As a sixth-grader singing in the school choir room, Bruce Wood never could have imagined that about six decades later he’d be inside that same room talking about the school district he has twice led.
From the Terrell ISD’s spacious upstairs superintendent’s office at the Administration Building and just days from his fourth retirement, Dr. Wood recently talked about a career in education and government that spans 52 years.
The 73-year-old Terrell native has had a front-row seat to some of Terrell’s and Kaufman County’s most monumental events. He was a teacher fresh out of college when Terrell’s schools were desegregated in the late 1960s. He was the county judge when a disgruntled lawyer and disgraced justice of the peace perpetrated the most outrageous crimes of the decade.
In 1965, Wood was with the last class (exactly 100 students) to graduate from the old high school in Terrell, which is now the site of Terrell ISD’s Global Leadership Academy.
After graduation, Wood attended Henderson County Junior College, which is now Trinity Valley Community College. He later enrolled at East Texas State University in Commerce, which is now Texas A&M – Commerce. While attending college, he drove school bus for the Terrell school district, and that’s where he landed his first teaching job.
He began teaching seniors in government and economics during the 1968-69 school year. Because he made it through college in just three years, he taught students who were freshmen while he was a high school senior.
“That’s pretty unusual. It never created any problems. I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching days,” said Wood.
Desegregation came into full swing in Terrell during Wood’s second year on the job, 1969-70. Back then, the American South and East Texas were just emerging from about 100 years Jim Crow laws meant to segregate blacks and whites.
“It was a tough time blending two different cultures,” Wood recalled. “It was a challenging time.”
Still, he said he became lifelong friends with some of his African-American students “and they’ve gone on to be very successful in life. It was a challenge, but with the leadership in place, a lot of hard work and a lot of people working together” Terrell managed to accomplish the desegregation of its schools.
After teaching for six years, Wood went in a new direction with the school district. He became its tax assessor/collector, a job he described as “one of the toughest jobs I ever had.”
In 1977, Wood got the job of assistant superintendent of the Terrell ISD. When his predecessor retired in 1984, Wood was hired as superintendent. He served in that capacity until 1997, when he retired for the first time.
He made an unsuccessful bid for the Legislature in 1998 and then turned to consulting work and taught as an college adjunct professor for a couple of years.
In the spring of 2000, Wood did his second stint as a superintendent after members of the school board in Kaufman coaxed him back into school administration. He stayed in that job until 2007, and then retired for the second time.
Wood, however, would not stay retired for long.
Having a background in government, he decided to run for Kaufman County judge in 2008.
“I had always been interested – at least in the text book version of government,” he explained. Wood won that election and breezed to a second term four years later without and opponent.
That second term had just begun when Kaufman County’s government was shook to its foundation by three murders.
On a bright sunny morning on Jan. 31, 2013, Chief Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was shot and killed as he walked from his pickup to the courthouse. The gunman fled the scene in a waiting car. Weeks passed as authorities tried to identify the killer.
“He did a good job of covering that first crime up,” Wood said of the shooter.
Then, on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, Wood received a call from the sheriff.
“I was at home and had all my income taxes spread out on the kitchen table … and the sheriff called me, which was very unusual for him to call me at home. My first thought was ‘Well they caught somebody.’ Well, it was just the opposite.”
On March 30, 2013, the bodies of District Attorney Michael McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, a respected nurse at Terrell State Hospital, were found in their home in Talty. Wood left his tax work behind and drove to the scene.
Wood, several judges and prosecutors were all placed under around-the-clock protection.
“It was a tough time for everybody,” recalled Wood, who said DPS troopers were assigned to his house. Speculation mounted that an Aryan Nation prison gang was responsible.
On April 18, 2013, former lawyer and Justice of the Peace Eric Lyle Williams and his wife, Kimberly, were arrested and charged with all three murders.
McLelland and Hasse had prosecuted Eric Williams for burglary and theft while Williams was in office, and Williams killed them in revenge. Eric Williams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. His case is on appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. Kimberly Williams pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
At the end of his second four-year term, Wood retired for the third time.
Then, in August 2018, Wood was enjoying retirement out at his 150-acre farm between Terrell and Elmo when he received a call from Terrell ISD school board President Dena Risinger. She asked if he’d be interested in assuming the district’s reins temporarily in the wake of former superintendent Michael French’s resignation.
“I hadn’t even thought about getting back into the superintendent job,” Wood recalled, later noting parenthetically, “It’s hard to turn Dena down.”
After he discussed it with his family and prayed about it, Wood called Risinger back and said, “Yeah, I can do this for a little while.”
Now, after retirement No. 4, Wood can settle back at the farm that’s been in his family since 1853. A new person, Dr. Georgeanne Warnock, is in charge of the Terrell’s public schools.
Her greatest challenge will be “just moving the district forward,” said Wood.
“She’s spent a lot of time here already, just looking at the district. She and Dr. (Jason) Gomez have spent a lot of time together touring the district and viewing the district. But she’s also spent a lot of time looking at the makeup of the district.”
Warnock’s strong suit is instructional leadership, according to Wood.
“I know she’s already looked through the data that is online from TEA, and I know she’s going to have a game plan on what she sees needs to take place to move the district forward.
“I’m just really excited about her,” Wood continued. “I think she’s going to bring a good spirit and good leadership. And again, she’s incredibly smart. Every time I talk to her, it just comes through.”