© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Otis Woodard: Preacher, civil rights activist, advocate for the poor, peace crusader

Otis Woodard
Provided by the family

Otis Woodard said he saw Martin Luther King Jr.’s foot sticking through the second floor railing of the Lorraine Motel moments after King was slain on April 4, 1968. During a 2011 speech, Mr. Woodard recalled being “one of those little guys” who was in Memphis with Dr. King.

“It was such an exciting and scary time,” he said. “I left Memphis to hide.”

With a pregnant wife and three little children, Mr. Woodard soon boarded a Greyhound bus to St. Louis. The family spent its first nights in the basement of a vacant house on Cote Brilliant Avenue. It was a short distance from the corner of Bissell Avenue and Strodtman Place, where he would spend the rest of his life gathering and dispensing food and clothing and offering words of comfort to people in need.

“When this cancer that I have now of old age, or one of the stray bullets from one of those young guys shooting in my neighborhood take me away,” he said in his closing remarks at a Martin Luther King celebration last year, “there’s a lot of work that’s not finished.”

Mr. Woodard died of cancer Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, at his home in his beloved Water Tower Neighborhood. He was 78.

The Real Deal

As long as anyone could remember, Mr. Woodard, director of Lutheran North St. Louis Outreach, was always brilliantly arrayed in what he called his “uniform to serve the Lord.” He wore a torrent of necklaces that added drama to his seemingly unlimited supply of dashikis and festive tunics.

Otis Woodard
Credit Provided by the family
Otis Woodard

“The first time I interviewed him, he’s got all these beads on, (I said) ‘What is this guy’s deal?’” said former Channel 5 reporter Mike Owens. “He was the real deal.

“He didn’t have a whole lot, but whatever he had, he shared with people he knew were much less fortunate than he was,” Owens said.

Mr. Woodard never forgot what it was like to look for dinner in garbage cans.

“One day, at rock bottom, I made a vow to God,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. “’Dear Lord,’ I said, `if You'll just help me get to the point where I can feed my own family again, I promise I'll help other hungry folks eat, too.”

When he found a job as a janitor at Concordia Seminary, he immediately began fulfilling his promise.

He asked others to help and they did. School children and their teachers, college students, Christians and Jews, the well-to-do and working people all stopped by Mr. Woodard’s home and mission on Strodtman Place, bringing food, clothing and toiletries.

“Every waking hour he was trying to be a giving person and a father figure to all those around him,” said his friend of more than 30 years, Roy St. John.

Over the years, Mr. Woodard also led the “Fathers to Strangers” program, opened homes for teen mothers and provided job training programs.

The Music Man

He and St. John, a native Englishman, bonded over music. For more than 15 years, the two co-hosted ’50s pop music shows on WEW and KDHX Radio. Mr. Woodard favored Joni James. Away from the station, gospel was his love.

Both had their own bands and they often overlapped. Mr. Woodard led the Otis Band; St. John, a singer and songwriter, is the leader of Rocky & the Wranglers. St. John often wrote skits, The Adventures of the Big O, for their radio show. Of course, Mr. Woodard was the Big O; St. John played ‘Watkins.’

Mr. Woodard sang in a soothing bass and played numerous instruments, but he had an all-time favorite.

Mr. Woodard with his ukulele and St. Stanislaus
Credit Provided by St. Stanislaus parish
Mr. Woodard with his ukulele and St. Stanislaus

“(He said) when he was little, all he wanted was a ukulele,” said his youngest daughter who lives in St. Louis and is also named Otis Woodard. His mother bought him his first one when he was 10.

From the time he was 10 years old, he could drive. As the oldest of six children, it was also the age he began working to help support the family. He swept porches and did whatever work a child in the segregated south was permitted to do.

No Fear

After working at Concordia for a while, he took courses there to help him spread the gospel that he said fueled his giving. He also believed his faith protected him.

As poverty, crime and decay steadily nipped at his neighborhood, Mr. Woodard remained, helping to quell violence while protecting the rights of the people who lived there.

In 1996, a gunman boarded a school bus and fatally shot a 15-year-old girl who was six months pregnant; the bus driver was slightly wounded. Two other young women on the bus were unharmed.

Mr. Woodard turned a vacant lot into Peace Park.
Credit Provided by Kat Wheeling
Mr. Woodard turned a vacant lot into Peace Park.

Police appeared to be randomly questioning black males of disparate appearance and a wide age range. Mr. Woodard publicly admonished them to focus their investigation on the descriptions provided by witnesses.

A 23-year-old man was later arrested and convicted, after a 17-year-old had been initially detained.

“Otis was connected to that neighborhood and he was fearless,” said Owens, “and nothing ever happened to him.”

‘God Bless the Child’

Otis David Woodard Jr. was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 9, 1936, the son of Otis Woodard Sr. and Dorothy Mae Woodard.

Although he left school for a time to work, he graduated at age 15. He had two graduation ceremonies: one at Ullman High School in Birmingham and one in the Marine Corps, where he met his first wife, Rosa, during a tour of duty in Panama.

After seven years in the Marines, he returned to Birmingham and became a detective. He joined the Council of Federated Organizations and began working with students active in the civil rights movement. While working with King, he served as a field secretary for the Congress on Racial Equality.

Mr. Woodard continued his activism when he arrived in St. Louis. Hollywood came calling after he became a well- known local crusader. In a 1988 made-for-TV movie, God Bless the Child, Dorian Harewood’s role paid him homage.

''My character was inspired by a real outreach worker, Otis Woodard St. Louis,'' Harewood told the Associated Press. ''He's a very special guy who's done a lot for the homeless.''

Mr. Woodard received KSDK Channel 5’s Jefferson Award and a community service award from the Mound City Bar Association and Mound City Bench and Bar.

Mr. Woodard was preceded in death by his parents, a brother, James Woodard, and his second wife, Gladys, who came to St. Louis with him and helped establish his outreach mission. He was married five times and had 26 children.

“From the moment we were born, our father raised us to take over the Outreach,” said his daughter. “The older kids were there when it was just a small table in my dad’s yard.”

In addition to his daughter, Otis, other survivors include his former wife Debbie Elven Woodard of St. Louis, 21 sons, who all have the first name Otis, four other daughters, Regina Whitfield, Bridgette Dunning, Mamita Woodard and Pinkie Woodard; and 62 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren. He is also survived by four siblings, Dorothy Jean Kirsey, Mamie W. (David) Tate, Marshall Woodard and Anne Woodard, all of Birmingham, Ala.

His services are being planned to take place at Peace Park, the vacant lot near his home that he reclaimed as a neighborhood oasis.

Mr. Woodard’s body was donated to Washington University School of Medicine, where he was part of a research study that his daughter credits with prolonging his life. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer about 15 years ago, he was given approximately two years to live.

Memorials would be appreciated to Lutheran North St. Louis Outreach, 4432A Strodtman Pl., St. Louis, Mo. 63107 (314-652-7383).

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.