about big limousines, too. He and I rented a limo for our senior prom. 

“He always wanted one for his own. Finally he found one ’way out on Long Island, New York. He flew me out there, and I drove it back here for him. He had that limo for several years, and just lived it up with his friends. He had a guy contracted to be his driver, and we’d go to places all over town in it.”

John T liked to travel out of town, too — especially to New Orleans, where he enjoyed the Cajun cuisine and seafood, and the jazz music; or to most anywhere that had a casino with slot machines. 

John T’s gregarious nature ultimately led him into sales, especially with telecom companies, including Sprint. He also worked for Ameripride, the uniform and linen supplier. Almost always he quickly rose to leadership positions as a sales manager directing a team.

“Once he found his footing,” says Phil Page, “he accomplished a lot in his own right without relying on his grandfather’s or father’s names.”

‘Good attitude’ despite cancer diagnosis

Then, in his late 50s, John T received devastating news: He was diagnosed with deadly cancer, melanoma. He sought treatment at the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He underwent aggressive treatment, but doctors there held out little hope, predicting he wouldn’t see age 60.

John T loved dogs, including this hound, Gator, who was a beloved pet several years ago. His two most recent pampered canine companions, Savannah and Gumbo, were German shepherds. (Submitted photo)

Friends rallied around their buddy. Brenda Marshall, who’d known John T since she was a teenager, became his unofficial advocate, accompanying him to treatments and helping track the doctors’ diagnoses. She marveled at his resilient spirit.

“He always had a really good attitude, always positive. Even when we’d get the worst news at MD Anderson, he’d stay upbeat. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he’d say ‘Let’s go to the beach’ or ‘Let’s get a nice dinner.’ He’d say ‘This might be it, but we’re going to do it up while we can.’”

Then one of those enduring boyhood relationships paid a huge dividend.

Walter George’s daughter Lindsey Vickery is an oncology nurse at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute in Kansas City. When she learned that her father’s longtime friend had received a dire diagnosis and grim prognosis, she consulted with a doctor at the clinic who had been achieving success battling breast cancer with new drugs. The doctor agreed to try some unusual treatment approaches on John T.

“We’d stayed in touch in the years before that, but our relationship intensified with the cancer diagnosis,” says George. “We talked or emailed at least weekly, sometimes several times a week.”

And, counter to the earlier predictions, the cancer went into remission.

‘Made the most of those extra years’

“We were able to celebrate his 60th birthday in New Orleans with some friends, and he ended up living six more years than some doctors said he would,” says George. “He wasn’t always feeling 100 percent, but he was grateful for every day — and he made the most of those extra years.”

Brenda Marshall and her husband Terry, along with Crystal Copeland, co-own Fast Track GPS, a local company that provides electronic monitoring services to track criminal defendants who are free on bond. They hired John T because “when he was told he had less than six months to live, he’d quit his job. Then he ended up living but didn’t have a job.”

“JT didn’t have any family left,” says Copeland. John T was an only child. His father had died in 1979 after suffering a heart attack at age 62, and his mother died in 2001. “He was the end of the line. Everybody was gone. So we became his family.”

King confirms that his close friend “loved working with those people. The family atmosphere they provided helped sustain him, helped keep him alive.”

John T expressed his gratitude by regularly treating his co-workers. “He’d send out a group text: ‘Tacos anyone?’” recalls Copeland. “Or if he went to Starbucks, he’d text ‘Coffee?’

“He was incredibly generous. He would give away his last dollar if he thought somebody needed it, and then he’d figure out how to pay his own utility bill.”

Copeland’s husband, Curtis, cites an example of John T’s “amazing generosity”:

“One day Crystal brought home two shirts. She said, ‘JT was thinking of you, and he picked up a couple of shirts for you at Blackwells.’ They were dress shirts. I’m just an old hillbilly; I don’t do dress shirts. But these were the nicest shirts I’ve ever had in my life. He was so, so generous.”

Brenda Marshall says colleagues benefited in non-material ways, too: “John was always one to give good advice. And most of the time, he was right. It may not have been what you wanted to hear, but he was going to tell you what you needed to hear about your problem or situation.”

And Marshall laughs in recalling the time years ago, while supposedly driving back to Springfield from New Orleans, that John T impulsively reacted to a road sign: 

“He said, ‘Hey, want to go to Florida?’ and he had that car up on two wheels getting it turned onto the ramp heading east. We went to Florida and had another few days of vacation. And it was a lot of fun…”

These and other stories were shared by friends who gathered in Hazelwood Cemetery on Nov. 2. It was a warm, sunny, Indian Summer day. The mournful droning and haunting wailing of a set of bagpipes sent the familiar melody of “Amazing Grace” wafting over the sea of headstones.

Including the headstone with the familiar family name — Woodruff — that marked the family plot  where John T’s cremains were interred alongside his grandfather, his uncle, his father and mother.  

Mike O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and is also a college journalism educator in Springfield. To suggest a person who might make a subject for Lives Remembered, email him at LivesRemembered@sgfcitizen.org or obriencolumn@sbcglobal.net. More by Mike O’Brien