W.T. Woodson, 89, who served as superintendent of the Fairfax County public school system from 1929 to 1961 and saw it transformed from its modest rural past into a major suburban system with more than 60,000 students, died July 12 at The Virginian Retirement Home in Fairfax. He had congestive heart failure.
When Mr. Woodson joined the Fairfax system in 1925, it had fewer than 5,000 students. Its annual budget was $321,000 and teacher salaries averaged $779 a year. Of the 64 schools in the county, 45 had only one or two rooms. There were only two dozen buses. When funds ran short, money was borrowed from private individuals until more taxes could be collected.
When he retired, the county had 93 public schools valued at more than $53 million, 190 buses and an operating budget in excess of $20 million a year. It had become one of the largest school systems in Virginia. In 1982, the Fairfax schools served about 122,500 students.
"All we do is the best we can," Mr. Woodson said at a testimonial dinner for him in 1959. "That's what makes the world go round." At another testimonial two years later, he said, "I never dreamed we would have 60,000 pupils in 1961, and I don't believe I deserve any credit for that."
Indeed, the growth of the schools merely reflected the explosion in Fairfax's population that began when World War II ended. But Mr. Woodson, who was known as "W.T." to his friends, was the man who made it manageable.
Moreover, he presided over the system throughout the Great Depression and through the early years of integration following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, which declared the "separate but equal" school policy of southern and border states to be unconstitutional.
On the integration question, Mr. Woodson was a gradualist, urging that black and white children begin going to school together in the first grade and continue together thereafter.
Earlier in his career, he said, his most difficult problem was persuading parents that small schools should be consolidated so that they could provide more facilities. Many citizens, reluctant to subject their children to busing, opposed this. For different reasons, the same issue arose during the years of desegregation.
Later in his career, Mr. Woodson's problem was persuading the citizenry and the Board of Supervisors to borrow funds for new buildings. He did much groundwork through Parent-Teacher Associations and similar groups. In 1951, for example, about half the children were attending school on double shifts or in temporary quarters. A $10.5 million bond issue was approved, but held up for 18 months by litigation. By 1960, Fairfax had spent about $50 million on new schools.
Throughout his career, Mr. Woodson emphasized the value of the "three R's" in the curriculum. He also supported programs for music and the arts and for athletics. He encouraged the formation of teacher-salary committees and these led to better pay for teachers.
When Mr. Woodson retired, the newest and largest of the county's schools at that time was named in his honor. It is the W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax.
Wilbert Tucker Woodson was born in Crozet, Va. He graduated from the College of William and Mary and later did graduate work at George Washington University. He served in the Army in France in World War I. He began his teaching career in Nansemond County, Va., and was dean of Fork Union Military Academy when he went to work in the central administration of the Fairfax school system in 1925. He was named superintendent four years later.
He was a member of the Virginia and National associations of school administrators and Fairfax Baptist Church.
His wife, Lucille Snead Woodson, died in March of this year and a son, Overton, died in June.
Survivors include two children, Jean Woodson Palmer of Raleigh, N.C., and retired Army Lt. Col. W.T. Woodson Jr. of McLean; seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.