Though he served only a single term as a county supervisor, Clifford Ewell Wood was at the helm of local government at perhaps Nelson’s most crucial event of the 20th century when Hurricane Camille came through in August 1969.
Of the more than 250 deaths caused by the storm, 124 were in Nelson alone, representatives of the Nelson County Historical Society said at a commemoration of the event last month.
Wood served as civil defense director in the aftermath of the tragedy, overseeing rescue and recovery efforts.
“I’m used to floods,” Wood said in a 2006 interview with the Nelson County Times. “You get out of the way and let it do its thing. But there was no warning (for Camille).”
Wood, a farmer and native of Wingina, died Sept. 3. He was 89.
He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, earned a degree in animal husbandry from Virginia Tech in 1949, and a year later was recalled to service in Korea for a two-year stint, according to his obituary.
Managing his family farm for most his life, he operated a dairy for 32 years before selling the herd and becoming a real estate agent. Also active in the local farming community, he helped organize the Nelson County Farm Bureau in 1956, and taught vocational agriculture at Nelson County High School from 1960 to 1962.
Nelson County Attorney Phil Payne IV knew Wood his entire life and said his death is a “terrible loss” for a county fortunate to have received his service during the historic flood.
“Cliff was the soldier, farmer, statesman,” Payne said. “Perhaps one of his key strengths was he was so low key.”
When a supervisor in his district died suddenly, Wood ran as a write-in candidate in the fall of 1967. He joined fellow farmers Walter Hoffman, Hunter Mawyer and B.C. Small on the Nelson County Board of Supervisors.
“We respected each other and never argued in public,” he said in the 2006 interview.
After heavy rains destroyed parts of the county when Camille hit, he said in an interview he was able to get to Lovingston while other county officials were cut off. For a day or two, he didn’t know if they were alive.
The role of the board chairman was to act as a civil defense director or emergency director, he said in the interview. Since Mawyer, who served as chairman, could not get to the county offices, Wood stepped into the role.
He said he, volunteers and state police set up a control center off U.S 29. Wood interacted with a state officer, helping to secure food for thousands affected by the major flood event. In the interview he recalled the grim task of ordering body bags for victims.
Wood put in long hours over the following days, spending the night at the sheriff’s office and sleeping on floors and vans off the road. Though he knew no one personally who was killed in the flood, he said his two daughters lost friends from school.
There was no way for Wood or anyone to prepare for the once-in-a-lifetime storm, but he said in the interview the misery he witnessed overseas while in the military helped him understand how to try and relieve suffering.
“I never thought that the misery would fall here in a place this peaceful,” Wood said in the 2006 interview.
Wood served on the board from 1968 to 1971. The board’s current chairman, Allen Hale, recalled meeting him while covering Nelson as a reporter for the (Charlottesville) Daily Progress and described him as a “major contributor” to county government response during the destruction of Camille.
Hale also remembers Wood’s deep knowledge of the history of Nelson County.
“Whenever I saw him, we could talk about (topics such as) history to architecture to people in the county,” Hale said. “…He will certainly be missed.”
In September 2005 after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Wood, alongside Payne, who at the time also served as Nelson’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, and recently retired Nelson County Circuit Court Clerk Judy Smythers established the Nelson County Katrina Fund in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The approximately $78,000 raised aided the Mennonite Disaster Service and was a way for Nelsonians familiar with such tragedy to give back, Payne said. The Mennonites aided Nelson County in its restoration during Camille, Payne said.
“We knew that money wouldn’t be wasted,” he said.
Payne said he recalled the Woods often having to leave social events early to get home because they were up before dawn to tend to the dairy operation. The hard work was more than reflected in Wood’s response during the local recovery effort during Camille.
“Cliff, thank goodness, was one of the guys on the ground,” he said of the efforts.
Wood, a past president of the Nelson County Farm Bureau, also was a member of the Nelson County Historical Society and a member of Mulberry Grove Baptist Church.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Louise M. Wood, daughters Jane W. Raup and Ellen W. Quade and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Mulberry Grove Baptist Church in Buckingham with a luncheon following. A graveside service will be held at 3 p.m. at Mountain View Cemetery in Lovingston.