Catching the Wave

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Woody Connette ’74 leads United Cerebral Palsy’s national board

When Edward G. “Woody” Connette graduated from Davidson in 1974, the political science major did what many of his friends did: went to law school. “I was clueless,” Connette says. “I showed up at orientation not knowing whether it was two or three years. I was a lost ball in tall weeds.”

That may be the last time where focus eluded him. Today Connette is a highly respected attorney known for his dedication and vision on behalf of “the little guy,” whether it’s through his partnership at Essex Richards law firm in Charlotte or in his longtime volunteer work with United Cerebral Palsy. A former president of the state chapter, he began chairing the national UCP board in late 2012 and will continue until late 2014.

“On personal, professional and civic levels, it is all aligned for him,” says Phelps Sprinkle ’93, executive vice president of Easter Seals UCP of North Carolina & Virginia, where Connette still serves on the board. “He feels we are only as great as we treat our most disadvantaged citizens. That’s the important thing for him in life. He has a real passion for it.”

Stephen Bennett, executive director of the national UCP organization, describes him this way: “Woody has dedicated his life and his leadership to civil rights and social justice. For us, being one of these large charities in America with an old brand name, to have a leader who is not just a civic leader but has been involved in our issues and cares deeply, is pretty unique.”

With Medicaid and other reimbursements declining, UCP’s nearly 90 affiliates nationwide are working hard to meet the needs of developmentally and intellectually challenged people and their families. The national organization focuses primarily on what the affiliates have little time to consider: the big picture of funding models and services. That Connette is chair is opportune, Sprinkle says. “Woody is a visionary. He likes to think of the future, and he’s good at it.”

Says Connette, “It’s achieving the dream where people with disabilities are fully integrated into the fabric of their families and communities and can enjoy lives without limits.”

Such a big challenge doesn’t faze him. Behind his Clark Kent persona is the proverbial man of steel, physically and mentally. “He listens, sits quietly, gauges others and then when it’s his time to talk, he’ll be halfway through what he’s saying and you say to yourself, ‘Holy Cow!’” says UCP’s Bennett.

A surfer at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. since growing up in nearby Wilmington, Connette completed the Ironman World Triathlon in Hawaii in 1991. Today the Charlotte resident surfs in Australia, Costa Rica and elsewhere around the world despite adding a heart stent in 2011. He also aspires to climb the tallest mountain in every state and has already checked off the formidable duo of Denali in Alaska and Rainier in Washington.

Connette, 61, found his calling to help the disadvantaged when he went to work for a legal-aid group two years out of UNC law school. He began volunteering for UCP through an affiliate in the 1990s, and as an attorney, helped bring class-action lawsuits that improved services for developmentally disabled people in North Carolina and Tennessee. “If I had had any idea that a law practice could be this much fun,” he says today, “I would have been a more serious student and enjoyed it a lot more.”

—Susan Shackelford

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