The Way We Were: Fred Woolsey

The Way We Were: Fred Woolsey
Judy and Fred Woolsey

Fred Woolsey is a Jacksonville native. His family lived on Green Street in West Riverside when he was born on February 22, 1936 to Dr. and Mrs. Fred and Helen Woolsey. A year later, he became big brother to Mary.

Next door lived the Walton family of five. They had a son, Bob, who was one year Fred’s senior and two daughters near Mary’s age. The two families would remain close for more than eighty years.

It was around 1940 when Bob Walton’s father built a family home on Northwood Road in the Colonial Manor neighborhood between San Jose Boulevard and Hendricks Avenue. Fred Woolsey’s father built one just two doors down from there on Lakewood Road, continuing the families’ entwining with the children growing up together, attending school together, and visiting each other’s home daily.

Woolsey attended Hendricks Avenue Elementary for first through sixth grades and was a member of the school’s first graduating class. He was also a member of the Lone Ranger Fan Club. “Of course, I loved playing Cowboys and Indians,” he said.

Mrs. Varnes’s fourth grade class at Hendricks Avenue Elementary School, Fred Woolsey in top row right side, January 1946
Mrs. Varnes’s fourth grade class at Hendricks Avenue Elementary School, Fred Woolsey in top row right side, January 1946

Woolsey went on to Landon, which at that time was a junior/senior high school, where he became active in music and drama. He took part in the double quartet and sang solo at some weddings. He received a Little Theatre Award for Best Male Actor for his role in “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 1954.

Woolsey has fond memories of the Landon, Lee, Jackson football games at the old Gator Bowl stadium where thousands of spectators would show up. Although Woolsey was not on any official sports teams, he and Walton did play football in the street on Lakewood Road with Marshall Burns and Stuart Edwards. The group would play hide-and-go-seek, too, through the hedges and across each other’s yards in the dark.

Most every weekend, Woolsey was at the San Marco Theatre. Often, after school dances and events, he’d end up at the Texas Drive-In. “We would just have a great time showing off in front of everybody,” he said.

In addition to Walton, James Moseley, who now has a maritime law practice downtown, was another close friend through high school. “He had a great sense of humor,” Woolsey said, remembering the many times they’d cruise around town in Moseley’s car.

Upon his Landon graduation in 1954, Woolsey headed to Duke University where Walton had already been a student for a full year. A religion and music major, Woolsey held membership in the chapel choir and the men’s glee club. The groups made several tours—south to Florida and north through Delaware and New York. One of several highlights was an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.

That was about the time that Walton headed to medical school at the University of Miami, having been greatly influenced by Dr. Woolsey, Fred’s dad. Walton would eventually open a private practice in Birmingham, Alabama and treat miners who had black lung disease. “He was the doctor who other doctors would send their parents to,” said Woolsey of his dear friend. Walton, who had a great big singing voice, also began the opera guild there.

After Woolsey graduated from Duke in 1958, he headed from North Carolina farther north to New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Prior to his 1962 ordination at Park Avenue Christian Church, he spent one year in upstate New York as an intern at a United Methodist Church where he met his wife, Judy, a music graduate of Syracuse University.

The couple had only been married a year when they were called to serve farm families in the small town of North English, Iowa—Fred at the pulpit and Judy on piano and organ. “The population was 1,000. This was jumping off from New York City. It was quite a culture shock,” Woolsey said. The town was so small that the neighborhood furniture salesman the Woolseys visited to help furnish their parsonage was also the local funeral director.

There were two Iowa congregations the Woolseys served, and they had two daughters in the state, before moving on to the First Christian Church in West Palm Beach, Florida, where their girls went through school. Then, an opportunity to serve as pastor of a young and thriving congregation at Southside Christian Church on Atlantic Boulevard brought Woolsey back to Jacksonville in 1978. His wife came on as music leader.

“And then I had a really interesting experience after that, something I didn’t ever expect to do,” Woolsey said. From 1990 until 1996, he held a dual position with the titles of Executive Secretary of the Interfaith Council of Jacksonville and Executive Director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). At the urging of his friends David and Vicky Basta Bennett, he had applied and was accepted. Today, NCCJ has morphed into OneJax, committed to promoting respect across lines of race and faith.

Woolsey’s next venture was as associate pastor at First Christian Church of the Beaches in Neptune Beach before retiring in 2001. His friends Luther and Blanche Coggin threw him a huge party in their Ponte Vedra home. But Woolsey’s retirement did not last long.

By the following year, Woolsey had returned to the pulpit part time, accepting a position as associate pastor at Riverside Avenue Christian Church, which was the church that he had grown up in as a Jacksonville boy six decades before. Now, he volunteers as a ‘Voyagers’ Sunday school teacher for adults there in person and on Zoom. “He’s done so much for the community,” Judy said of her husband. Annually, the Woolseys join other seniors from the Voyagers class and attend a retreat in Silver Springs, Florida.

Woolsey and his wife enjoy music and ministry for fun, too, not only as their life’s work. In fact, whenever the couple would get together with Walton and his wife, Nancy, the four would gather around a piano and sing classic, sacred music. “We had lots of fun, we drank lots of wine, and we sang lots of songs when we were together,” said Woolsey of the two couples who never lost touch.

Bob Walton and Fred Woolsey, 2002
Bob Walton and Fred Woolsey, 2002

Over the years, when Woolsey wasn’t preaching or singing, he had a variety of other interests. Gardening was one of them. “I love the yard. I’ve always worked and had lots of flowers, but that’s hard for me to do now at my age,” said the 86-year-old.

Woolsey has also enjoyed keeping up with his Landon classmates. “A lot of pillars of the community came out of that class,” he said of the 1954 grads. There were doctors, lawyers, realtors, brokers, and more. Bill Burton was the one who had planned their class reunions at regular intervals. They met at various locales around Jacksonville, including Epping Forest and once at Joe Ripley’s historic home called Marabanong.

An extra special gathering was held at the San Jose Country Club five years ago as an 80th birthday party for the classmates. Woolsey, the only minister among them, was always called on to give the invocation and make remarks. Unfortunately, COVID-19 then put a long pause on any of their get-togethers. And while planning for an 85th, Burton, the organizer, passed away. “I don’t know how and when we can ever get together again, and that’s kind of sad,” said Woolsey.

Also deceased now is Walton. Woolsey last saw his lifelong friend in a Birmingham assisted living facility in late 2019, just before the world went into lockdown. The two couples—Bob and Nancy Walton and Fred and Judy Woolsey—drank wine and sang songs, just as they had been doing for decades. This time, a cappella. Their last croon was “Old Man River,” which had been a favorite of theirs throughout the years. A few months later, Walton was gone.

Woolsey’s faith and his family help keep him going. He is proud that his church recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and that his elder daughter, Deborah Bryant, is now the pianist there, following in her mother’s footsteps. Brenda Norton, their younger daughter, lives in Georgia. Through their girls, they have three grandsons, one granddaughter, and one great-granddaughter.  In June 2022, the Woolseys will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

Green Street, 1938 - Warren Tyler, Jerry Leavitt, Freddie Woolsey, and Bobby Walton
Green Street, 1938 – Warren Tyler, Jerry Leavitt, Freddie Woolsey, and Bobby Walton

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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