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Woody Wickham’s Legacies

It’s taken a little time to fathom that Woody Wickham is really gone. Woody, who was a funder and mentor of many media arts efforts over the last 25 years, had a resurgence of a gall bladder cancer and passed away with dignity in Chicago last month. He was 66 years old. His legacies are everywhere in the world of public media. This year’s Making Your Media Matter conference at the Center for Social Media is dedicated to him.

After graduating from Harvard, where he exercised his wit as editor of the Lampoon, he had worked in Mexico before returning to the U.S. and a creative career in foundation work.

He worked longest as a program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and he made independent media his special concern. He maintained his predecessor’s investment in media arts organizations (there’s nary a one in the U.S. that didn’t get MacArthur funding), a choice that shaped a generation’s worth of media production. He funded a wide array of documentary films, he mentored other program officers who also supported independent media, and he carefully cultivated both people and organizations important to the field. When he retired from the Foundation, he served on a variety of boards and generously consulted with many nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Social Media. Woody was one of the key advisors to its launch.

All of us who were nurtured by Woody share a feeling of enormous privilege. We were of course lucky to have benefited from his attention, the grants he was able to approve, the doors he could open, and the astonishing network of colleagues, allies and friends that he introduced us to. Besides that, Woody served as a model. He brought to his relationships an intellectual rigor that could be awe-inspiring or terrifying, depending on whether you were prepared. At the same time, he brought a quiet, steady optimism and a generosity of spirit that could call forth those qualities in others. You were never in doubt that Woody both understood and respected you, and also expected you to be the very best you could muster. And he usually could make you laugh, too.

Woody’s model of leadership became particularly important for me when we served together on the board of the Independent Television Service. I begged him to join us in what I believe to be one of the most significant U.S. institutions supporting independent filmmakers and the publics they want to reach. Always judicious, he collected his intelligence, and asked a few probing questions. Then he joined up, and eventually became chairman of the board. His careful approach to a strict governance model—meticulous oversight without meddling—was a precious learning lesson.

Near the end, Woody made arrangements to create a butterfly garden in Chicago, and you can contribute to its endowment at Woodward A. Wickham Butterfly Garden at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60614, attn: Molly Riley, Development Office. You can also build on Woody’s legacies by creating, sharing and promoting independent media voices, which Woody believed were essential to an open society. At the Center for Social Media, we’re trying every day to that in the best way we can muster.