The Funds, the Firefighter and the Feathers
Community rallies to aid widow of longtime public servant
By Charlie Morrison
Nearly two years have come and gone since former James Island Fire Department Battalion Chief-turned-James Island Public Service District (JIPSD) Commissioner Gene Woodall passed away of lung cancer. However, the longtime public servant is not long forgotten here on James Island, as evidenced by the size of the crowd that turned out for a March 2 fundraiser in his name at O’Brion’s Pub & Grill. The three-hour fundraiser hosted by O’brion’s, Guinness brand beer, and its S.C. distributing arm Lee Distributors raised nearly $3,000 for the Gene Woodall Fund, set up to assist his wife of 38 years Diane, in what has proven to be an unforeseen period of financial turbulence.
The “Guinness Gives Back” event held on March 2 to benefit the Gene Woodall Fund was the idea of Lee Distributors Senior Sales Manager Tim McElwee, a longtime family friend of the Woodalls. As the local distributor of Guinness, Lee Distributors targeted the Gene Woodall Fund as one of eight recipients around the Lowcountry of funds generated during eight respective “Guinness Gives Back” fundraising events in which funds are raised and donated to families of local firefighters.
The nearly $3,000 raised at the event initiated by family friend McElwee went directly to Mrs. Gene Woodall, who was admittedly “overwhelmed” by the continued support of the community on display at the event.”
“I didn’t ask for this fundraiser,” says Woodall of the event held in her late husband’s name. “I did not know about this until two weeks prior and at first I had a really hard time with it because I know I’m not hungry and I’m not homeless,” says Diane. Woodall.
Guinness – Diagio U.S.A.’s South Carolina distribution manager Jennifer Stewart served as the master of ceremonies for the fundraiser, selling raffle tickets and soliciting donations from the dozens of firefighters, friends, and family, who packed the interior and patio of O’Brion’s for much longer than the allotted three hours.
As for the man himself, Gene Woodall lived a prolific life of public service. Following 38 dedicated years at the James Island Fire Department, a career in which Woodall rose to the rank of Battalion Chief before he finally retired in 1997.
Following his retirement from the JIFD, Woodall chose to serve in a different way, as a Commissioner for the body that oversees James Island’s Fire Departments, the JIPSD.
Woodall won a hotly contested race for a seat on the body, after which Woodall set to his task of working for James Island’s firefighters from the other side of the desk, so to speak. “I never saw him as a politician, and there was, not trouble in the Fire Department, but I think he thought he could help the guys,” says Diane Woodall of her husband’s political career. “It was a way of him staying connected and looking out for them, he was like a father figure, and he cared.”
Following his diagnosis of lung cancer, however, everything changed for the Woodalls. In concurrence with both her husband’s then-worsening illness and the crash of the market in 2010, Diane quit working as a real estate agent. It was the first of what would be a series of events that created financial instability following Gene’s death in June of 2011.
The bills piled up and she began digging in to her diminishing savings to pay them, at which point her family stepped in. Family friend McElwee, abreast of Diane’s increasingly difficult financial situation, took matters into his own hands. Unbeknownst to her, he founded the Gene Woodall Fund, paving the way for the “Guinness Gives Back” event.
And while the loss of her husband at the premature age of 58 was hard for Diane to endure, she feels Gene is still ever present in her life. Four or five months before he died, Diane remembers, she had told Gene that ‘if you die you’d better send me something so I know that you’re OK.’
Following his death, while sitting on the very front porch where’d she’d instructed her husband to keep in touch, she got her message.
“I said to myself, ‘damn, I miss Gene.’” Just after uttering the words, a solitary white feather floated down and landed in front of her. Though a friend had suggested the feather was ‘a love letter from Gene,’ Woodall remained unconvinced.
All that changed the following day, when a second feather floated down to her feet. “Seeing the second (feather), I couldn’t breathe,” says Diane. Woodall, then becoming convinced the feathers were Gene’s work.
Since those first two feathers fell to her feet, Woodall reports that family members from as far away as Woodall home state of Alabama also experiencing this phenomenon, with family members finding feathers in the most unlikely of places such as one found inside a closed gas compartment.
Altogether, extended Woodall family has found dozens and dozens of feathers, of all shapes and sizes, feathers that have literally dropped down into their lives from above, often with nary a bird in sight.
And while it requires some measure of faith to attribute the feathers to the watchful hand of her late husband, their appearance has brought solace to the entire family, particularly Diane. “I do feel like it is a sign … I just took it as a sign that he was OK.”
Editor’s Note: In sitting down at a patio table for my interview with Diane Woodall at the March 2 “Guinness Gives Back” event at O’Brion’s, something caught my eye. Caught in the ironworks of the table where we’d sat down to talk, fluttering with a passing breeze, was a feather. — Charlie Morrison
© 2013 Wiser Time Publishing, Inc.