Two of the best

Posted January 8, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Local historian looks back at the lives of J.G. Woodrum, Russell Miller

By David Cross

Clinton County has, in the same week, lost two of its finest native sons–two men who left this county and made their own mark in different fields, in different regions, but with similar drive and resourcefulness and both with a similar love for their native soil. Both of their stories deserve to be told.

John Woodrum and Bill Miller didn’t answer to those names in Clinton County. Here it was “J.G.” and “Russell”, and they would always answer.

J.G. Woodrum was a Fairlander, through and through. He was raised down at the end of what is now called Woodrum Road. They were not people of great means, but were certainly folks of good character.

After quitting school and enlisting in the National Guard, J.G. made his way back to high school where he was one of Coach Lindle Castle’s first Bulldogs. After the 1958 season, J.G. was too old to play, but he hung around as an unofficial motivator/confidante/traveling companion of the only Bulldog team to ever reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Along the way he did a little bit of everything for Coach Castle and the team, including driving the team bus on occasion.

That’s the first amazing thing about J.G. Woodrum. While still attending high school, he drove a school bus. They say it’s an arrangement that his mother Golsie Woodrum made with the superintendent after the regular driver suffered a heart attack, in order to help him to complete high school. It was a way for him to afford to go to school, as well as a mode of travel. He parked the bus at the Woodrum house each night and picked up the children at Seventy-Six and Fairland along the route, taking them to school.

Ever since those high school days, he was picking folks up all along his route in life, helping them out in some manner to try and help them on their journey.

J.G. was a member of that storied Class of 1960 (and prided himself on personally sponsoring three of their class reunions), a class which to this day arguably remains closer than any other class in school history.

J.G. and a high school classmate headed out to California in 1963, got as far as Las Vegas, ran out of money, or maybe they ran out of money on the way back. Anyway, they did run out of money and Vegas was as far as they got. It is said that they sold the tires off the car, then sold the car. The classmate moved on after a few months, but J.G. stayed, becoming John Woodrum.

He would tell people in Vegas that he left Kentucky with the carnival at age 14 and ended up in Vegas. John would tell a lot of things out there, after all, it’s a town based on entertainment.

His large frame, great personality and warm smile and handshake won him both friends and respect from those he met in Vegas, including Sam Boyd, who John worked for from 1963 until Boyd, one of Vegas’s heaviest hitters, helped the Kentuckian go into business for himself.

John Woodrum was recognized throughout Vegas–not just as the owner of the former Klondike Casino, which he bought in 1976 for $1 million and sold in 2006 for many times that figure, not as one columnist wrote as the man who knew more stories of old Las Vegas than anyone; but also as the entrepreneur who had sense enough to run power to re-light the now famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign that was in front of the Klondike at the end of the strip.

It was to become the most recognized landmark in Vegas. If not for him, it quite likely would have just faded away.

When Jerry Tarkanian coached basketball at UNLV, John Woodrum was one of his biggest supporters–so close in fact that when the NCAA exiled “Tark the Shark” from the program, they thought so much of John that they did the same for him. Apparently his old practice of picking people up was viewed as being a violation of NCAA rules.

J.G. loved to see the home folks come out. If you were from Clinton County, he certainly treated you special out there. But he had a way to make everyone feel special.

Russell Miller has an amazing story. Born in Albany, his parents, J.A. (Dude) and Della Sprouls Miller moved the family to the rural New Hope Community of Clinton County, so their children could receive a proper education.

Due to out-migration by the 1920s, there were no other black children in Albany, so it was a problem for the town school district to furnish a teacher for a segregated school in town for the sole purpose of teaching the Miller children.

However, there were numerous African-American families at New Hope, in the western part of the county, and the separate county school district maintained a black school there, so the Millers moved their family to the country, where they became some of the most respected folk, white or black, in the county. They lived at the end of a road so bad that when their father later bought an automobile he had to keep it garaged out on the Burkesville Road, depending on horse or tractor transportation, or walking, to get out to his car.

Russell attended grade school at New Hope, then went to high school at Somerset Dunbar, where he had to board with a local family. He often caught a ride on a laundry truck to get to and from school each week. There was no “colored” high school in Clinton County (or Cumberland, or Russell; Wayne County’s Travis School had no twelfth grade) and the African-American children of Clinton County had to travel and live out of county if they wished to attend high school. It was a lot of effort, but Russell did it. His parents had taught him how important education was.

Russell served in a segregated unit in the Pacific Theater in World War II and thereafter graduated from Tennessee A and I (now Tennessee State University) on the GI Bill. He came home and taught school at New Hope before moving north to work for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. He soon moved on to Akron, Ohio, where he rose to the position of vice-president, being at one time the highest ranking African-American in the rubber industry. He did a lot of hiring there, including hiring numerous folks from this part of the country.

Russell said that his evaluation of a prospective employee was based partly on their footwear; if they were wearing sneakers, they weren’t used to working where they came from and they generally did not get hired.

While a vice-president of Goodyear, Russell made an effort to locate a small Goodyear plant in Albany. It didn’t work out, but he tried. After his retirement, he returned to Albany and established a small factory here. That didn’t work out either, but he tried. The man that wasn’t allowed to go to high school here still tried to help his home town, and its people.

Russell was progressive; he worked within the system to help others, but did not accept racism. Once when we were in front of the courthouse in Albany, an old man approached him and in a kindly manner told Russell that his father was “one of the finest black men he had ever known.” Russell responded, “What about him being one of the best men you ever knew?,” then he smiled and walked on. It was his way of furthering the cause.

Both J.G. Woodrum and Russell Miller used their rural raising in Kentucky as an advantage, not as an escape. They learned how to deal with people, and to appreciate people, big and small, but with a love for the little people. They always kept their hearts here, but their feet were elsewhere.

Now two of our county’s finest expatriates are gone. However, others raised here will continue to come forward and achieve success–not in Akron, or Las Vegas, but in other places throughout the country.

Many professionals, entrepreneurs, and business executives are now scattered around America but still call Clinton County their home. It is so unfortunate that so many rural children educate themselves “right out of Clinton County,” for that is where the greater opportunities lie. That’s just the way it is.

However, their success stories, as well as the stories of those who have chosen to return home, should help motivate our young people to see what they too can achieve when they put their mind to it. J.G. Woodrum and Russell Miller both came from similar origins: large, poor families that lived at the end of their roads in rural Clinton County.

Ironically, both of those roads now bear their family names of Miller Road and Woodrum Road, but those roads were not dead-ends for them. It was the beginning of their separate journeys. They both used it to help them achieve success, and to help others along the way.

These are two stories of The American Dream, fulfilled and achieved, by two country boys from Clinton County who never forgot where they came from.