Table of Contents


Robert Winship Woodruff (1899- )
A Cheerful Giver

The Book of Proverbs might include, "Blessed is the land where there is a rich man with an open hand and a closed mouth." Such a man would be Robert Winship Woodruff, Coca-Cola Magnate, business genius and philanthropist par excellence.

Many in the South are aware of Mr. Woodruff as one of its richest men, but few are aware of his philanthropy. This is because Mr. Woodruff many years ago adopted as his guiding Bible verse Matthew 6:2--"Therefore when thou doest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee."

Mr. Woodruff has preferred to be anonymous in his giving. The notice of many of his gifts in the newspapers has read simply, "given by an anonymous donor." In Atlanta he has been known as "Mr. Anonymous".

But people will talk. It has proved difficult to be so generous and remain unthanked. Mr. Woodruff has been brought into the spotlight in spite of himself, by those who wish to use him as an example of Matthew 5:16--"Let your light so shine before men.

Mr. Woodruff is by technical church membership a Presbyterian, but in the larger sense he has been a Christian in sympathy with the good in many churches and causes. He has given generously to all types of charities.

Typical of Mr. Woodruff is an attempt to be modest and to say that he sees good deeds as "good business". This is one of Mr. Woodruff's more endearing traits, a brave attempt at non-sentimentality to hide a good heart, a real compassion for suffering, a genuinely touching response to human misery. Back in the depressed 30's, Mr. Woodruff saw a field hand suffering from malaria on his farm in South Georgia. He had quinine brought in for the entire county and adjoining ones. Next came a malaria clinic for the district.

The closest Mr. Woodruff will come to admitting he has what Shakespeare eulogized in Henry V as a "good heart," is to confess, "I'm sort of a do gooder anyhow."

Considered the richest man in the non-Texas South by Fortune magazine, Robert Winship Woodruff, Atlanta, retired Chairman of the Board of the Coca-Cola Company, was born the day Jefferson Davis died. 

The Woodruffs were originally from Connecticut. His mother's ansestor, Edward Winship, migrated to Massachusetts in 1634. Both these families were established in the south by the time of the Confederacy, and Winship Machine Company made guns for the Southern army. The Winship house was destroyed in Sherman's burning of Atlanta.

Ernest Woodruff, the father of Robert, was a successful Atlanta millionaire. Robert was the oldest by nearly four years of four boys. His father was a businessman of vision. He was wise enough to discuss business before his boys and with them, arousing their interests and teaching them indirectly.

Ernest was a man of conviction. He felt that ownership of wealth carried with it a degree of responsibility to see that these resources were properly used. Mr. Robert Woodruff has refined this attitude to a much greater extent. When one of his businesses bought land said to have a house of ill fame on it, Ernest Woodruff closed it and sat, the story goes, on the veranda holding a shotgun to keep the old clientele away.

Mrs. Ernest Woodruff was a highly sensitive and intelligent Southern gentlewoman in a grand tradition. She often had Robert talk to her, and she let him in place of her maid use the silver brush on her long hair, valued in those days, as they talked. She wished her boys to be gentle. As a hobby, she collected Bibles.

It was fortunate Robert learned at home from both parents. Robert was not formally academic and was largely uninterested in what college had to offer. He went to Emory University for a few months, and then stopped. It was perhaps the best. He went straight into business. It was later to be commented upon that the richest man in the South was without the benefit of college. If money wasn't everything, college wasn't either.

In 1919 Ernest Woodruff held options to buy the stock of Coca-Cola from Asa Candler. Ernest Woodruff arranged through a bank of monumental integrity, the Trust Company of Georgia, to have a syndicate of which he was a part purchase the Coca-Cola Company.

What Ernest Woodruff's business syndicate paid in 1919 to Asa Candler for Coca-Cola was $25,000,000. Asa Candler had bought the secret formula from Dr. John S. Pemberton in 1890 for $2,300. Mr. Candler completed the acquisition of the formula and physical assets of Coca-Coal in 1891. This growth of Coca-Cola had been primarily due to salesmanship.

However, no one was to see top salesmanship at work until Robert Woodruff became president of the Coca-Cola Company at age 33 in 1923. At that time Coca-Cola stock had suffered a post buying slump. A share of stock in the 1919 flush of victory sold for as much as $40 per share and dropped later to as low as $18 per share. When Robert Woodruff took over, its stock was valued at around $12,000,000. The current value of the company's stock is $4.8 billion (60 million shares at a market value of $80 a share).

Robert Woodruff built on the financial foundation of his father, Ernest Woodruff, but it was not a give-away. Robert Woodruff took a decrease in salary to become President of Coca-Cola. He gave up the office of Vice President and General Sales Manager of higher paying White Motor Company for Coca-Cola, because he felt it had a better future. He had early exhibited a flair for intuitive and sound business judgment.

Yet it was as a salesman he excelled. He was similar to a later day Walt Disney in insisting on a moral image and wholesome advertising. Poor taste was not allowed.
The ghost of Mr. Ernest Woodruff, the Presbyterian who sat on the veranda defending respectability with a gun, could be seen in the parenthesis when it appeared desirable to identify the family's Continental Gin (Machinery) Company. Otherwise it might give the wrong idea. The company featured only the product "Coca-Cola" when Mr. Robert Woodruff took over. He moved it over the years to a giant, turning out hundreds of things.

Woodruff was the boss. Some had to learn this the hard way. But he also was one to use the psychological method of non-directive therapy in his problem counseling. He created an atmosphere to talk, listened to the troubled talk themselves into their solutions, never himself saying much, then congratulated them on their perspicacity as he ushered them out. As they left, they thought what a great problem solver he was. It was always good to talk to Mr. Woodruff.

It was no wonder that he was a great salesman. He understood a great deal about human nature. He also had to be a literal catalogue of business traits to boss a multi-billion dollar company. Whether Mr. Woodruff was aware of the formal names of his wisdom does not matter. Practical genius does not have a scientific name.

Robert married Nell Hodgsdon, a Georgia belle. They were to be married fifty-five years. She married him when he was comparatively unknown, and they were to experience great successes together.

Nell Woodruff was an accomplished voice student. She sang on many private occasions and for a while in a church choir. She had also studied nursing, a lady of some compassion, and today the Emory University School of Nursing is named for her. She was also the hostess in four houses (New York, the Wyoming ranch, the plantation in South Georgia, as well as Atlanta) for different seasons of the year. There was business entertainment , as well as the fact they led an impressive social life.

They had no children so they served instead as the foster parents, god parents and doting aunt and uncle in the Old Southern style to a large family of nieces and nephews. Cousins in the Southern fashion were everywhere. A sampler at their 30,000 acre Georgia plantation, Ichauway, said it all. On a cushion was embroidered: "Happiness is a rich uncle."

He was also a rich uncle to some colleges, many charities, the state of Georgia, and the city of Atlanta. His gifts to many causes were never heard of, because he insisted on anonymous giving when possible. He was also to investigate carefully the causes to which he gave. He has always shunned the limelight, done things in secret, and the struggle has been to get him in the limelight, not get him out of it.

Mr. Woodruff had enough money to be "society". But when a man is married to the same wife for fifty-five years, never made a fool of himself in public, worked untiringly for the community, never liked to appear to be praised, did his good deeds anonymously and with half a billion dollars in his control, never did jet set things, that is not society but far more. That is aristocracy. For the difference separating society and aristocracy is one of moral emphasis.

Woodruff can best be understood as one who was trained in the old Southern aristocracy. For contrary to Gone With the Wind, they were a serious and responsible elite. In the plantation dining room where traditional foods of the South are served, there is a sense of continuity with the Old South. Some of the antiques in the dining room were saved dramatically from the Winship house in Atlanta as it went up in flames during the Battle of Atlanta.

On the desk of Mr. Woodruff are pictures of family. On it also is a Bible that was his mother's. He uses it. Mr. Woodruff's father and mother were members of First Church, Atlanta.

He is really the product of two great spiritual traditions. Growing up, Mr. Woodruff attended the Methodist Sunday School taught by Asa Candler, Coca-Cola magnate. He remembers the spiritual training he received there, and he says he was "raised" a Methodist. Today in the tradition of his parents, he is a member of First Presbyterian in Atlanta. He had been a member of other Presbyterian congregations, but there seems to have been a split off movement in one. He is back at First Church now. Historic First is a brick church next door to the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center.

Mr. Woodruff is one of the numberless businessmen who have not attended services regularly, but he has a strong Christian motivation. Very often he has brought the church to himself. Over the years minister friends have sent their sermons to him. He has been fond of clergymen of many faiths.

If Woodruff has not been a great Sunday church goer, that is secondary perhaps. As Winston Churchill remarked of himself, he was a buttress on the outside, rather than a pillar inside. The same may be said of Mr. Woodruff.

However, Robert Woodruff's influence in the community has been his greatest gift to the Christian community. He used his judgment, his vision, and his business sanity in working for the advancement of Atlanta and Georgia in what was a critical period for them both.

He was aided by two Presbyterian stalwarts, Ivan Allen, Jr., then Atlanta's mayor (an elder in First Church) and John Adams Sibley, (trustee of Trinity Church) the chairman of the State Commission that recommended Georgia not abolish its school system but integrate it. The Sibleys of Georgia, of Puritan-Huguenot lineage, descended from the Rev. Pierre Robert, said to be the first Huguenot minister to arrive in South Carolina 1686, have a history of Presbyterian Church work. Mrs. Josiah Sibley of Augusta, Georgia, in 1884 was one of those who first organized the Women of the Church on a national basis.

School desegregation touched off an explosive era in Atlanta. It was largely a question of whether law, order and peaceful government might continue. Whatever individual feelings on the "race problem" might have been, it was continuity or chaos.

The circumstances could be compared to political surfing. Woodruff, Sibley, and Allen rode over waves of passionate emotionalism. They carried peace, prosperity, and the future of the public schools. On their ability to balance depended the educational future of generations.

It was a time when many good people turned away. These men did not. All in addition to considerable wealth, family, and wisdom, had old fashioned Presbyterian consciences. They were involved and held to a vision of the community as it should be rather than succumbing to the emotionalism around them. Others of many denominations shared their visions of a better community.

Mr. Woodruff worked hard for better understanding and progress. His telephone calls were famous in the area. He never ordered. He suggested. He pointed out politely. He had considerable world vision. "Besides", reflected an Atlanta business leader later, "when a man who has built a billion dollar business talks of the good, the true, and the practical, you listen."

The most far reaching decision was probably that of the Sibley Commission that recommended keeping the schools open. The most difficult moment was undoubtedly the tragic assassination and funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was characteristic of Mr. Woodruff that he was on the telephone early the next morning to Mayor Allen, talking it over and discussing the fact the world would have its eye on Atlanta as well as the funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

It would be wrong to assume, however, the Presbyterian influence in Atlanta is solely that of a white elite. In 1975 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Church, Ebenezer Baptist, needed a minister to replace Dr. King, Senior, father of the martyred leader who wished to retire, a black Presbyterian minister, Dr. Joseph L. Roberts, Jr., was named to fill the pulpit. Dr. King, Pere, whose son and wife were both tragically shot, still is the Minister Emeritus.

Dr. Roberts was then Director of Social Missions for the Presbyterian Church U.S. He accepted the pulpit, was plunged beneath the water in a rebaptism and emerged a Baptist. Dr. Roberts was quoted as saying the task before them was to keep alive the "dream" of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1974 a black Presbyterian minister from Atlanta, Dr. Lawrence Bottoms, was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.,X then meeting at Louisville, Kentucky.

A black lady of the South with interesting Presbyterian affiliations was Mary McLeod Bethune. She studied to be a missionary under the auspices of a Presbyterian Board in Chicago. In one of the Board's more intelligent decisions it refused her as a missionary to the heathen in Africa, a fact she was never bitter about. It enabled her to stay and do missionary work among the unenlightened in America.

Mrs. Bethune was under the influence of Presbyterian ideas. She felt herself chosen to help black people advance. She remarked that she believed in God, then in a remarkable grasp of Presbyterian logic concluded, "therefore I believe in Mary Bethune."

In regard to the very rich, such as Mr. Woodruff, talk is often excessively admiring or excessively depreciating. People are either at their throat or their feet. The profiles that result are sometimes warped.

A flair for making money does not guarantee anything but a flair for making money and a knowledge of the rules of capitalism. This has often placed power in the hands of the shrewd who may be morally indefensible and socially irresponsible.

Mr. Woodruff is an excellent example of social responsibility. He is no pious saint, nor has he been actively involved in church organizations, but something has to be said for a man who has displayed such philanthropy and civic responsibility.

Mr. Woodruff is best understood as a responsible gentleman. He was raised quite morally in old fashioned Methodist and Presbyterian traditions which left an indelible impression of responsibility and modesty.

Woodruff has served his community unceasingly. In business he has perhaps been constitutionally unable to be dishonest. He has never interfered in politics for himself. He has given hundreds of millions to charities and medical research to aid the betterment of man. Having much, he has done much that he did not have to do.

In the Southern code Robert Winship Woodruff was reared in, being a gentleman went beyond manners to morality and self effacement. Getting on now, born the day Jefferson Davis died, Mr. Woodruff makes one feel what a shame it is they don't make gentlemen anymore. However, Mr. Woodruff will not subscribe to that statement. A Southern gentleman, he affirms his belief that gentlemen are still being produced.


An amusing figure of a moneyed Presbyterian in fiction is drawn by Charles Portis in the novel, True Grit. Mattie Ross of Yell County, Arkansas has gumption. In later years she is a bank president and an active church member. She remarks the neighbors comment on her to the effect: They say, "I love nothing but money and the Presbyterian Church".





Table of Contents