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From Failing Grades To President of Coca-Cola

By Monica Yang Posted: 10/18/2010
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The Robert W. Woodruff name remains as ubiquitous in the Emory campus as the Coca-Cola brand is in the world. Woodruff’s influence is legendary both within the Coca-Cola Company and in the Atlanta area. Louis Allen once told him, “It crossed my mind several times that what you have done and are doing for Atlanta is very like what the de’ Medici family did for Florence. It will be lasting, loved and enjoyed by future generations.”

An exhibition featuring Robert W. Woodruff’s accomplished life recently opened in the Robert W. Woodruff Library. Curated by Randy Gue, the informative exhibition, “The Future Belongs to the Discontented: The Life & Legacy of Robert W. Woodruff” will remain open until March 25, 2011.
This exhibition, nestled in the Schatten Gallery of the third floor of Woodruff Library, offers a generous body of information describing and honoring Woodruff’s life. The exhibition itself is divided into five themes, covering Woodruff’s childhood, family, education, association with and contributions to the Coca-Cola Company. There are also displays about Ichauway Plantation — his favorite hideaway — and his wife, Nell Hodgson Woodruff.

Woodruff was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1889 to Ernest and Emily Woodruff. At the age of four, Woodruff and his family moved to Atlanta so that his father could engage in business there. His father was an incredibly successful man, and for a time he was the president of the only trust bank in the South: the Trust Company of Georgia.

Having high expectations for his son, Ernest Woodruff forced Robert to attend college against his will after his education at the Georgia Military Academy. Robert had never been a good student — his undiagnosed dyslexia partly to blame — and he yearned to rush into the working world. But his father was a stubborn man, so Woodruff attended Emory College.

His dyslexia remained a major factor in his struggles in the classroom, and his poor performance in school continued. Finally, the culmination of Robert’s unhappiness came through an expulsion letter from Emory College due to his unsatisfactory work. His expulsion letter and letters of correspondence with friends and family during this rough time in his life can be found in the exhibition.

After his unsuccessful attempt at higher education, Woodruff suddenly found himself in the working world. His first job as a businessman began in 1909 as a sand shoveler. He then tried his hand as a purchasing agent for Atlantic Ice and Coal Company. After this brief stint, Woodruff left Atlanta to work as a salesman for the White Motor Company.

“I ain’t smarter than anyone else — I’m just awake more, so I get more done,” he once said.

While his academic career was short-lived, his work ethic outside the classroom had him climbing the corporate ladder. By 1923, he was vice president of the White Motor Company.

Shortly after, his father asked him to return to Atlanta to head the Coca-Cola Company as president. Earlier in 1919, his father had purchased the company from the Candler family.

As president, Woodruff was particularly skilled at marketing. His strategies are described in detail in the exhibition, accompanied by colorful posters of Coca-Cola ads. A wartime advertisement shows a housewife pulling a cart full of groceries and bottles of Coca-Cola. Above is a heading that reads, “He’s coming home tomorrow.” In the middle of the poster sits the Coca-Cola logo with the headline, “Drink Coca-Cola. Delicious and Refreshing.”

The best example of Woodruff’s advertising expertise came during World War II, when Woodruff pledged to make it possible for “every man in uniform ... to buy Coca-Cola at five cents, no matter where he is.” The pledge was a generous and patriotic act coming from Woodruff that drew in a solid consumer base for the future. Pictures of servicemen drinking a refreshing coke can be seen in the display cases along with a 1950 TIME magazine featuring Coca-Cola on its cover, the first product ever to be featured on TIME’s cover.

Woodruff used his success at Coca-Cola to improve the lives of not only himself and his business partners, but also those of each employee in his company. Woodruff used his earnings to improve the welfare of Atlanta, anonymously donating large sums of money to various organizations. Until his identity became known, he was fondly known as “Mr. Anonymous.” Only after his identity was revealed did Woodruff start to donate under his own name and acknowledge credit for his munificence.

Woodruff was so popular within the company that when he turned 65, a petition came from the officers of the Coca-Cola Export Corporation asking him not to retire. Nevertheless, Woodruff retired at the age of 65 because it was the company’s mandatory retirement age. He remained on the board of directors for the rest of his life.

In the span of his lifetime, Woodruff poured out hundreds of millions of dollars from his earnings to benefit education, the arts and medicine. Emory University received a total of 230 million dollars from Woodruff and became known as the “Coca-Cola school.”

As to the answer to why Woodruff donated 230 million dollars to a school that expelled him is interesting: Woodruff had a vision for Emory University. He visualized Atlanta as a developing international city, with Emory as the center for global study.

— Contact Monica Yang.

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