It seems incredible and impossible to write this, but it has been a year since Dr. Woodie Flowers has passed. Though I haven’t been an active CD member in a while, I realize there are new FIRSTers who may not fully realize the legacy and impact that Woodie had and I post this as a small example. Dr. Flowers is the founder of modern competitive and educational robotics as we know it. His concepts were not widely known until the early 1990s, when Woodie and Dean’s co-founding of the FIRST competition, MIT’s international robotics competitions for their students, and Marc Thorpe’s 1992 concepts for Robot Wars/Battlebots became more mainstream. Dr. Flowers’ 1974 wildly successful revision to the 2.70 MIT curriculum was the introduction to modern robotics competitions as we know them. He was also a TV host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, where he didn’t sell any vowels…
Like many others of my FIRST generation, I have my own stories with Dr. Flowers. I learned about his eclectic interests - photography, traveling, skydiving, painting, even a stint as a trapeze artist (which I learned after I once challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest and lost miserably). FIRST was just one stop on his fantastical life journey, and yet he always made himself available to the community. He had countless students sign his shirts each year, posed for hundreds of pictures, and waited patiently with a line of students waiting to meet him. I can’t imagine how he treated those close to him or that worked with him frequently. How special they must have felt!
It was those moments that always filled my spirit and made me realize why I idolized him as a teenager on an FRC team. His laughter was genuine. His words were kind, deliberate, and measured. His admiration of his wife Margaret and their life and adventures together were adorable, especially his anticipation of their next travel plans together. His joy was practically palpable.
But let’s be clear here. He owed me none of those moments. In fact, I told him that I used to joke that my team’s acts of misbehavior were some “Woodie Flowers [stuff] right there”, sarcastically. It was my way of acknowledging his perceived superhumanity - I couldn’t imagine him being as human as we were. He simply seemed so much better of a human than the rest of us – the notion of his humanity didn’t seem possible at the same level as I lived my life and those that surrounded me. I couldn’t ever measure up to his ideals, his actions, his words. In return, I received a chuckle and a short lecture that a good mentor is genuine to their students because associating with them on a personal level is important to their development. I was also admonished that I would absolutely be greater than his perceived caliber if only believed that I could, that I was my own limiting factor in a world that deserved the best of me. It’s stuck with me for the better part of three years since that conversation that Dr. Flowers would take my using his name in vain as a lesson in the importance of valuing and believing in myself the way that I should.
The next day, I asked him if he’d ever consider writing an autobiography or if he’d ever allow someone to write his biography. In just a few humble words, he said that there wouldn’t be much to write about and instead gave me book recommendations that he felt he had learned from and were more worthy of my time. When I mailed him a trophy alongside a letter thanking him for his contributions both to modern competitive robotics and personally to my life, he sent me a note to tell me that my letter meant more to him than the trophy. Thus was the dichotomy I learned to expect from him and has taught me a lot: that each of us are a wonderful, amazing, incredible person that is capable of so very much – but to himself, he was simply plain old Dr. Flowers.
Woodie had the gift of making us believe that maybe we could be good people if only we, too, believed that we could be. His words in this sense were always thought-provoking, course-correcting, life-changing moments. He taught us to beware false idols, to think critically, to value rhetoric and discourse in our everyday lives, and to appreciate those around us. Dr. Flowers wanted us to be kind, compassionate, educated, brilliant, innovative people. And because of his work and his career, his messages, and his mission, many FIRSTers, MIT students, and others indeed became kind, compassionate, educated, brilliant, innovative people.
Time is fleeting and our time on this planet is short. It has taken me a year to process his passing, and really, I’m still processing. The world seems so much different and darker without him as a guiding light. Yet we still have winners of the Woodie Flowers Award that are such incredible presences in the community, people that I look up to just as I looked at Dr. Flowers. I ask that we continue to keep gracious professionalism and valued mentorship at the forefront of the FIRST community through major participation in Woodie Flowers Award submissions, but also through thoughts, memories, stories, and above all, in our own graciousness to others. It is the least we can do on behalf of someone who gave so very, very much to us, and I encourage you to share your own stories to keep his legacy alive.
And thank you, @Andy_Baker, for this gift over 15 years ago. May it serve us all well.