A Year Without Dr. Woodie Flowers

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.

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Thanks for this. I suppose if we all want to honor Woodie in the best way possible, we can do so by dreaming big, doing good, and treating each other with care.

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I strongly believe that the rest of the “older” FIRST community agrees with you. Gracious professionalism will continue to be promoted. I know my team has given out “WF” stickers for robots. I remember the excitement on my mentors faces when they got to attend the mentor breakfast with Woodie.

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Thank you @Amanda_Morrison for sharing this.

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Lovely. Thank you.

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FIRST, while it will always be just as fun, Will never be the same without Woodie, May his legacy live on forever in FIRST

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Thank you for sharing this! My eyes teared up while reading it. I never met Dr.Flowers in person but you described him in the way I imagined: A kind, hearthwarming, acessible and humble human being.

His legacy lives in everyone that ever steps foot on a FIRST event, it’s a life changing experience. I remember when I was 11 and read about GP for the first time, at the time I didn’t understand the impact that these two words will have in my life (and tbh I am still learning), but a few years down the road and me academic, professional and personal life are built to accommodate GP in very little action. I am who I am today because of Dr.Flowers and his work.

Thanks for sharing @Amanda_Morrison and thank you Dr.Flowers! We will carry your legacy for the next generation of FIRST students!

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Amanda,
Very nice sentiments for those who knew Woodie and those who saw him from afar. Yes Woodie was that kind of guy. He was human and he loved this family of roboteers and above all enjoyed your successes and failures in life. I know he felt he was doing what he could to make our lives better and to reach for what is attainable that we may not event see in ourselves.
Yes it is very hard to believe it has been one year since his passing. I first met him at the Midwest Regional, though not the first. I was merely a fan supporting my son’s team from the stands but I got to know Woodie through his actions and words during that first event. Woodie and I became friends of a sort, by being in the same places often. I didn’t always inspect,(they didn’t allow team members to inspect in those days) but I was volunteering at events. When we would meet, it was on the sidelines while i lent tech support to teams. He would smile when we got a robot working and tell us we were doing a good job. I always felt I was working for him in a way. After I started inspecting and became an LRI, he would often come to me and ask if “we were going to make it”, that is get everyone inspected. He would ask what some of the problems were as he was actively working on robot rules then. However, it was at Midwest Regional when he and I were standing next to one another and watched as a robot was constantly hit and unable to move or defend itself that cemented our friendship. We watched in desperation as the team, unable to do anything, realized their robot was rendered useless and unrepairable. We turned to each other and said, “we can’t let that happen ever again”. Woodie went back home and designed a prototype bumper system. He told me at the 2019 Detroit Champs (our last meeting) that it took only 15 minutes in his shop to come up with the idea. That idea has saved many a robot from utter destruction over the years. He told me on a number of occasions that the idea was working and he was happy it worked so well. I had nothing to do with the design or ultimate inclusion in robot rules but I do agree with Woodie, it does work as intended.
Amanda, thanks for writing such a wonderful tribute and remembrance of Woodie. I am sorry we don’t see each other at events these days. You are also one of my fond robot friends.
Stay safe and stay healthy all.

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Dr. Flowers was a legend among FIRST, but also a hero for many more people. Woodie will never be forgotten, both within, and outside of FIRST. Thank you @Amanda_Morrison for sharing. Stay healthy everyone!

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I miss him so much. I feel like everything’s gotten worse since he’s died. One of the options for common app essays is about how an event helped change the way you view yourself and others, and for me, that event was Woodie’s death. It really changed how I view the world and how I use gracious professionalism in all aspects of my life. I was honored to b e able to attend his celebration of life in person. And that’s an experience I won’t forget. I mentor an FLL team, and I still use talk about that experience to my kids to this day and ask them what would Woodie do in a certain situation.

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Amanda, very well done.
Seldom is a day I do not reflect upon FIRST - specifically Woodie Flowers and how there was an influence at the time and I did not realize it would direct my future. I hope we all understand that we all can have an impact ( not as wide spread as Woodie) on youth and society. Let us all strive to make the impact as positive as possible. “Were all in this together”.

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Great words, Welcome back Mike, CD says you’ve been gone for nearly 2 years!

Woodie at the 2018 NEDCMP

Exploring the pits and commenting on the loss of Mark Leon, whom he soon followed.

I like to imagine a “heaven” where I will get to hang out with souls I shared a common bond with.

A FIRST family would be my favorite .

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Woodie is the one person I never got to actually meet. I know I missed out on a wonderful experience. Woodie was the perfect blend of science and morality.

I think his absence is felt much more acutely in these historic times. The loss of his wisdom and inspiration is gut wrenching in a time when we could use it most. In a time when we are all struggling to rationalize and process the out of control world around us, his leadership and guidance is missed more than ever.

We need to continue to allow him to guide us through the legacy he left behind. So, in memory of Woodie, I promise; I will be kind. I will work hard. I will be gracious. And I will help others strive to do the same.

Thank you Woodie.

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One of my fond memories of Woodie was at the 2012 World Championships at St. Louis.
Our Lead Mentor won the WFFA at the 2011 Boilermaker Regional. I had taken a picture of Woodie presenting the award to Chris Elston. I had the picture printed out as a 8X10 and I was going to have Woodie autograph it for me.
I found Woodie near the FLL pits with a bunch of students. I didn’t have the picture with me at the time. It was in the inspection area near the corridor to the arena. I boogied (walked really fast) to get the picture and than boogied back.
I got the picture signed!!!

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