We lost a St. Louis original over the weekend

I don’t think any of this will be in the newspapers, but I hope I’m wrong. Probably the most unusual man I will ever meet died over the weekend. His name was Otis Woodard. He ran a women’s shelter and food pantry in north St. Louis for decades. In many ways, it seems to me he represented everything that was right in the midst of all the things that are so wrong.

They made a television movie about Mr. Woodard about 30 years ago. His character was very much toned down from the real thing. On TV, he was a gentle, humble, soft-spoken sophisticate from Louisiana.

The real Otis Woodard was only one of those things: humble. He wasn’t even from Louisiana–he was from Birmingham. He was loud, and in more ways than one: from what I understand from my 7th grade teacher, he dressed like a hippie long before dressing like a hippie was fashionable, and he was still dressing like a hippie in the pictures I saw of him from this year. If anything was louder than that voice, it was those clothes.

He absolutely wasn’t insane–if you use the legal definition of knowing right from wrong, that is–but he was absolutely crazy, he knew it, and wanted everyone else to know it. And although he wasn’t soft-spoken, he was well-spoken. He was a fantastic storyteller who peppered his stories with self-deprecating humor. I remember him telling a story in a chapel service growing up.

“This girl came to see me last night, and she was scared,” he narrated. “I walked up to her, and I smiled, and I said, ‘I’m gonna take real good care of you.’ After that, she was even more scared! Do you blame her? How would you feel if, in the dead of night, this guy came out of the house,” he pointed at himself and looked at us crazy-eyed, “and then met you at the curb, and said he was gonna take care of you?”

But I’m sure he took good care of her, just like he did thousands of other people. There’s no shortage of stories of Mr. Woodard giving away the last can of food in his pantry, then going to a speaking engagement, and being showered with too much food to haul back to north St. Louis in a single trip.

Many years later, I saw him speak when I was in high school. We had gathering things for him all winter, and he had specific requests, especially regarding clothing. One request was not getting filled.

“I understand there is one thing on my list that you are very nervous about giving me,” he said. He paused, took a deep breath, then shouted loud enough to rattle the windows, “I want your underwear!”

I’ll just let that story stand on its own.

He was always gracious, always thankful, always smiling, and after he was done talking, he would pull out his ukulele, sing a gospel song or two in a deep baritone, then tell us we’re the gospel after the benediction.

A bizarre set of circumstances brought him to St. Louis. He had been an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, and after Dr. King was assassinated, Mr. Woodard fled with his three children and his pregnant wife as far north as he could afford to take them. That turned out to be north St. Louis. Broke and homeless, he called the first Lutheran church he could find with his last quarter and asked the person who answered to pray for the hungry people in north St. Louis. The person who answered happened to be a professor at the local seminary. He got him a job as a janitor, which gave him an income source to provide for his family. He spent his evenings helping the poor and the homeless, a ministry that ended up lasting the rest of his life. Eventually the Lutherans found out that’s what he was doing with his evenings, and they gave him a salary so he could do that work full-time.

A few weeks ago, my pastor talked about John the Baptist as being a bit of a freakshow in his time, comparing him to Lady Gaga or Alice Cooper. I get the picture he was trying to paint, but I think John the Baptist might have been even more like Otis Woodard. And for 46 years, the freakshow worked–it got comfortable suburbanites to help the much less comfortable in north St. Louis, even if only for a couple of days a year.

The depiction I saw on TV 30 years ago didn’t do him justice, but like others who’d met him said at the time, if they’d done an accurate depiction, everyone would have thought they’d just made the whole thing up.

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