A single sheet of white, standard-sized paper with unadorned and purposeful type seemed out of place hanging on a door in the University’s centerpiece property. “2008 Resolution: Unless the Rotunda is on fire, we are out of here by 6 p.m.!” it read, with the “2008” crossed out and each successive year through 2012 handwritten and subsequently stricken down the side of the page.
University spokesperson Carol Wood attributes the running joke to a lack of discipline in leaving the office. This week, however, Wood leaves the office, and Charlottesville, behind for her new home in Birmingham, Ala. She plans to telecommute through December.
The running joke is that Wood, so used to working, may have her toughest job yet in retiring.
“I’ve never known nine to five,” Wood said in an interview at her home Sunday. When she arrived at the University, she and coworkers in public affairs would sometimes look around in the evening, surprised to find other offices deserted. “It was like, ‘Where’d everybody go?’”
Wood’s decision to leave the University, she said, was a long time in the making, yet also an accident of chance. She arranged to put up her home for sale — only “for people who are really interested in a big, funky old house in the middle of Charlottesville,” she said — immediately before the June leadership crisis erupted.
Wood’s kitchen is filled with well-wishers who have come to help her pack, clean and drop off the day’s lunch while she grants me an interview. Her home, even filled with neatly packed boxes, retains its aesthetic décor. We sit in the library, its shelves emptied, and she slowly shreds the label of her Perrier water bottle as she speaks.
“My responsibility is to be honest, transparent as possible, in responding to anything … from the very silly to the most serious,” she said. “I feel that is a heavy responsibility, and I don’t think of it as being the face or the voice of the University. I just think of it as my job to do that as best I can … It’s not just Carol talking; it’s the University.”
Having spent more than 17 years working in Charlottesville, Wood has become a prominent yet approachable figure on Grounds. She is usually the first person tasked with responding to media scrutiny of the University, not all of it positive, and commands great respect from those for whom she is a reliable and oft-used source.
“I’ve had a wonderful give-and-take with many reporters,” she said. “I don’t mind doing that. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with many reporters, but we always end up having a good laugh about things. It’s never personal.”
Wood, to her credit, humors all questions. University President Teresa Sullivan at a retirement reception held Friday in Wood’s honor described the public affairs professional as her “trusted advisor,” calling her the “go-to person for information, both for reporters and for people inside U.Va.” Wood, who cuts a figure of stylized and inexhaustible professionalism, has earned more influence within the institution than her spokesperson title implies.
“I know a lot of people do come to me, and maybe it’s because I listen,” she said. “It’s kind of in my nature, I think, to try to help people, and so maybe it just evolved into that. It’s not something I sought.”
She arrived at the University in 1995 after a 25-year career as a reporter and editor primarily at The Virginian-Pilot. In Norfolk she met her husband Bill, another Pilot editor, and joined the ranks of working mothers in 1977 after the birth of her son, Zach. In 1993 the family left for Charlottesville so Bill could take the helm of the newly-created Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership.
“I came along for the ride,” Wood said.
She telecommuted for two years for the Pilot’s parent company before taking a job in the University’s news department because she missed working alongside others.
“It’s the flip-side of journalism, if you will,” she said. “I always looked at it as my job to help reporters do their stories.”
Wood had always planned to retire earlier, whereas Bill wanted to keep working “until he was 90.” His diagnosis of dementia seven years ago slowly halted that plan.
“It changed many things yet it changed nothing,” Wood said. “His approach was ‘we’ve had a great life’ and we had had a great life … the last four years have been a decline to the point where he doesn’t really talk anymore but we still get smiles out of him and laughs.”
Wood, who will turn 65 in November, was not present for the birth of her third grandchild in July down south. She will leave a wide and supportive inner circle in Charlottesville to join her son, daughter-in-law, and their three children in Alabama. McGregor McCance, the former managing editor of The Daily Progress, will serve as the temporary University spokesperson until a permanent replacement is located.
“I just want to be for a while,” Wood said. “I just want to be still for a while. Some people say ‘you’ll never be still’ — and I say, I’m going to try it for a while.”