Woody Baird, longtime AP Memphis newsman and Summerville native, dies at 77
Woodrow "Woody" Baird, a dogged, straight-talking and skilled journalist who covered everything from Elvis Presley to panda bears for The Associated Press in the Memphis region for 27 years, has died. He was 77.
Baird had suffered a stroke a week before he died April 11 in Memphis, said Mary Baird, his wife.
Baird worked for the AP in Memphis from 1982 to 2009, when he retired. He was a prolific writer who covered every type of news, from the criminal trial of former state Sen. John Ford to the annual migration of fans to Graceland for Elvis' death anniversary.
Baird also covered Memphis-based shipping giant FedEx Corp., Mother Teresa's visit to Memphis, the arrival at the Memphis Zoo of two panda bears from China, a child custody battle that changed Tennessee law on the rights of parents, the Shannon Street shootout in which an officer and seven alleged cult members were killed, and former mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton Jr.
Wharton answered questions from Baird when Wharton worked as a lawyer in federal court. Wharton also lived near Baird and called him a friend. He called Baird the epitome of a "tough, hard-nosed" reporter.
"When it came to his reporting duties, he was just like Jack Webb on 'Dragnet'— just the facts, just the facts, man," Wharton told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday. "He just wanted the truth. ... We might have a beer later, but give me the news right now."
Colleagues considered Baird tough and unafraid, a reporter who did not hesitate to ask direct questions to get to the heart of the story. They recall his ability to produce perfect copy under the pressure of reporting important news.
"I can describe taking dictation on a breaking news story from Woody," retired AP journalist Paul Randall Dickerson said. "He always dictated a lead (paragraph) that would arrest the reader's attention and follow it with great detail that one would think came from an hour's self-editing, but in reality, simply flowed from Woody into a publishable story."
At his retirement party in 2009, Baird's AP colleagues presented him with an audio tribute with each staffer imitating his barking signature line with his loud voice when he called the AP bureau from the scene of breaking news: "This is Woody! Give me the desk!"
"When you would be chatting with him and tell him something funny or odd, his reply was almost always, 'Well, there you go,'" Dickerson said.
Baird joined the AP in New Orleans in 1977 after working as a reporter and managing editor of The Daily Iberian in New Iberia, Louisiana. He left AP to become the paper's editor in 1981 but returned the following year as a newsman in Memphis.
Baird is survived by Mary Baird, a daughter from a previous marriage and four grandchildren.
Former AP news editor Teresa Wasson recalls how Baird shaved his head long before it became commonplace. He usually wore the same thing to work — jeans, a black shirt, a vest and a hat.
"Woody was a real stickler for accuracy, and he took to heart the AP admonition to be first, but first be right," Wasson said. "I always felt confident when Woody was working a hot story on deadline that his reporting was factual and fair."
Former AP reporter and author Lucas L. Johnson II called Baird "an old school, dogged reporter, a true AP newsman." Johnson recalls meeting Baird not long after Johnson started at the AP, and he was a little intimidated because "Woody didn't bite his tongue."
"But I came to appreciate that about him because I knew when he gave me a compliment about a story I wrote, he meant it," Johnson said. "I learned a lot from him, and I became a better journalist as a result."
Baird was born in Summerville, South Carolina, and grew up nearby in Moncks Corner, Mary Baird said. He served in the Air Force as a medic and later graduated from the University of South Carolina.
Mary Baird said her husband "worked hard and loved what he did."
"He said just what he thought. He was a good man," she said. "He could be really soft, but he would correct you if you were wrong."
After the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, Baird took up gardening in his backyard. She said they spent the Saturday before he suffered the stroke visiting nurseries and spending the day out, a rarity for them after the pandemic struck.
"He absolutely loved it," Mary Baird said of his gardening, adding that later in life he was "getting downright warm and fuzzy."
This story corrects the title for John Ford to former state senator, not representative.
Former Associated Press journalists Paul Randall Dickerson, Lucas L. Johnson II and Teresa Wasson contributed to this story. AP staffer Adam Yeomans also contributed.