In 1972, Brown Circuit Court was established, and a 29-year-old man was appointed to serve as its first judge.
Ten months later, David Woods was re-elected to his appointed post, a Brown County outsider in a county where his fellow Republicans were outnumbered 2-to-1 by Democrats.
Now 72, Woods is set to retire as Brown County planning director Tuesday, March 1.
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The son of a working class family — both of his grandfathers worked for Kellogg’s cereal company in Battle Creek — Woods came to Indiana from Michigan around 1963.
As the first in his family to attend college, there was no straight path to the judge’s bench.
His interest in practicing law started in the small town of North Muskegon, where high school teacher and Mayor John Holland taught him government and economics.
Woods started college at the University of Michigan, but followed his parents to Newcastle, Indiana, and took a job at the Chrysler plant alongside his dad.
When he enrolled at Ball State, he kept his 40-hour work week at Chrysler and went on to study law at Indiana University.
Through school, Woods kept working — part time during the school year and picking up extra work during the summers: lifeguarding at Lake Lemon, driving buses at IU, working as circulation manager for a small paper in Bloomington.
After school, Woods became a commissioner for the circuit court which covered Johnson and Brown counties. He was assigned responsibility for Brown County and traveled to Nashville from Franklin to hear cases every Monday and for two weeks out of every quarter.
Brown County also had a town court and a justice of the peace, but when the Indiana General Assembly split the circuit in 1972 and did away with the town court and justice of the peace, then-Governor Edgar Whitcomb appointed Woods as Brown Circuit Court’s first judge.
Alongside Woods, Jim Roberts — who grew up in Brown County — was appointed Brown County prosecutor.After their election wins, Woods, then 29, and Roberts, then 31, made history as the youngest elected judge and prosecutor in the state.They campaigned to retain their offices almost from the day they were appointed, Roberts said. Referred to as a “team” in news stories from the time, Woods and Roberts had a relationship as judge and prosecutor that might seem unusual today.
Roberts recalled an exhaustive stump across Van Buren Township, a Democrat stronghold.
Among his other jobs, Woods had been in a band in high school, which he had to leave to go to college. His bandmates went on to become the group Del Shannon, which recorded the hit song, “Runaway,” Woods said.
There’s an additional detail that makes Roberts chuckle: the Becks Grove Jamboree was not zoned properly to be a music venue.
“So he performed on the illegally zoned stage of the Becks Grove Jamboree in 1972,” Roberts said.
“That’s the irony, that he is now the guy that brings enforcement actions.”
When he retires, Woods will have been the Brown County Planning Commission director for about seven years.He provides reports to the Area Plan Commission board on applications for zoning requests; oversees the day-to-day activities of the planning commission office, such as zoning enforcement; and answers zoning questions from the public.Ora Roberts, the office manager, said she saw an easy-going, patient personality when Woods interviewed for the job.
His manner as planning commission director matches the one he had on the bench, Roberts said.
“Dave always has had — as a judge, as a lawyer, and in his capacity as plan director — has always had what I call a good sense of justice,” Roberts said. “Dave had respect for the defense.”
Given a choice between throwing the book at someone or trying to work with them, Woods said he prefers to avoid conflict.
“I find it to be a little more effective in Brown County,” he said. “I don’t think people in Brown County want to be pushed.”
County Surveyor Dave Hardin sits on the Area Plan Commission. He said he hates to see Woods go. “His role is to present the facts, not sway it one way or the other,” he said. “That’s exactly what he’s done, and he does a good job of that.”
For the people
Judge Woods served on the bench in Brown County for six years. Even though he was not native to this county, he chose to stay here after losing reelection in 1978 to Sam Rosen.“I enjoyed Brown County, and I still do enjoy Brown County,” Woods said. “It probably, monetarily, was not a great decision, but I enjoyed the county, enjoyed the people.”Nancy Woods spent several of her husband’s 16 years in practice running his office. The fact that he did not make a lot of money as a lawyer was not simply about geography, she said.
“If one of his clients needed help and didn’t have money right then, he’d wait for it,” she said. “Sometimes he’d wait and wait and wait and never get it, but that didn’t stop him from helping the client.”
What was Woods’ primary motivation as a lawyer? “Assisting people,” he said with a matter-of-fact shrug. “Just being able to help people that sometimes couldn’t help themselves.”
He admitted some of that motivation may have come from his family background, watching his father start all over in Newcastle after being out of work.
Around 1997, Woods was suspended by the Indiana Bar Association.
He said he is not proud of what happened, though he cannot remember the details aside from that it involved neglect in regard to dealing with a client.
“Kind of blocked it from my mind,” he said.
During the ’90s, the Woodses were also struggling financially. But when Woods’ suspension as a lawyer thrust him into a job doing car financing for Ray Skillman in Bloomington, it wasn’t all bad.
He made nearly twice as much money doing that as he had as a lawyer, he said.
Nancy and David Woods are each other’s third marriage. They’ve stuck together for 34 years.They met around 1970, between their first and second marriages, Nancy said. It was not until they came back together in the late ’70s that they really hit it off.“He had a wonderful personality, and he was very, very handsome,” Nancy recalled.
They have one son from Nancy’s first marriage and six daughters. She remembered fondly the interest David took in her son, such as splurging on a full set of fishing gear for him so he could take him to Canada with fishing buddies.
Her first two children refer to David as “the dad we do things with,” she said.
With both of them retired, the couple is moving to Florida.
They expect to travel summers in their RV, visiting children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren spread from Georgia to Greenwood.
Much of their family is in Indiana, though, and Woods expects to spend the springs and summers in the campgrounds of Brown County.
“He loves this county, he absolutely loves it,” Nancy said.
David Woods’ retirement party will be from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18 in the Salmon Room at the County Office Building, 201 N. Locust Lane.