Union High School social studies teacher Tom Hayes was preparing to teach his first-period class the morning of March 20, 1998, when the phone in his classroom rang.
A reporter was on the line, wanting Hayes’ reaction to the news that Mike Wood, then the principal of Union Elementary School and a former UHS English teacher, had been named Union School District’s next superintendent.
Hayes gave an instant, heartfelt response.
“This is the best of all possible news as far as the people around here are concerned,” Hayes had said, explaining that Wood was greatly respected for his knowledge and people skills.
Fast forward two decades to Saturday, Oct. 6. Hayes, now retired, and many other faculty and staff he alluded to in 1998, were among about 60 people who attended a ceremony saluting Wood. An oak tree recently planted in the front lawn of UHS was dedicated in honor of Wood, who served as an educator in the Union School District from 1984 until he retired in 2011.
“This oak tree is a good choice to symbolize Mike’s service,” said UHS English and writing teacher Vivian Matthews in opening remarks at the dedication. “The mighty oak is a symbol of strength, resistance and knowledge. Mike has been strong in his convictions, resisting opposition to build a place of knowledge.”
Matthews, who served as a student teacher under Wood in the spring of 1988, helped organize Saturday’s dedication.
“Mike, you have had far-reaching effects on many people,” she told him. “Your influence continues even in your retirement. This tree remains on campus to remind anyone who visits the Union School District of your influence.”
The tree is one of several that have been planted in honor of Union School District faculty and staff in recent years. Matthews said in the case of each of these employees the word “tree” serves as an acronym for “To Remember an Exemplary Employee.”
Union School District Superintendent Carter Wells said Wood’s leadership was instrumental in saving the school district during a time of financial difficulty.
“We might not be standing here today (as a school district) if it were not for Mike,” said Wells.
Wells described Wood as the smartest and brightest person he’s worked with, one who has an intuitive understanding of “school culture (and) the nuances of a school district.”
Wood served as a mentor for Wells when Wells became superintendent.
“He’s probably the first person I’ll call (for advice),” Wells said.
Hayes credited Wood with creating a family-like atmosphere in the school district.
“(Faculty and staff) were his friends, and he was our friend,” Hayes said. “He has always been a good guy.”
Jerry Mayes, who was a science teacher at Union High School when Wood taught English there and an assistant football coach for him while he was the UHS head football coach, echoed Hayes’ remark.
“It was just like we were a family,” said Mayes, who later joined the La Grande School District and is now retired.
Mayes also said he was impressed with how responsive Wood was to those on his staff when they presented ideas to him. He also was struck by his commitment to helping students succeed.
See more in Monday's edition of The Observer.