Legends: Emily Wood
Educator, writer and passionate political supporter
For her tireless dedication to education, Emily Wood was recognized with the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in 1990. Here she is holding a photo from the last exchange she went on with Eisenhower Elementary. Her grandson was a student on the trip.
Not many educators can say they’ve retired from teaching twice, but after 50 years in the classroom, Tulsa transplant Emily Wood is not your average teacher.
Her career began in New York, but when her husband’s job with Cities Service Corp. led the family to Oklahoma, it didn’t take long for Wood to become engrained in Tulsa’s education system. Although she claims she fell into the teaching profession, Wood, who turns 94 this month, was destined to serve children across the city.
Wood was named Tulsa Teacher of the Year in 1988 and received the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Teaching and Administration, Elementary Teaching in 1990. In 1999, she was honored as the National Social Studies Teacher of the Year while teaching at Tulsa’s Mizel Jewish Community Day School.
Some of her favorite sites to teach in the Tulsa Public School system were Whitman and Gilcrease Elementary Schools. At Whitman, Wood says principal Dorothy DeWitty taught her the most. “She was a dynamo as far as integrating Tulsa and she later became a city councilor,” Wood says.
Wood and her husband, Phil, had four children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. When he died in 2013, Wood remained active on Tulsa’s education scene and as a political advocate for the local Democratic Party.
Much of her energy goes into her work on the board of Chamber Music Tulsa and she is an avid supporter of Tulsa Global Alliance. The Woods frequently traveled abroad as chaperones for student exchange trips. She reminisces, “In those days, you had great freedom to develop the curriculum to connect with children. I still hear from all their parents and from many of the students.”
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I received a B.A. in government and international relations from Smith College in 1946. Later, I went back to school and received a master’s degree from Manhattanville College when we lived in New York. My teaching career began in New York. When we moved to Oklahoma, I was about 50. I went to the University of Tulsa and took 30 hours to become certified in learning disabilities and gifted education.
When Oklahoma H.B. 1017, the Education Reform Act of 1990, went into effect, I was working at an elementary school, but I didn’t have the elementary certificate. My certificate from New York had been in social studies. I went back to school and took classes at Langston University to receive certification in elementary education even though I was the Tulsa Teacher of the Year at that time and also a state semifinalist. I taught at TPS for 18 years and retired when I was 72. I rejoined TPS for another seven years and retired again in 1989. Later, I also taught at the Mizel Jewish Community Day School (then called Heritage Academy) for eight years (between her stints at TPS).
Did you ever dream life would lead you to Oklahoma?
I saw the musical “Oklahoma” when I was 17 and thought it was very amusing, but it did not cross my mind, no. I had trepidations about moving here because I didn’t know about Oklahoma, but it has been the most wonderful thing that could’ve ever happened to me.
What do you love most about teaching?
The rush of having someone catch on and learn (when teaching students with learning disabilities). But then I taught gifted education and was able to do projects that I got very excited about. I was the lead teacher at Eisenhower International School and founded the exchanges there, continuing the Culture Box Program that I’d initiated. I enjoyed facilitating interactive projects and hands-on activities for the children. When Phil later became the Tulsa city auditor, my schoolchildren were allowed to go down in city hall’s councilor seats and have mock council meetings. The gifted ones wrote many mock trials. Accompanying students on international travel was also very exciting.
Since you’re not a lifelong Oklahoma resident, what was your childhood like in New Jersey?
I recently wrote a book about my father for our family reunion, which reminded me of what a peaceful childhood I had — both rural and urban. We lived on land that had been in my mother’s family for seven generations. My father commuted to New York. I went to the same school for 12 years. I was very blessed. My brother and sister are still alive. We don’t see each other very often but when we do, we giggle. I’m the oldest at 94. My mother lived to be two days short of 103.
What was one of your most defining moments in life?
When I met my husband. That was absolutely it. We went to different high schools, but we were from the same area.
Your husband, Phil, was a World War II veteran and a longtime Tulsa city auditor. Tell me more about the special marriage you two shared.
When I talk about myself, I couldn’t have done any of this without my husband. We were married for 67 years, and we brought out the best in each other and helped each other. He went to all of these social studies education events I held. I went to his work functions. I think it was a partnership. Phil was involved in the Tulsa Global Alliance with me. It was all very synergistic.
What age do you feel right now and why?
Talking to you, I feel very young. I feel younger than 94.
How would your friends describe you?
I’m more task-oriented and family-oriented than friend-oriented, but I have lots of wonderful lifelong friends, too. Right now, I’m trying to focus on my family. I have a friend back east who I talk to, and we laugh. Our husbands got along very well, we got along very well as couples, and I kept all of those friends after Phil’s death.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I wrote this book (“It Was Magic,” available on Amazon). The book was strictly to make myself feel better after Phil died. It was my therapy. Writing is good therapy. I may still do some more. Writing is a way to deal when you get to some bad points in your life. The book I wrote for my family reunion has led me into a lot of discoveries. You start finding hundreds of connections when you write. Doing research for my family book has personalized my historical reading.
If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?
Winning the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence award in 1990 was a special ceremony and gave me great confidence. I got to meet Sen. David Boren. That enhanced my teaching. I also wouldn’t mind revisiting Utsunomiya, Japan, one of Tulsa’s sister cities. (I and my youngest son) made that trip in 1983 or 84.
How has your philosophy on life changed over time?
I’m becoming more spiritual. Since Phil died, I certainly want to see him again. I’m more of a believer than I was before.
What concerns you today?
The lack of civility and polarization of the political parties. People used to disagree, but now there’s such polarization not just by the president, but also by the people that believe him.
How do you measure success?
You look at your whole life to answer that kind of question. If you can manage to be grateful, kind and positive, that’s what makes you successful. I work on that every day. Those are my goals.
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
We lived in midtown, and I remember all of the family dinners we had and the kids swimming in our pool. Phil and I loved spending time together whether it was having a drink at a happy hour in town, cycling to Sand Springs or holding hands at concerts.
Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.
My Phil always brought me coffee in the morning. We’d walk to a restaurant nearby named Phill’s Diner and then we’d walk home, and we’d enjoy reading the newspaper.
What place in Tulsa do you miss the most?
We used to take Warren, our youngest, to the Forum at Williams Center. There was an ice skating rink there.
What have been the most significant changes you have experienced in Tulsa?
Gathering Place is definitely a good change. The bad change is what’s happened with Tulsa Public Schools. They are not what they used to be. When we moved to Tulsa, our other children were grown up, but Warren was still in school. We would never have moved to Tulsa if the Tulsa Public Schools hadn’t been good. He got a wonderful education at Eliot, Carver and Booker T. Washington. I believe in a hands-on teaching approach, where teachers are allowed freedom with the curriculum. That’s why I worked for the Democratic Party this past election to elect teacher-friendly people.