The arc of Woody Brittain’s life twists like a double helix of success and service — one strain stretching high into the corporate worlds of Washington and New York, the other winding back to connect with dozens of youngsters as a mentor and source of financial support.
Clone his spirit, grow more like him. Despite Brittain’s death at age 65 last month, from Lou Gehrig’s disease, his blueprint for a meaningful life remains. Those heartfelt testimonials at his funeral Friday, about how loving and caring he was, need not be the last word.
Willard Woodson “Woody” Brittain Jr. was born in the District in 1947 and raised in Arlington by working-class parents — Woody Sr., a World War II veteran, and Mary — who demanded that their children work hard in school and commit themselves to service in their church, Mount Olive Baptist.
Nothing was more important than family: Woody Brittain Jr. and his wife, Deborah, were married 42 years and have a daughter, Lindsey. The way they defined family, however, meant that anyone who entered their home would be treated like one of their own.
Brittain served on the boards of the Northern Virginia Urban League, the National Urban League and the YMCA of New York City, among many others. Not only did he donate generously to charities that provide educational opportunities, but he also gave untold thousands of dollars out of pocket to students who needed money to stay in college.
“Woody was a generous spirit personified,” said Ron Coley, an associate vice chancellor for student affairs at Berkeley and a longtime friend. “He was always focused on the betterment of others.”
With math as his favorite subject, Brittain graduated from Wakefield High in Arlington, Class of ’66, and became one of 28 black students in a freshman class of 1,000 at Yale. Although mild mannered and bookish as a boy, he became an Afro-wearing campus leader, helping to organize the Black Student Alliance and successfully agitate for the creation of the Afro-American Cultural Center.
In 2011, he received the Yale Medal, the university’s highest alumni award.
Brittain graduated from Yale in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in economics; two years later, he earned an MBA from Harvard. In 1983, at age 36, he became a partner at the financial services giant Price Waterhouse and was later appointed its chief operating officer. His reputation for strategic thinking would lead to directorships at five Fortune 500 companies before he retired to start his own leadership program for youth.
In the suites along Wall Street, Brittain may have been known by his proper name, Willard Woodson; but along the byways of his home town and beyond, he was still just Woody — quick-witted, down to earth and always ready to lend a helping hand.
“People who were radicals in college, then traded in their dashikis for three-piece suits, risked being called sellouts,” said Harold J. Logan, a businessman based in Atlanta who was an undergraduate at Harvard when Brittain was there working on his MBA. “No one could ever say that about Woody because he used so much of his gains from the corporate world to help others.”
Said Larry D. Bailey, a Washington native who was also a partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers: “Woody’s great passion was figuring out ways for us to reach back and save at-risk black men and boys. When he talked about the epidemic of violence, the fatherless homes, the school dropouts, he’d tear up. While some of us were calling on black professional athletes to get involved, he was pushing CEOs and other leaders in corporate America to do their part.”
Brittain belonged to many civic organizations and social groups — including an informal klatch of guys who get together for a few days of tennis and golf a couple of times a year, which is how I met him more than a decade ago.
Thomas Parham, a vice chancellor at the University of California at Irvine, was among those from our group who frequently visited Brittain after he became ill.
“Even then, all he wanted to do was to make others feel comfortable,” Parham said. “His final lesson to us all was to never let misery have the last word.”
Through Brittain, we saw what makes for a purposeful life, starting with parents who instill a love of learning and community service in their children. You might say it was in his genes. If so, it ought to be in ours, too.