Death Of A Salesman

On July 17, 2001, the life insurance industry lost one of its most beloved legends. Benjamin “Woody” Woodson passed away at a Houston, Texas, care center after an extensive period of confinement.

In a lifetime filled with accomplishment, Woody wore many hats: champion typist, secretary, association executive, author and insurance company CEO. But regardless of what hat he was wearing, Woody was first and foremost a salesman. He had the ability to sell his ideas and point of view with logic, humor and practicality.

I felt a special relationship to Woody for, prior to moving on to American General as its CEO, he held the position at the National Association of Life Underwriters that I occupied for 15 years. I always felt a great sense of pride in the fact that I was one of those who followed in Woodys footsteps.

It was while he was at NALU that he was a player in the creation of the Life Underwriter Training Council. He was, to the very end, one of only two founding life trustees of LUTC. For many years he kept an active interest in the affairs of LUTC and regularly attended one of its semi-annual board meetings.

I had the privilege, and indeed the pleasure, of participating with Woody on a number of industry programs. His contribution to the program was always laced with good humor and practical observations. Woody was a realist through and through and much in demand as a public speaker. His status in the insurance community was such that he was able to be unusually candid in his public statements, thus giving his audiences the benefit of truth rather than the pabulum often served by others.

For years, Woody authored the “Back Page” of Life Association News (LAN) as an advertisement for his company. After his retirement the company advertisement program took a new turn–but Woody persisted. He called me one day and stated that he missed writing the “Back Page” and asked if he could continue to write it as a feature of LAN. Needless to say, we were delighted to have his column back in the magazine. Woody continued writing the “Back Page” until his health began to fail.

In addition to his industry speeches, it was the “Back Page” that provided Woody with the most significant outlet for his sales ideas. He never lost his belief in, nor zeal for, the worth and essentiality of life insurance. His writings were a great testimony to his passion for our business. Woody may have had an interest in products other than life insurance, but they never rose to the same level of conviction and commitment in any of his writings.

Woody loved to quote Shakespeare in his speeches and his writings. One of his favorite passages was from “First Part of King Henry IV.” In this exchange, Owen Glendower says, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Whereupon, Hotspur replies, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them.”

I believe Woody liked this passage because it epitomized his own beliefs. Like Hostpur, Woody was a practical man, and not given to futile gestures or misplaced hope.

Over the years, I have heard many presentations to the industry from speakers of all stripes. But often I have left with the impression that some of them talked a good game–but I wondered if they could really deliver if they were on the firing line in the field.

Woody removed all doubts as to his own qualifications when, folllowing retirement as CEO of American General, he became an agent for that company. In 1979, he qualified for membership in the Million Dollar Round Table and went on in succeeding years to become a life member. He maintained membership and a high level of interest in the organization for 22 years. Woody not only talked a good game, but he demonstrated he was a player as well.

I started this piece by referring to Woody as a beloved legend. Perhaps an incident I remember will illustrate this aspect of his life. On a program a few years ago at the University of Houston, at a point late in his life, Woody lost his train of thought in the middle of a speech. I commented on this later to the program chairman and he replied, “Yes I know, Woody sometimes forgets, but everybody loves him so much, they dont care, and really dont notice it.”

No doubt others will write about Woodys accomplishments as the CEO of one of the most successful companies in our business. I know he provided great leadership in that capacity, but I remember him, as do tens of thousands of agents, as a great salesman who was rightfully dubbed “Mr. Life Insurance.”

Despite his high visibility and the strong positions he often took, I do not ever recall anyone uttering a negative word about Woody Woodson–truly an amazing accomplishment.

Woody was no Willy Loman, the tragic figure in Arthur Millers “Death of a Salesman.” Rather, he personified the best in a salesman and left a legacy that will continue to shine brightly on that particular enterprise. He is gone now–but Woody and his wisdom will long be remembered.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, August 13, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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