W.B. and Mary Louise Woodruff of Decatur have seen a lot of history together.
Born on the same day in 1925, they celebrated their 88th birthday Tuesday. After a family gathering over the weekend and a candle-free coconut cake – most of which went down to the coffee group at the Chamber office – Tuesday’s celebration consisted of a trip to Angelo’s Barbecue in Fort Worth.
If ever a couple seemed cut from the same cloth, it’s them.
But it’s hard to say whether that’s what drew them to each other, or if it’s just the result of being together for 66 years.
In the 1942 Decatur High School yearbook, they’re in a photo together headlined, “They Know How” – the title chosen that year for “Most Capable.” On the facing page, the “Most Popular” couple is headlined, “We Like Them.”
“We were trying to be smart and use different language – now we think that’s kind of a joke,” Mary Louise laughs. “We were in classes together, but I was just beginning to see what he was like, how he did in the classroom.”
It wasn’t until she was helping register people for ration books during World War II that W.B.’s mom came by to sign up, and Mary Louise found out she and W.B. shared a birthday.
But, he points out, “I do have four hours of seniority. Thank goodness for that!”
Their first meeting was anything but love at first sight.
“My mother was a voice teacher at Decatur Baptist College,” Mary Louise says. “She had borrowed a piece of sheet music from his aunt. We were going with her to return it, and they were visiting at that time. He comes walking into the room, not knowing there was anybody in there, with his head in a book. He read all the time.
“So of course, she introduced him, and when he appeared at school, I knew who he was.”
W.B.’s family moved around a lot, but he came back to Decatur in the fall of 1941 for his senior year.
“We started dating at the end of our senior year, then I went to college, and he ended up in the Army.”
Like many couples in those times, they got to know each other through letters.
“We corresponded all the time he was gone in the Army,” Mary Louise says. “When he got back from the Army, I was a graduating senior at Baylor University, and he had gone back to A&M. He went back down there for that spring semester, and we started talking about getting engaged.
“I said, ‘Well, you’ve been gone a long time. Let’s wait until you get your feet on the ground.’ So I taught school the next year, and he went back to college, ended up transferring down to UT and law school. We married in ’47, and when he got through, we came back to Decatur.”
By then, they already had the first of their five children, Martin. Now they have seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandkids – and counting.
‘He was gone a lot’
When asked how she managed to stay with W.B. so long, Mary Louise displays her quick wit.
“Well, he was gone a lot,” she winks. “The Army was always sending him somewhere.”
All the moving during his childhood made that seem natural, he said. In fact, he almost got to be a firsthand witness to the country’s entrance into World War II.
“My dad was a road builder and street paver,” he said. “He did a lot of Army camps and airfields and was being shipped all over the place.
“I remember one time he called in and said ‘I’m going to be home this weekend, and I want to talk to y’all about the next job. They’ve offered me a job out in Hawaii.'”
W.B. and his little brother were excited about the prospect, but by the time their dad got home, he’d already turned it down.
“He said it was too dangerous out there. It wasn’t a year after that ’til the Japanese bombed the dang place. It didn’t happen, and I guess it was a good thing.”
He did get into the war in its last year, though, after a little training through the State Guard and the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M.
“The Japanese hit Pearl Harbor right at the end of the football season,” he said. “Two things happened there – one was we got whupped by a little town we were supposed to beat by three or four touchdowns and they tied us 7-7. I can remember that long drive back to Decatur on the bus, two or three hours, the coach wouldn’t speak to us.
“About three or four days after that, the Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and the whole world was just collapsing around us.”
W.B. tried to get into the Navy, which would take you at 17, but he couldn’t pass their physical. He went to his draft board but was advised there weren’t any calls coming up, so he should go on back out and work a while longer.
“I did – and when I got all the way back out to Van Horn on the bus, Dad was standing there waiting for me with a telegram from the draft board, saying, ‘We got a sudden call for next Tuesday if you can make it.’ I turned around and got right back on the bus and made that one.”
His life quickly took an adventurous turn.
“We took a shipload of mules out of New Orleans,” he said. “We left there in July of ’44, and it took 73 days to get us to Calcutta. We got in there in late September, finally got to Camp Landis, Burma, on foot with 317 of those mules still left, on the night of Nov. 2, 1944. We lost three along the way.”
They also had a collision and had to put in for repairs at Suez. While he was there, he got to make a side trip to visit the pyramids and the Sphinx.
“That first letter I got from him over there was on our birthday, and he wrote, ‘Yesterday I was in Cairo.’ That’s the way he started,” Mary Louise said. “I thought, ‘Wow!’ He spent our 19th birthday in Cairo, Egypt.”
He was called up again to serve in Korea in 1953, then called up again in 1961. By the time he retired in 1978, he held the rank of lieutenant colonel. He retired from his “country law” practice in 1987, having served as both an assistant county attorney and mayor of Decatur.
While he was in Korea, Mary Louise went back to college and got her master’s degree. When their second son, Mason, was a year old she started teaching history and government at Decatur Baptist College. After five years, she opened a fabric shop near their home in what’s referred to as “the Old Stone Prison” just a block off the square.
After living there for 10 years – “a two-bedroom house with one little bathroom” – they moved out to the country just north of Decatur, on property Mary Louise’s grandfather had bought when he moved here from North Carolina in 1891.
“We came out here and looked and I said, ‘You know, I can see the courthouse from here,’ so I wouldn’t feel like I was too far out of town. Down the other direction we could see way up the road almost to Alvord, so we decided to build out here.”
Now they’re closing in on 50 years in that house, and W.B. is starting to go through the files in his office so the kids don’t have to. Mary Louise, who also has an office, has devoted countless hours to compiling genealogies of both the Gettys and Woodruff families, although she says she’s retiring.
She says the main reason they’ve been able to stay together so long is their “sweet, sweet children. They all take such good care of us.”
Perhaps another secret is that they give each other space to pursue their varied interests. He drinks coffee with the guys at the Chamber office; she plays bridge on the first and third Wednesdays – a game that started 60 years ago. The respect and love they have for each other is obvious.
“I grew up in a family of lawyers, so I learned how to, not argue, but debate,” she says. “So we don’t fight – we debate.”
And then he says, “Yes, dear!” and the debate is over.
“You have to have a good sense of humor,” she says. “You learn to laugh at things, and you have to learn to compromise.”
So that 1942 Decatur High School annual was prophetic, after all. How will W.B. and Mary Louise Woodruff make their way through the world together?
“They Know How.”