SALT LAKE CITY — Bruce Woodbury was grilling steaks at his family’s cabin in Millcreek Canyon. In my mind’s eye it happened just yesterday. He was the University of Utah’s sports information director. We were members of the Deseret News sports staff who had been invited to a party at Woody’s cabin.
Everyone lined up for their food. When we got to the front of the line, we’d say, “well done,” or “medium rare,” of “rare,” indicating how we’d prefer our steak prepared, like we were at Ruth’s Chris.
Woody would reach into the pile of steaks and throw one on the plate.
I sidled up to Woody and asked him, “How do you know which is which?”
“Oh, I don’t,” he said, smiling. “They’re all pretty much the same.”
* * *
The term “one of a kind” may be overused, but anyone who had the privilege of knowing Bruce Woodbury — who died a week ago at the age of 70 due to complications from a conglomerate of health problems he didn’t ask for, never complained about, and stoically dealt with most of his natural life — knows it’s a perfect fit for Woody.
Woody was a different kind of PR guy. Most publicists, in my experience, try to keep the media at bay; they have an "us versus them" mentality. They’re protective gatekeepers. Woody didn’t have a gate.
He was as understated as he was unassuming and non-threatening. It was never about him. In a world full of enormous egos, on all fronts, he staked out the middle ground. He was on everybody’s side. I don’t know how you do that.
There was no pretentiousness. Never a hint of big-time from a person who controlled who got to sit on the front row. Woody was friendly like a golden lab. As laid back as a Jimmy Buffett concert.
And the absurdities that came with the territory of trying to keep the media, the superstars, and especially the TV talent, all happy? He could not only see them, but enjoy them. As his son Cleadus, who followed in his father’s U. footsteps and is the director of ticket operations at the school, says, “My dad had a world-famous eye roll.”
He also had more health issues than anyone deserves. He was diagnosed with arthritis at 17. Back then, the treatment was essentially aspirin. For years, Woody took 10 to 12 aspirin a day. The long-term effect was kidney failure. In 2008 Cleadus gave him one of his kidneys, buying his dad another decade. But side effects from the kidney transplant medications brought on type 2 diabetes complications, which culminated in him losing a leg, and almost dying, in 2016.
Presciently, he seemed to know life was going to end sooner rather than later when he retired from the U. in 2007, at the height of his game, just before he turned 60. The plan was to travel, play golf, indulge the grandkids, drive his midlife-crisis Corvette, go on several missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his wife Nancy — not have a bunch of surgeries and end up in a wheelchair. But it ended up being a mixture of both.
When the leg was amputated three years ago, the doctors warned Woody’s family he might have only 24 hours to live. The word went out and well wishes came pouring in. So many people came to his room at University of Utah Hospital that when his doctor showed up, he took one look, shrugged, and said, “I’ll come back later.”
The parade included some of the best-known names in University of Utah sports history, and also some of the least-known, along with folks from every chapter of Woody’s life. Media people showed up like it was a bowl game. It was like that scene at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I think Woody lived three additional years — years that included three separate stints at care centers — just from that synergy.1 comment on this story
We started our careers at the same time. He joined the Ute sports information staff in 1973, the year I joined the Deseret News sports department. In 1978 he became sports information director, just in time to host the famous 1979 NCAA Final Four at the U., featuring Magic Johnson of Michigan State and Larry Bird of Indiana State.
He got me a great seat on press row for the game, but what I remember most is how he did it without pretense. Much like how he dished up those steaks. With no fuss or fanfare, Woody took care of everybody.