Every so often, County Progress asks our distinguished Judges and Commissioners to allow us a glimpse into their public lives, giving us a fresh appreciation for the myriad of roles and responsibilities they shoulder every day. Our thanks to Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood for taking the time to visit with us.
My ancestors came to Texas in the mid-1850s and settled in the Nacogdoches area. My great-uncles, R. D. Wood and A. J. Wood, came to Texas from Norfolk, Va., and purchased a farm in 1853, 10 miles east of Terrell in the Cobb Switch Community. The Texas & Pacific Railroad Company laid the track that is now the Kansas City Southern Railway some years later. The community developed around the railroad.
Of the original 640 acres purchased by my ancestors, 85 acres were passed down to me and my family. My father, Raymond Garvin Wood, acquired more acreage and assembled the present-day 168-acre farm that is still in my family. My father grew a variety of grains and vegetables, along with some livestock. My oldest brother grew peaches for many years.
Presently, the farm grows hay, mostly for sale to area producers. In a good year, the mostly coastal Bermuda grass produces 6,000 square bales and 500-600 round bales.
My son, James, lives on the farm and makes it his primary vocation.
In 2005, our family was honored by then-Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs with the 150-year designation from the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Family Land Heritage Program.
I received my bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from East Texas State University (now Texas A&M Commerce). I then served in public education for a total of 40 years beginning as a school bus driver, and then teaching government and economics. I later moved into administration, serving 13 years as Terrell ISD Superintendent, retiring in 1997 and then returning to serve as Kaufman ISD superintendent for an additional seven years.
My undergraduate degree was in government and economics. As a high school government teacher, I always encouraged my students to become a part of the process, to study and support candidates, vote, and become an active participant in the political and public service process.
My County Judge predecessor, Wayne Gent, announced he would be retiring and would not be seeking another term of office. After discussing the vacancy with Judge Gent and other friends and colleagues, I determined that I needed to practice what I had taught as a teacher. So I announced my intention to seek office as Kaufman County Judge. During my first election, I had one opponent and was elected, and then the second election I ran unopposed.
My wife, Susie, and I have three daughters, one son, and seven grandchildren.
Many days are routine with probate cases, constituent appointments, various and assorted meetings (I love meetings), phone calls, and just regular business. Kaufman County is a fast-growing county, and we have many residential developers, builders, and commercial and industrial businesses that are making Kaufman County their home; this means more subdivision plats and calls for service for our sheriff’s departments and constables, as well as our Commissioners for road improvements.
All areas of county government are affected when growth occurs. Our 2017 population is estimated to be approximately 125,000 people. Approximately 60 percent of those live in unincorporated areas of the county, thus our planning and development offices are stretched to keep up with this type of growth.
Some days are more hectic than others. Many days, as I am driving to work, I think about the day ahead and have it all planned out. Sometimes, when I arrive at the office all those plans are suddenly placed aside just to deal with whatever issue has come up out of the clear blue. That’s what makes the position of County Judge so special and interesting and what affords us the opportunity to serve the public with a servant heart and attitude.
IS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED?
Yes and No. Just like any new job, there is a learning curve. From my prior life as a teacher and school administrator, it usually was fairly easy to build a consensus of moving forward because most school board members and employees were focused on what was best for kids – not that we always agreed, but we could usually work through any issues and find a way to make good things happen for our students.
In the county business, it is a bit more involved because of how Texas county government is set up in the Texas Constitution. The other elected officials have their offices to run and naturally their own ideas on how to do so. So, other than using the budget as a negotiating wedge (not a good thing to do in my opinion), it really all boils down to building a positive working relationship with the Commissioners Court and other elected officials; in some instances that can be challenging, but for the good of our taxpayers, most of the time we are able to move forward.
Without question, the biggest challenge I have faced was the murders of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, early Saturday morning, March 30, 2013, in their home near Forney on the day before Easter Sunday. This was preceded by the assassination of Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse on Jan. 31, 2013 as he walked to work from the adjacent county parking lot to the Courthouse, less than 100 yards from my office.
The immediate aftermath of the slaying of Mark and the subsequent murders of Mike and Cynthia were devastating not only to the family members, but also to the courthouse family, as well. We operate from a small courthouse in downtown Kaufman on the square, and everyone knows everyone.
My challenge as County Judge from the very start was to try to maintain order and stability at the Courthouse and affected facilities. Remarkably, on Monday following the murders of the McLellands, we had nearly 100 percent of our employees at work. It was hectic, but there was a feeling of needing to be with each other during this trying time.
The courthouse was secure with dozens of law enforcement officers, local, state and federal, all joining in the investigation. All judges and district attorney employees as well as others were provided 24 hour, around-the-clock protection at home, work, church, or wherever we traveled.
Former Justice of the Peace Eric Williams was convicted on Dec. 17, 2014, and he now sits on death row in Huntsville while his capital murder punishment is on automatic appeal.
This admittedly was and has been my biggest challenge while serving as County Judge, but it pales in comparison to those who lost their lives and their family members who faced such a horrible, senseless crime.
FAVORITE PART OF BEING A TEXAS COUNTY JUDGE:
I especially enjoy the day-to-day activities of being the County Judge. Friends you come into contact with in the courthouse hallways, or attending a meeting of some new endeavor that an area of the county may be embarking on, are always interesting and sometimes downright entertaining.
Serving as probate judge also puts you in touch with folks during some of their most trying times. I try to conduct those hearings in a non-threatening environment and place those affected in as comfortable position as possible.
I like to eat, and believe me, this job opens you to all types of possibilities: VFD fish fries, chili suppers, judging barbecue cook-offs or whatever. It is always fun, the food is good, and you meet folks from all over the county who you might not otherwise meet in a fun environment. Occasionally, I have been asked to perform a marriage ceremony for a friend or neighbor, and that is always a pleasant experience.
The other part of the job ensures you have the opportunity to serve in a variety of capacities that include problem solving. Kaufman County has two major projects we are undertaking. One is the historic restoration of our Poor Farm, which has fallen into disarray over the past 25 years or so. Working with members of the Kaufman County Historical Commission and members of the community has been tedious, but rewarding. When complete, it will be something we look back on with pride.
The second project is the construction and management of the Kaufman County Animal Shelter. We will be partnering with a non-profit organization to manage the facility and are already receiving promises of support once the exact location is determined. This has been discussed and planned for years, but once complete will serve our county well as the unclaimed and dangerous small animal numbers continue to grow.
I have many other functions I could list, but the bottom line is that a working relationship between the Commissioners Court and other elected officials can be catalyst to making great things happen.
Editor’s Note: As Judge Wood looks toward his final year in office, we asked him to share words of wisdom and advice he would offer a new County Judge:
Experience is always the great teacher. That being said, finding or observing a reliable mentor is invaluable. Reach out to someone who has “been there, done that,” and don’t hesitate to call. One of the great resources available to a new Judge is the Texas Association of Counties judges listserv. You can learn a lot just by reading and seeing what the topic of discussion is. Sometimes, it’s downright entertaining!
The success of any judgeship is based on the relationship you can build with members of the Commissioners Court as well as the other elected officials and department heads. That also extends to the governing bodies of the various municipalities that are located in your county. The folks who elected you expect solutions to their problems and will be looking to you for leadership in all matters, great or small.
Finally, the matter of social media is not one to ignore or take lightly; it is real and powerful in today’s world. Someone in your organization will need to be responsible for monitoring social media for trends that might be affecting the operation of the county in a negative way. It can also be used as a powerful tool to spread facts and explain issues. I would suggest you take advantage of it. After all, it is free!
The County Judgeship in Texas is an important position. There are only 254 of us in a state of approximately 25 million individuals. Use the duties of the office carefully, and you can make a great difference in the county you serve.