Rhys Wood epitomized the sort of person of whom Tom Brokaw wrote in his book, “The Greatest Generation.” Before his 86 years ended, he’d lived through the Great Depression. He didn’t recognize it as anything horrid: “It was just what fate had dished up and you lived with it,” he’d say. He served in World War II behind the lines in the Japanese-occupied Philippines and three times escaped prisoner of war status at their hands to continue leading a group of guerrillas who caused the occupiers great discomfort.
Honorably discharged at war’s end, he resumed his teacher’s career and, in the course of teaching in the Clover Park School District, met and surreptitiously dated his soon to be wife, Ruth Bilden, a fellow teacher. School policy forbade opposite-sex teachers to fraternize. His undercover guerrilla work had prepared him well for this bit of subterfuge.
He and Ruth became man and wife shortly before the Army called him back to duty in March of ’51 to serve in the Korean “police action.” Thereafter, he chose to make the Army his career and, with Ruth, served in various locations, including Germany. They were blessed with the births of John, Donn, Elise, Sally and Brian during this period. In 1967, the family settled on property on Vaughn Bay, where Rhys and family designed and built their waterfront home. The kids grew up there before going their separate ways to produce grandchildren and great grandchildren who were the delights of Rhys’ and Ruth’s lives. As the children grew and attended local schools, Rhys supported the family with the proceeds of his ingenuity and hard work as owner-operator of his own construction firm.
It was common knowledge that “everyone knows Rhys Wood” and when asked, “Who is this guy?” virtually any local would respond, “If we had an election, he’d be our mayor.” He began most mornings after retiring from the construction business with what he called “my coffee bunch” at the Huckleberry Inn in Key Center, where they “solved all the world’s problems.”
He was everywhere. If he learned of someone hard on their luck and needing help of whatever kind, Wood was there in no time to help put on a roof, make sure the mud in a driveway was covered with crushed rock, mysteriously provide firewood for those who had none, repair or have repaired a vehicle for someone in need, drive someone to the doctor, and on and on. He was a natural to be a founding and longtime member of the Board of Directors for the KP Food Bank, which ultimately became the KP Community Services/Senior Center and Food Bank.
He became a charter member of the KP Lions Club when it was formed in 1983, served as its president, and was a comically demanding tail twister for the club as he extracted coins from the members to fund the club’s efforts in behalf of the community. “We serve!” he would proclaim. “That’s our international motto!” he’d say and produce an application for membership for anyone who was within hearing.
He was also a charter member of the old VFW Post 4990, helping organize the group’s community-supportive projects, and after the demise of the post, he continued on with the KP Veterans Institute. He was an active member of the Elks Club and the Gig Harbor Eagles Aerie and part of the foundation of the Citizens Against Crime organization.
“It’s my sound system,” he’d declare, “and I’ll say whatever I want,” as he served as the moderator for the annual KP Pioneer Day parade, calling everyone moving by the microphone by their first names; he knew everyone and everyone knew him and they were all fair game for his humorous roasting as they passed by to the laughter of all attending.
The same sound system and Wood’s same humorously acerbic commentary accompanied the annual Old Timers’ Day logging show at the Longbranch Improvement Club, as his daughter — whom he called his “son Sally” —provided him the vital statistics of the competitions.
Over the years, well over 100 friends sought out, and were rewarded by, Wood, who performed eulogies for their departed loved ones. In every case, he spent hours and hours researching the deceased’s life to ensure his talk was warm, accurate, personal and sincerely spoken.
For several of the KP Lions’ sponsored Citizens of the Year dinners, Wood and fellow Lion Frank Geary worked in the heat of the KP Civic Center kitchen preparing the dinner in much the fashion of Julia Childs — taking a sip or two of the “seasoning” as they proceeded. And Wood was justifiably proud of the sauce he prepared from his personal recipe for the club’s then-annual spaghetti dinners.
Because Lions Club members are not eligible for nomination as Citizens of the Year, and because so many thought Wood should be so honored, his daughter Elise colluded with the Lions to stage a bogus “auction” in the Longbranch Improvement Club once and lured her dad into the affair, having convinced him that he should auction off some item of his choosing. Upon entering the room, he was almost dumb-struck to see a banner stretching the length of the stage, proclaiming, “Citizen of the Millennium, Rhys Wood.” Elise said, “It’s the only time I can remember Dad being at a loss for words.”
Well over 200 friends gathered in the Key Peninsula Civic Center on a sun-swept mid-September Saturday to pay their respects to the man who had dedicated so much of his life to his country and his community. The ceremony was not sad. It was a testimonial to a man who had lived life to the fullest and shared it with so many in great good humor and encouragement. A life well lived. He went to join his loved wife, Ruth, who passed on just 18 days before. Following the ceremony, many gathered for graveside services at the Vaughn Cemetery.
The family fulfilled Rhys’ request by asking that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the KP Community Services and Food Bank, the KP Lions Club, or the KPVI.