The Colgate Scene
"Passion for the Climb" — it's what exemplifies the spirit of Colgate people. You share a thirst for a life of accomplishment and the will to do things right. In academic, professional, community, and personal endeavors, you relish the effort, the process, the journey, and care deeply about how you lead your lives, as much as you care about reaching the top.
We know there are countless ways in which the "passion for the climb" manifests itself in Colgate alumni, faculty, staff, and students. As the university embarks on its "Passion for the Climb" campaign, we wish to build a collection of these stories.
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Bob '83 and Lee McConaughy '82 Woodruff with three of their four children, Claire, Nora, and Mack, on campus during graduation weekend. Since publishing their book In An Instant, the Woodruffs have helped put a face on the serious issue of traumatic brain injury among returning Iraq war veterans. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
A CIRCLE OF HEALING
It's human nature to desperately believe that we, ourselves, are immune to the worst of life's vagaries. I subscribed to the naive theory that if I lived a good life, recycled, was kind to people, put my head down and worked hard, I just might reach the end of my days relatively unscathed. Oh sure, I was prepared for the obvious things like aging parents, run-of-the-mill disappointments, a friend's nasty divorce, a child's lackluster performance. But I think that most of us nurse a quiet hope that the horrible things, the really bad things, aren't going to happen to us.
If we lived life waiting for the other shoe to drop, we'd never fully engage in the world. And so there I was on January 29, 2006, with my head down, going about the business of living our lives in a fairly straight line when, like a thunderclap on what had been a clear day, a bomb literally exploded in our world.
For the next 36 days, my husband, Bob Woodruff, lay in a coma in Bethesda Naval Hospital. His skull had been shattered by the blast of a 155-cm improvised explosive device while he was on assignment for ABC's World News Tonight.
Although Bob and I had both gone to Colgate, I hadn't really known him well there at all. After his graduation in '83 and a subsequent year as a paralegal in Manhattan, he headed to Michigan Law School. But corporate law did not suit Bob's life vision for himself, and he became a teacher of American law in Beijing, ultimately translating for CBS during the Tiananmen Square uprising.
At the age of 30, with a newborn son, Bob made a career switch to journalism that would change the direction of our family's life. As he snaked his way up the TV ladder with an ever-expanding family in tow, we all cheered his climb. That journey would lead Bob to the co-anchor chair and to the assignment in Iraq, his seventh visit to that country, on the eve of President Bush's State of the Union address in 2006.
And then it happened. The shoe dropped. The thing that is not supposed to befall decent people did. Life as we knew it was upended, in an instant. After the medical crisis, the coma, and the many miracles surrounding Bob's recovery, the journey we all took to heal was one that required varying combinations of faith, patience, hope, and diligence. Although it was Bob who was the hero of his outcome in so many ways, somehow, during the journey, I had inadvertently become a poster child for inspiration, for keeping the family together, facing adversity, and for standing by my man. These were all roles that humbled me, that made me feel most unworthy at times. We had made the journey as a long-distance team with so many others. We had all fought against the dire predictions of the doctors when they told us that Bob would most likely not be able to speak, mentally function at his prior level, or be a journalist again.
"You'd do the exact same thing for your loved one," I learned to say to deflect the disproportionate praise when the spotlight later turned on me. And I meant it. People do extraordinary things when called upon during difficult times. But no journey, no crisis is complete without an army of supporters to lift you up, hold the embers of hope for you on some days, and walk beside you every step of the way, even when no words are required. There are days when not one word will suffice. Those were the days that I especially came to rely on the friends we had made at Colgate.
I've said a number of times that a tragedy or a crisis is a lousy way to find out just how many people really love you. And of all the legions who helped us heal, we can look to this group and see how they stepped into the circle with us in a way that was tangible. These folks had known us each long before we became, collectively, "Bob and Lee" or "that poor anchor and his wife." They had known our younger, individual selves well before we'd re-met, fallen in love, and married. These were the friends who had learned to write our addresses in pencil as we criss-crossed the country like shoelaces while Bob chased ever-bigger TV markets. These were the folks with whom we'd spent our truly formative years.
My friend Rebecca Ablin Boucher '82 published an essay once that I've thought about dozens of times, and it came back to me often in the lowest and highest moments of our family crisis.
"Then there is the pack of women from college. If friends correlated to parts of the body, they are my bones. They hold me up and allow me to stand. They are an accomplished, funny, merciless bunch, all of them. We made friends early on, in those years of broken hearts and endless possibilities. As time went on, we have weathered marriage, children, divorce, and job changes together, of course, but have gone through more than that somehow with our stubborn refusal to abandon one another. When one is in trouble, someone will alert the rest and we circle the wagons. When I am with them, I feel more myself than any other time. They forgive me all my many trespasses and faults and past mistakes and then go a step further by loving me anyway. They laugh and pour me another glass of wine. They are, as a group, a great gift."
For me, Recky completely captured the primal and holistic nature of the friendships we all formed at Colgate. There are no preambles needed. In that mysterious language of best friends, we all just pick up where we left off. Even when entire years pass. As we teetered on the brink of adulthood, the collective Colgate experience became the kiln that forged friendships from clay into a fine porcelain.
Bob Woodruff '83 reporting from an armored vehicle manufacturer in South Carolina in January [Photo by ABC/Donna Svennevik]
When the bomb went off, our college friends rose to the occasion in ways too numerous and varied to recount. And all the while, a vast web was forming out in the greater Colgate community, of e-mails and calls, of people checking in or sharing news with those who couldn't be there or didn't know us personally or just wanted to pass on a prayer. The network virtually hummed, letting its members know if there was a need, a right time for a phone call, an offer of food, comfort, or something else to ease the marathon.
As Bob healed, often in the comfort and privacy of my sister Nancy's house, my own nephew, Collin, began winding up his senior year of high school to head to Colgate in the fall. Bob and I had often recounted for him the amazing blessings of the Colgate community. We tried to enumerate the benefits of being in such a close-knit environment. We assured him that the tiny trepidations he may have had about going to a smaller college town were the very things that made Colgate one of the most special spots on earth to spend four years.
"It's a place that hews people together," I told him one night over a crackling winter fire, while Bob still lay at in-patient treatment in a New York hospital. "You will never regret your choice. Anyone can go to college in a place where the local bars are mixed with people in suits, talking about what happened at the office that day," I said. "You've got the rest of your life for that. To me, that dilutes the experience of being immersed in the campus life." Collin nodded, glazing over in that way people do when their elders begin sentences with "When I was a boy . . ."
But I was gathering steam. I was remembering, energized and mobilized by all of the friends with whom we had shared those years; from the passionate discussions in our dorm rooms to heated political debates at the Jug. From the series of bad boyfriend break-ups to mental still shots of April snowstorms on the Willow Path. During Bob's very private and self-imposed quiet recovery, we picked up some of those conversations with people, near and far. Some we had shared our four years with on campus and others had shared the Colgate experience in other times, other decades, and had simply reached out to help us heal.
In those early days around Bob's bedside, we had a very small circle. As he healed and reached for words, winced in pain, and suffered the consequences of having "half a head" as we called it, my first priority was to protect my husband. My job was to keep his dignity intact, to make sure that everyone who encountered him was vetted as part of the safety zone.
There was a thirst for information about Bob in those early days; rumors of bounties for photos and misinformation within the broadcast community. It was a kind of rubbernecking curiosity about whether or not he would ever return, and speculation about exactly how much damage had been inflicted.
I guarded the door like a bird of prey. But into the quiet poured the Colgate folks. Each one, at first timid and afraid, worried they were invading our privacy, unsure of what to expect beyond the door frame. Would he remember them? Know their names? How would he look? Disfigured? Immutably changed? A head injury is a highly individual and complex thing, as new to most of our friends as it was to me. Bob remembered everyone, even if he couldn't recall their names at first. He knew all the faces, the anecdotes, the stories, and the legends.
There was Nora, who came to the house on that first day, leaving her daughter's skating tournament in Atlanta to fly home when she heard the news. She stayed to pay my bills and run my household for months to come. There was Kitty, who dubbed all of our home videos onto DVD so that Bob could hear his family's voices over and over again through the coma. There were the phone calls and e-mails from so many, the New Yorker cartoon collection from Carol, the stationary from Betsy to send thank-yous, the note from Meg that made me cry, the box of toys for the kids from Jeanne and Phil, the flowers from Amy. And there was Recky, who bought me Maalox and visited the New York hospital rehab centers with me, asking the tough questions about Bob's care. There was Bob's freshman roommate Bobby Gorab, who flew from California to see him, and Christy, who showed up at the door with cookies. Torpey reached out over the continents and Jenny came from San Francisco and cooked a meal, liberally pouring the red wine. There were alums, veterans from years past, and students on campus, who signed a lacrosse shirt and sent cards. By naming some, I do all of the others who were part of our team a great injustice.
This past September, Bob came back to campus for his first public appearance since the injury, to be inducted into the Athletics Hall of Honor for a still-standing lacrosse record. Members of his lacrosse team had gathered from near and far in his honor to cheer him as he stood in Andy Kerr Stadium to accept the honor. Later, during the alumni game, they had his back as he ran up and down the field like a teenager, scoring goals with a borrowed stick.
By recounting the generosity of some, I mean to honor them all. There were no small acts of kindness, only gifts from the heart. They were all part of the glue that held our ragtag family together on its most frail days.
In February, a mere 13 months after he lay, hovering between life and death in a makeshift hospital in Balad, Iraq, Bob completed an hour-long documentary for ABC called "To Iraq and Back." He was reporting not only on his injury, but the challenges faced by the soldiers and Marines returning from the Iraq war with brain injuries. It was a moving, amazing piece, and he reported new, astounding figures about the actual number of wounded returning home. It also did something else important. It put a human face on the war. And Bob continued to cover stories about the wounded, shedding light on the need for greater care.
On May 1, 2007, Bob really returned to reporting. While he had continued to follow the injured and the wounded, advocating for them through his news reports, this was his first international assignment in a year and a half. He headed to Cuba in hopes of getting an interview with Castro, or at the very least, covering the status of this country on the brink of potential change.
He was reunited with the crew that had been with him on that terrible day in Iraq — Doug Vogt, the cameraman also wounded with him, and Magnus the sound man. Only Vinnie, the producer who had held Bob's neck so that he did not bleed out, was not with them. As they all stood in front of the camera as a group, beaming in an exchange with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, Bob spontaneously, with an ear-to-ear grin, grabbed the other two men in a bear hug.
Somewhere in between packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for school lunches and setting out bowls of cereal, I fought back tears brimming from so many emotions: amazement at where we are now; overwhelming gratitude that Bob could talk, speak, and work; joy at seeing that team reunited on their first international story; and relief that we had gotten through the toughest parts. We were still healing, but we were whole. We had survived with the love and support of so many. And right there, in the eye of the hurricane, had been the Colgate folks, moving slowly toward us with determination. Even when we had tried to push them away, they pushed back, showing us the meaning of community and the blessing of unconditional friendship.
Listen to a Colgate Conversations podcast interview with the Woodruffs at www.colgate.edu/podcasts.
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