James Wood, a well-respected force who helped forge New York State United Teachers in its beginnings and brought “infectious happiness” to the workplace, family and friends, passed away on June 28. A former sixth-grade teacher in Rome, he stood for all things union.
A founding member of the NYSUT Board in 1973, Wood joined the NYSUT staff in 1974 as an intern and left as executive director in 2003, providing steady leadership for a growing union — always with a big heart and great compassion.
“He had a knack for being able to sit back and listen,” said Toni Cortese, a former NYSUT first vice president, AFT officer, and colleague in Rome who worked with Wood for 40 years. “Jimmy had a great deal of insight into how to solve problems, especially as it related to politics of the union or outside. He always figured things out. He was kind, thoughtful, funny and smart.”
When she worked as a social worker in Rome, Cortese said she often brought students in need to him for teaching and guidance.
“I don’t know how many kids he saved along the way. I can’t count them,” said Cortese, a former president of the Rome Teachers Association.
As an RTA officer, he was “an agent for helping teachers have better conditions.”
Last year both he and Cortese were awarded the Samuel Gompers Award by the Central New York Central Labor Council for exemplary support of the labor movement. Wood was also awarded the Medal of Honor from Ellis Island.
As co-founder of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, Wood helped guide an advocacy group of leaders from union and faith communities. He was also president of the New York State Alliance for Retired Americans.
“He was a great trade unionist,” said Tom Hobart, former longtime NYSUT president. “He was instrumental in NYSUT joining the AFL-CIO; he talked to a lot of members about it.”
When Wood’s internship ended, Hobart hired him as his assistant. Over the next 30 years, he became director of field and legal services before becoming executive director and helped the union grow from 200,000 to 600,000 members.
“He just did a great job in organizing our regional offices and training field staff,” said Hobart, who served as president from 1973 to 2005. “He was a great confidante, a great unionist. He supported our team very much. He supported me very much.”
In retirement, Wood spent time golfing in earnest in Rome, Rexford and Ft. Myers, Fla., and enjoying his family. His wife, Linda, is also a former NYSUT employee who directed the travel and conference department.
Wood’s tenure at NYSUT began just after the union was formed in 1972 with the merger of New York State Teachers Association and the United Teachers of New York. NYSUT then affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO.
Tony Bifaro, retired NYSUT assistant to the president, said he was fortunate to have started every day at work with a conversation with Wood, his colleague in the president’s office. Then the two of them met with Hobart, Cortese and Chuck Santelli, director of policy and program development, on a daily basis to talk about goals for the union, policy and member needs.
“We had a great bond with friendship, family and organizational commitment,” said Bifaro. “He was never hesitant to tell us when he thought we were going off the mark. But even if he disagreed — it was on a policy or an organizational basis, never personal.”
In a word, Bifaro said Wood was “joyful.” He said Wood’s “infectious happiness was another contributing factor” to the success of NYSUT and its growth and service to members.
“He was absolutely a part of the backbone of the organization,” he said. “Jim had an uncanny way of identifying members’ needs.”
As director of field and legal services, Wood oversaw direct services for members through NYSUT’s headquarters and regional offices, field representatives, attorneys and administrative staff. Duties included assistance with contract negotations, enforcement of contract provisions, representing teachers, providing strike assistance, organizing new locals and providing leadership training programs to cultivate future NYSUT leaders.
As a reflection of his lifelong commitment to furthering education, the family is asking that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the James Wood Scholarship Fund, administered by the Rome College Foundation, and mailed in care of S. Carvelli, 8275 Northgate Drive, Rome, NY 13440.
Services will be held on Thursday, July 5, with a visitation at Saint Kateri Takakwitha Parish in Niskayuna from 9 to 10:30 a.m., followed by a Mass of Christian burial. Family and friends are welcome.