Sunshine shot through the clouds on Monday evening as hundreds of people gathered to remember a pillar in the Rockbridge High School community.
Students staged an hour-long vigil at Bruins Stadium to honor Mike Woods, the school’s homeschool outreach who was shot and killed Friday. Mourners reflected on his day-to-day impact and the legacy he left behind.
One of the event’s senior organizers, Catherine Cox Littrell, said reading from a letter she said she had prepared with fellow organizer Leilani Lane. “He was someone we could come to and express any feelings we had or any issues we needed to listen to.
“He always listened to us and never ignored us when we were kids. He was one of the most ambitious people we’ve ever met. He stood up for people who were struggling, and he won’t stop until everything is peaceful.”
“He wasn’t just a principal at this school. He was a friend, a listening ear, and a shoulder to weep for everyone who needed one.”
Littrell and Lynn Cox followed on stage a group of speakers including approximately 20 other current students and several former students, as well as members of the Columbia Public Schools Department.
There was a card-writing station for those interested in writing letters to the Woods family.
Woods’ wife, Tina, was recently selected as the next principal of Derby Ridge Elementary School after serving as director of CPS’ Quest Program, which serves students with special needs.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that Woods, 55, was found dead inside a restroom in a rest area along Interstate 24 in eastern Tennessee Friday night.
Authorities have arrested and charged Woods’ son, Micah E. McElmore, 30, of Decatur, Illinois, with felony murder in connection with the shooting and booked McElmorey in Marion County Jail (Teen), where he is currently being held without bond.
It was not possible to obtain more information about the investigation until the time of publication of this news.
Woods was a graduate of Rock Bridge and Columbia College.
One of the former students, Michael Pipes, was Woods’ classmate in 1984. Pipes said he has known “Woody,” which is Woods’ nickname, since seventh grade.
“This here hurts,” Pipes told the audience. “I want everyone to hold their heads up. Mike wanted us to do this. It’s a very sad occasion. We all cried and we all shared our tears. But stay up.”
As the home school liaison, Woods acted as a liaison with parents and the school to ensure that students received “appropriate support to improve their educational experience” and “promote parental involvement in school and community activities,” CPS wrote in an online description of the site.
Woods was responsible for follow-ups regarding attendance, accommodation, and majors and helped students transition between levels of education. He played a pivotal role as sponsor of the Scholars Program of the Multicultural Accomplishment Committee (MAC) in the region.
The purpose of the MAC Scholars program is “to increase the number of historically under-represented students in more rigorous courses, honors courses, and advanced courses in Columbia Public Schools” with the goal of ensuring students are prepared for college and their future careers, outlines the district on its website.
Nakia Dawson and Zevion Howard were among the first current students to speak. Both are MAC scholars who were under Woods’ coordination.
I first met Dawson Woods before last school year when she joined the program.
Dawson said during the vigil that Woods always knew how to light up someone’s day.
“It doesn’t matter if he knows you or not, he’ll still try to put a smile on your face,” Dawson said. “…Mr. Woods was all about helping people; he helped everyone and anyone. But not only that, he wanted to be the best version of himself for us.”
Howard said Woods was like a father to many of the students, including himself, adding that Woods was a “real person.”
“Mr. Woods treated us like we were his children by forming one-on-one relationships,” Howard said. “…He has taught me and others many life lessons and has never failed to make sure that we know we are responsible for our actions. I believe the biggest lesson we have been taught is responsibility, and that lesson will always be with me.”
Carla London, the school district’s chief equity officer, took to the stage with the district’s home school contact team, whom she supervises. London said she last spoke to Woods on Thursday before he left town after the school year.
“When I say I’m broken, it’s no understatement,” London said. “…The Columbia Public Schools Home School Contact Group is a group, but more importantly, we are a family, and we’ve lost a part of our family. So we’re in great pain. But what brings me some relief is looking at this crowd and looking at these students and life that he touched. That was Mike.”
Supervisor Brian Yearwood, who began his role last summer, said his first interaction with Woods came as Yearwood was trying to find his way around the Rock Bridge Building for the first time.
“He stopped what he was doing and really took me where I needed to go,” Yearwood said.
In that moment, Yearwood said, Woods did his best to make someone else feel special.
“Once I see the flow here today, I see this as his work, and his legacy of how he made others feel,” Yearwood said in concluding his remarks. “And I hope we take that as a lesson to push it forward, because as he’s looking at us now, he’s saying, ‘Push forward. Be nice. Do your best.'”
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After the vigil, Cox Lyttrell thought about “quick start day” before her freshman year, when she first performed with the school’s marching band.
Her nerves were building up until she heard what soon became a familiar voice.
“All right band, let’s go!” Woods remembers saying it to motivate the band.
“He was always there for me and my friends,” Cox Littrell said. “It has been a stable existence in Rock Bridge and positive energy to the world. A piece of Rock Bridge is gone and can never be replaced.”
Lynn, an up-and-coming student, described Woods as a huge part of her high school experience, smiling as she talks about seeing him also shop at Walmart, where she works.
Lynn said Woods made every day better, a sentiment echoed by every speaker.
“He was an amazing person, just a beautiful soul,” Lynn said.
Principal Jacob Serna said he wasn’t surprised at least by the high turnout on Monday.
From Woods’ personal interactions to his upbeat morning announcements on the school’s speaker system, he has inspired students and colleagues alike to keep up the pressure.
“The students said it all,” Sirna said. “His gift was making us a little better all the time.”