By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

A teacher at heart

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterLarry Wood, director of the Evergreen museums, with his favorite plane — the Douglas A-4E Skyhawk. The Marine colonel flew 295 missions in Vietnam, most of them in the light, speedy A-4.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Larry Wood, director of the Evergreen museums, with his favorite plane — the Douglas A-4E Skyhawk. The Marine colonel flew 295 missions in Vietnam, most of them in the light, speedy A-4.

For him, teaching is both direct and indirect. “You spend your life mentoring people,” said Wood, former education director, and now executive director, at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.

That might mean working with students and teachers in the high school Engineering and Aerospace Sciences Academy, which meets in the space museum; keeping rigorous academic standards in a middle school science class while volunteering to coach after school sports; instructing fledgling pilots or showing experienced pilots how to teach; or acting as a commander.

As the latter, Wood said, he often was in a position to “convince a kid that what he wanted to do wouldn’t work, but what I wanted would work.”

That wasn’t always an easy lesson for younger Marines to follow, he said. He recalled how one balked, balling up his fist as if ready to punch his commander. Wood calmed him by explaining the dire consequences of that act, compared to the benefits of following orders.

Months later, the younger man thanked him for the life-changing experience. “You’re the first person to tell me ‘no’ and make it stick,” he said.

Later, when he taught at a middle school, and when he came to the museum, Wood continued that approach: maintaining standards, explaining benefits and setting high expectations.

“Teachers have a terrific influence,” he said. “I believe if you push kids, they respond. It’s like that at EASA, and those kids seem to thrive on that.”

Wood was born in McMinn-ville and raised in Portland. He spent summers picking cherries on his grandparents’ farm, where his uncle, Rollin Wood, still lives.

He attended Benson High School, then an all-boys’ school focusing on the sciences, math and technology. He had already been interested in mechanical workings, and the school sparked an interest in engineering. He went on to attend the University of Washington on a Naval ROTC scholarship.

During a family reunion one summer, the husband of his mother’s cousin, Marine Col. Robert Norton, asked him bluntly, “What are you going to do in the Navy?”

When young Wood said he planned to become a jet pilot, Norton challenged, “Why not fly with the best?” — in other words, the Marines.

“He became my mentor,” Wood said, fondly recalling the man he always called “Sir,” even when Wood was an officer himself.

After graduating from UW, Wood went directly into the Marine Corps’ officer training school. Then he did his pilot training, first the Air Force way, then the Navy way.

“They’re just different,” he said, not wanting to say one branch is better than another. “They both produce the best pilots in the world.”

He won his wings in 1968. Years later, he would take additional Navy training that would qualify him to land on and take off from aircraft carriers.

Wood went to Vietnam in March 1969 to fly the A-4 Skyhawk — his favorite of all the planes displayed at the air museum today.

He’s quick to tell visitors about the Skyhawk’s history.

Nicknamed “Heinemann’s Hot Rod,” the A-4 was designed by Edward Heinemann in the 1950s as a light-attack plane with a wingspan of 27 feet or less, enabling it to fit on the elevator of an older aircraft carrier without having its wings folded. It could take off from a carrier, deliver bombs and defend itself before returning to the ship’s deck.

“Naval aircraft were getting heavier, and they said he couldn’t make one lighter than 30,000 pounds,” Wood said. “So he designed a plane that weighed less than 12,000 — something small, simple and easy.”

The A-4 is also known as the last military airplane you could fly without a computer, said Wood, who flew both the one-man and two-man versions.

“I liked flying the Skyhawk,” he said. “It’s everything you read about it — very responsive, just a good plane.”

It was so small, he said, “you wear it instead of sitting in it.”

As an A-4 pilot, Wood flew combat missions in cooperation with slower, larger planes that stayed high while he went “high-speed, low-altitude.” Later, he flew a TA-4 as a fast forward air controller.

Almost always, he flew into enemy fire, screaming over North Vietnamese who were shooting from the ground. Pilots were focused on their mission of getting American ground troops out of trouble, so there was no time to think about danger.

“You’d see a disturbance in the air, heat waves, movement,” he said, “but you didn’t think about it. You were so well trained and so busy — too busy to be scared.”

Wood likes to sprinkle his conversation with quotations. About flying into a firefight, he quoted Winston Churchill: “There’s nothing as exhilarating as being shot at and missed.”

He racked up 295 combat missions in all before leaving Vietnam in early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon began withdrawing American troops.

After returning from Vietnam, Wood, who would remain in the Marines for nearly three more decades, became a teacher.

He trained replacement pilots heading to Vietnam. He flew one plane and his student flew another, copying his moves as they went through exercises such as dropping bombs.

Later, using a T-2 Buckeye, he was instructor for Marines who were learning to fly. An aircraft maintenance officer, he also taught Marines how to repair planes.

Still later, he worked as the executive officer for a program called MAWTS, or Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron.

“That was like graduate school,” he said. “Teaching people how to teach and how to integrate different kinds of planes into an organized strike force.”

In MAWTS, he said, participants also tried techniques and tactics to see how they could be used in various situations. For instance, standard procedures call for flying either fast and low or high and slow. In MAWTS, they looked at flying high and fast and descending at steep angles to drop bombs.

“You also look at what the bad guy can do, and how we can counter that,” he said.

Wood went on to teach at the Naval War College before retiring from the Marines in 1997.

He also ended his flying career then, knowing that flying private or commercial planes would never satisfy him like military planes had. “There’s no glory in driving a bus,” he quoted.

But he never left education.

He signed up for the “Troops to Teachers” program. Wanting to return to his home state, he enrolled in classes at Western Oregon University.

He did his student teaching at Whitaker Middle School, in the Salem-Keizer School District. Then he was hired there to teach eighth-grade science.

It wasn’t that different from teaching Marines, he said.

“Teaching is the same,” he said. “You just aim at your audience.”

Later, he moved to the new Claggett Creek middle school in the same district.

It was a high-poverty school with a lot of spirit, he said. “I had a lot of fun,” he said.

He still volunteers there, although he’s been retired since 2006. He’s the track starter and, most seasons, the timekeeper at football games.

Volunteering goes hand-in-hand with teaching, Wood said. “Smart teachers do that,” he said. “Kids appreciate having you out there. They see you in a different way, and you know who the kids are.”

In addition to volunteering at school, Wood had time to devote to the Evergreen museums after he retired. He worked as a docent and spoke to school groups.

In 2008, Evergreen founder Del Smith asked him to become the museum’s education director. Two years later, Smith asked him to be executive director.

Wood said he agreed, but stressed that he didn’t want to work full time, since he wanted flexibility and opportunities to see his grandchildren. Smith joked that it was just a half-time job — just 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Being director of the museum is time-consuming, Wood said, but he has “a great love for this institution.” And one of the main reasons for that is the chance it gives him to teach, and to be around the volunteer docents, many of them fellow veterans, who teach visitors about aviation and history.

By teaching through telling their personal stories, he said, “They make things come alive.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

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