Community LeaderWritten by Jennifer Womack
Consistent with the “American dream” he personifies, Woody’s story is laced with commitment, generosity, community leadership, challenges, tough choices and a desire to do right by his family and his community.
“I was born and raised in the Bridger Valley,” shares Woody from his office at Union Telephone headquarters on the outskirts of Mountain View in southwestern Wyoming. Woody’s dad and grandfather arrived in the area to work on the Oregon short line, a spur of the Union Pacific stretching from nearby Granger to the ports in Portland, Oregon.
“They were able to save enough money that they could buy a little ranch here in the Bridger Valley,” says Woody. The original family ranch was located near Mountain View, but over the years was moved south to the Robertson area where it now exists as a cow-calf operation and a point of pride for Woody.
“I was at Fort Lewis, Wash., Corvalis, Ore., and from there we went to Camp Carson, Colo. and from there we went overseas,” says Woody of enlisting in the Army after graduating from high school. Among the first to arrive on the beaches of Normandy in France, Howard recalls, “It wasn’t a pleasant situation.”
He continues, “We were kind of fortunate. We landed and went up on Omaha Beach, through the rocks, the willows and the brush and they didn’t even know we were there until we were quite a ways up the mountain. We were in where we had a little protection. It was a tough go, but we won. We lost a lot of people, but we didn’t lose too many in our company. Some of the companies that came after us were almost wiped out.”
“I enlisted before the war started. They were trying to get recruits to join the Army. I didn’t have money enough to go to college and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just go to the Army for a year, save money and maybe I can go to school when I get back.’ But, it was five years before I got back.”
As Woody made his way back to the states, he says he just wanted to go home. “After five years of war I guess I kind of had a degree from the Armed Services. I just came home where I wanted to be and started building a telephone company.” Upon his immediate return he spent nearly two years working for the Union Pacific Railroad, a company that offered to fund his long-desired college education. (see sidebar).
Woody’s father, John D. Woody, launched Union Telephone around the turn of the last century. “In 1914 he incorporated it,” says Woody, “but when I came back from the service he only had about 110 subscribers and that wasn’t enough to make him a living. They were all right here in this Valley. I could see it had to grow in order to survive.”
After reviewing the books, Woody made a call to AT&T in what at the time was an effort to preserve telephone service in the community. “I called them and I got a guy by the name of Lyman Spalding, he was head engineer for Wyoming,” says Woody. “They sent him in to look the company over and we’d offered to give it to AT&T for a dollar. They came in and they drove all over and looked it over. They went back to Denver and we didn’t hear any more. I called them up and got Lyman Spalding on the phone.”
The AT&T engineer told Woody that AT&T thought the company cost too much. “Boy that made me mad,” says Woody. “I told my dad we’re in the telephone business, we’re going to do it and we did.”
It was time to borrow money and rebuild. “We built a dial system here when Rock Springs, Green River and Evanston were on common battery,” recalls Woody.
The quest for growth, despite his father’s questioning, sent Woody on the path to the bank to borrow a half million dollars to fund the company’s growth. “My dad said, ‘You can’t borrow yourself rich,’” recalls Woody. “I said, ‘No, Dad, but we’re broke now and if we can borrow it we have a chance of making it.’” John Woody would sometimes remind his son of the advice, but in his elderly years his son recalls, “He was sitting on the porch one morning watching the sun come up. I went out and took him a cup of coffee and sat down. He said, ‘There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. About borrowing that money, you did the right thing.’ That took a lot of courage for him to say.”
Howard says, “It’s grown to what it is today.” It’s now one of the 50 top employers in the State of Wyoming with around 300 employees.
Growth opportunities have frequently been associated with challenges, but the Woody family’s tenacity has repeatedly won out. Woody relates one such story surrounding the construction of the dam at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Union wanted to provide the circuits and telecommunications infrastructure for the dam, but a competitor company cautioned the Bureau of Reclamation that bonding would be wise since they believed Union was too small for the job.
Woody set out to secure $125,000 in bonds; it’s a sum he says was quite hefty at the time. After finding little success in Salt Lake City, Utah he headed to Denver, Colo. where he found a bondsman who seemed likely to issue the bond. Woody stayed in Denver and visited the man’s office daily until he had the bond in hand. “I brought it back and took it to the Bureau of Reclamation,” says Woody. “We’re still serving that area.”
First considering cellular phones in the late 1980s, Woody recalls that a young man who grew up in Mountain View and went on to be a colonel in the armed forces returned to visit. A former summer employee of Woody’s, he stopped by for a visit, posing the question, “What about this cell phone thing? Are you going to get into that?” Woody pointed out the equipment was costly and the return on investment questionable.
“I kept studying it and thinking about it and getting all the information I could,” says Woody. “I got to thinking that here in Wyoming is where we need cell phones, not in Washington, D.C. or New York where there’s always a phone within a few steps.”
Woody says, “I kept looking into it and I told my son, who was a graduate engineer, to go ahead and make the application. We did it and it worked and I still believe this is where we need cell service, out here in Wyoming.” That philosophy has been a driving force behind Union’s expanding presence in parts of Wyoming beyond the southwest corner.
Of the state’s ranchers, Woody says, “It’s really important that people can call if something goes wrong.”
The young man from Mountain View later returned to Woody’s office. “You must have changed your mind?” he asked. “‘Roger,’ I said, ‘a wise man will change his mind, a fool never will. I’ve had some time to think about it.”
From ensuring the presence of telephones in rural homes to bringing cellular phones to areas where national companies see limited economic opportunity, Woody is a Wyoming innovator and pioneer.