After decades of fundraising, Bob Woodward gets set to bow out-again
David Clensy talks to veteran charity fundraiser Bob Woodward as he finally calls it a day
FOR most people the idea of retiring at the age of 65 is something they look forward to for decades. But it’s clear from Bob Woodward’s knotted brow when he talks about retirement that he’s still a bit uneasy about the idea.
But as he faces his 80th birthday on February 28, the veteran charity fundraiser and founder of the Clic (cancer and leukaemia in childhood) charity is just about ready to finally step into his retirement.
“I’ve made the decision, finally, that I will be retiring on my 80th birthday,” he says, with a flash of that trademark smile that has been charming businessmen into signing charity cheques for the last four decades.
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“I am going to miss it. I’m going to miss it terribly,” he adds. “But I’m getting on now – there are some days when I feel a bit too weary to do my work as well as I’d like.
“There are other days when I feel perfectly fit, and that’s when it will be hard. That’s when I’ll feel guilty to not be working.”
It won’t be the first time Bob has attempted to retire. He retired from Clic in 1996 when his health first started failing. He left the charity he had founded 20 years earlier having personally raised more than £50 million for the organisation.
But Bob’s charity work continued, notably his involvement in the Jack and Jill Appeal and the Children’s Hospice for Bristol Appeal, and 15 years ago he took on the role of administering the Starfish Trust – a fund set up by Bristol millionaires Charlie and Mary Dobson, aimed at helping disabled youngsters.
In 2010 Bob attempted to retire again. But when you’re as good at fundraising as Bob clearly is, it’s not easy to step back from doing good deeds.
The Dobsons announced that the Starfish Trust was being wound up, and suitable causes were being sought to receive the fund’s remaining £1m.
As part of the process of handing out the trust’s remaining funds, the Dobsons agreed to give £250,000 to the parents of children at Claremont Special Secondary School, who were working hard to find the £1 million needed to build an important hydrotherapy pool for the severely disabled pupils.
“We gave them the quarter of a million, with the challenge that they needed to find a way to raise the other £750,000. But it quickly became clear to me that this was too much to ask of a group of parents whose time is so compromised by caring for their disabled children,” he says.
Bob agreed to head the campaign, which became the Starfish Pool Appeal.
“The Dobsons said they would give another £250,000 towards the appeal if I came out of retirement to lead it,” Bob says. “How could I say no? That was a lot of money towards the appeal.”
So Bob put his retirement on hold once again, despite battling his own increasingly frail health – Bob was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in 2003, and last year also had to have a knee replaced.
“I wanted to do it, but in recent months it has got harder and harder. I am getting old – I’m weary. But I thought, if I can go out with a bang by raising that million pounds for the pool, then that’s the way to go.”
Sure enough, Bob put his experience to excellent use.
“I contacted the John James Bristol Foundation, because I felt this was just the sort of project they would be keen to help – it’s something that would benefit children in need right here in Bristol.
“Wonderfully, they offered another £250,000. With a few other big donations secured, I realised we’re on the homeward straight. We’re now well over £900,000 – so I may still achieve the target before I reach my 80th birthday.”
The day I turn up on Bob Woodward’s doorstep is a significant anniversary – it is 39 years to the day that his son Robert was diagnosed with cancer.
Bob’s beloved middle child was a keen athlete who had just started at Colston’s Collegiate School in Stapleton, when what at first seemed to be a nasty throat infection turned out to be something much more sinister – a stage four neuroblastoma, one of the most common childhood cancers.
Untreated, Robert would have had just six weeks to live. With medical intervention, the youngster was able to hold on for another three years.
“He had great courage and great faith,” Bob says. “He went through all the nasties – chemotherapy, radiotherapy, operations. He was ever so brave.”
But in 1977, Robert lost his battle at the age of 11.
But out of this devastating family tragedy, Bob was able to develop something wholly positive; Robert’s life proved to be the inspiration for the most extraordinary charitable career.
“Robert was the inspiration at the start, and he’s been my inspiration ever since,” Bob says. “He’s with me
Back then Bob was an award-winning house builder, in partnership with his brother, based in Wootton under Edge.
“It was a magical time, we had everything we could have wished for,” he recalls. “But then we were hit by the bombshell of Robert’s cancer, and everything changed.”
From the moment of Robert’s diagnosis, Bob moved the family to a bungalow the brothers had been planning to renovate, close to Frenchay Hospital.
As Robert’s treatment progressed, the family settled in a new house just down the road, and Bob decided to turn the bungalow into a “home from home” for other families who were going through a similar fate, but who had to travel miles to be close to the hospital.
At the same time the highly-regarded oncologist treating Robert, Martin Mott, was offered the chance of a secondment, working on a research project in California, but rather than allowing the children in Bristol to lose his expertise, Bob set up a £140,000 travelling fund so the clinician could make regular visits back to monitor the children’s progress.
From these two initial acts of kindness, Clic was born. Within a few years, it would grow into one of the world’s best-known charities supporting children with cancer – focusing on supporting treatment, welfare and research.
Sadly, Robert didn’t live to see the organisation his father founded grow into a charity with 26 branches and 23 charity shops. It merged with the Sargent Cancer Fund in 2004 to become the UK’s leading children’s cancer charity.
From the single bungalow concept, within a few years the charity was running a network of “home from home” accommodations within a short distance of the country’s seven major children’s cancer centres.
In the early 1990s, Bob visited Moscow to meet a group of Russian paediatricians, who were – in the wake of Chernobyl – keen to learn more about the world-leading British children’s cancer care system.
In a typically audacious move, during his week there, Bob requested a meeting with former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
The two men simply clicked and it was the start of a great relationship, which would see Gorbachev go on to become the president of Clic International – and later pay a personal visit to Bristol Children’s Hospital.
The charity also established the Clic Research Unit at Bristol University to study cancer in childhood, and since the early 1990s Clic has helped to fund a number of research projects aiming to improve knowledge about childhood cancer and leukaemia.
Clic nurses also provide treatment to children in their own homes, reducing the need for families to make frequent and often long journeys to hospital.
“I could see that fundraising was an important part of my work,” Bob says. “But I always felt the most important thing was the pastoral work – getting to know families personally, and being able to offer support.
“We were one big family, and that was the most rewarding thing for me.”
But in the worst cases, this personal involvement meant Bob was putting himself in line for a constant emotional rollercoaster.
“Of course, it was devastating every time we lost a child,” he says.
“In my time I’ve attended the funerals of more than 300 children who had lost their lives to cancer, and I’ve spoken at a great many of them.”
For Bob, who served as an itinerant Baptist lay preacher as a teenager, when times are tough it’s his enduring faith that sees him through.
“Emotionally, everything begins to take its toll after a while,” he says. “But my faith is strong, and I believe the things that have happened to me have happened for a reason. I’ve always been guided by a higher force to try to do good for others.”
Bob and Judy’s family life was to be shadowed by a second tragedy.
“After the death of Robert there was an enormous hole in our lives, so we decided to have another baby,” he says. “But sadly, our third child, Hugh, was born with Down’s Syndrome and a weak heart, and he passed away after a heart attack at the age of four.”
It was Hugh’s short life that inspired Bob to go on to devote his time to disabled children’s charities following his retirement from Clic in 1996.
His involvement with the hydrotherapy pool appeal also has powerful personal connections for Bob and his wife Judy. Their only grandchild, Laura, was born nine years ago with an abnormality of chromosome 15 – leaving her severely physically and mentally disabled.
“I’ve seen the pleasure she gets from her local hydrotherapy pool, where my daughter lives up in Derbyshire,” Bob says. “So I know all too well how important it is to get a similar pool down here for the children in Bristol.”
From a quick look at his home office, it’s clear that Bob is understandably proud of his achievements; it is decorated with mementos of his life – his Post/First Gold Star Award, his ITV Pride of Britain award, the Olympic torch he ran with last year, and an enormous framed photograph of his comrade in charity, Gorbachev.
So what happened to the knighthood Bob? I ask.
But Bob just shrugs.
“Who knows?” he laughs. “I’ve never had anything from the civil list, but that’s not what you do it for. I was very content with the Freedom of Bristol. That meant the most to me.”
Bob is already planning his retirement.
“I’d like to play golf, if my health allows,” he says. “And I’d like to do my advanced driver training.”
And avoid being talked back out of retirement?
“Oh yes, that too,” Bob smiles. “This time it’s for good.”