A Coach, US Marine and Hero: Claude Woodruff Posthumously Receives Long Overdue Congressional Gold Medal

A ceremony to honor Claude E. Woodruff Jr., for his service as one of the first Black Marines in World War II
A ceremony to honor Claude E. Woodruff Jr., for his service as one of the first Black Marines in World War II and as a legendary coach, cattleman, and more in Central Florida was attended by dozens of Black veterans from that era. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

A young Edythe Woodruff Stewart was terrified of that snake at the bottom of the slide.

She resisted going down, afraid it could harm her. But she remembered her father, Claude Earnest Woodruff Jr., didn’t believe in fear.

So she slid down with the fearlessness in the back of her mind, the same courageous attitude her father carried throughout his life.

Saturday, family, fellow Marines, fraternity brothers and players he’s coached posthumously honored Woodruff at a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony. He died at 82 on June 15, 2009, but his legacy lives on as his widow, Dr. Minnie Boyer Woodruff, received the medal.

“Some call him Dad, some call him Pop, some call him Coach, but I call him my husband,” Minnie Woodruff said. “He was a good soul, God rest his soul. He has passed away, 15 years, but the spirit still remains.”

At 15, Claude Woodruff joined the Montford Point Marines, the first group of Black men to enter the Marine Corps during World War II. They were stationed in Jacksonville, N.C., from 1942-49, beginning the integration of Blacks into the U.S. military.

Woodruff returned to Union Academy High School in Bartow to graduate, then went to college at FAMU in Tallahassee from 1948-52 where he played football as a linebacker and was inducted into the FAMU Hall of Fame in 1992.

He coached and taught at several high schools, including Jones and Winter Park in the Orlando area, overseeing several players who went on to play college and professional football. Amongst those who played for him was Lance LeDoux, who laughs to this day repeating the words his old coach told him at Winter Park in 1969.

“He’d always say things like, ‘Short choppy steps,’” LeDoux said. “‘Run over a pig with a train. Kill a mosquito with an axe. Hit it like a ton of bricks.’”

But behind these small utterances was the attitude changing the way Winter Park football was played. And even more than five decades later, LeDoux still feels Woodruff’s impact.

“He influenced so many people, and the people he influenced [they] influenced others,” LeDoux said. “You’ve got a man in Claude Woodruff, whose physical and mental toughness, his desire to build character has touched literally tens of thousands of men.”

But even for his tough exterior character, his family remembers him for his compassion. Edythe said he was a kind-hearted father who still “stood on principles” as he guided his daughters through life in the 20th century United States. His widow, Minnie, echoed that same sentiment.

“He was a man’s man, but once he came home and took his boots and his socks off, he was a Teddy bear,” Minnie said.

Woodruff’s story is one of many of the Montford Point Marines, whose stories are still predominantly untold. Of the 20,000 Black recruits trained there, only about 2,000 have been acknowledged.

This initiative is a continuous effort to recognize all the Black men who not only fought for their country, but tore down segregation barriers in the American military.

“A lot of people didn’t know anything about them, even myself,” Anthony Landrum, a retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, said. “I joined the Marine Corps in 1983 and learned about it that year. It’s very important to get the word out there. There’s still like 18,000 of them that have not received a Congressional Gold Medal yet.”

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