From Bloomfield Village to Tiananmen Square, ABC News’ Bob Woodruff covers the world.
Army Specialist Ira Brownridge, a wounded soldier, joins ABC News reporter and Michigan native Bob Woodruff, as “honorary captains” for the coin toss in honor of Veterans Day in 2010.
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The latest chapter in the remarkable life of Bob Woodruff, a correspondent at ABC News, is taking place in Beijing. There have been many stops along the way for the well-traveled journalist, and Woodruff is quick to point out his love of exploring is all because of the distinctive experience he had at Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills some 40 years ago.
“It’s where I developed my wanderlust,” he laughs. “Maybe it was given to me or I just grabbed it, I don’t know. But that’s where I learned to really think more in-depth. If you grow up in a place that is removed or insulated, and you start reading about things you’re willing to think differently about, I think you want to travel.”
Woodruff’s journey began in Bloomfield Village, where he not only vividly remembers the neighborhood of his youth, but also can pass along directions to the street where he grew up. “You go north on Cranbrook, past Seaholm High School,” he says, “then past Maple Road. Amberly Road is right there, between Seaholm and Covington Middle School.”
The 54-year-old Woodruff has fond memories of living on Amberly and the simple life he enjoyed in the late 1960s. “We wandered the streets freely,” he says. “It was pretty cool — empty lots everywhere, not developed like it is now. There were dogs all over the place, chasing cars. Lots of sports going on, too. We had our own football team on our street, one street of Catholic guys playing against another. A lot of them ended up going to Brother Rice High School.”
Woodruff’s goal was to play baseball at Cranbrook. “I was a baseball freak,” he says. “I was a catcher. And I remember in ninth grade I threw the ball down to second base as a guy was stealing, and just at that same moment the coach was running across the field, right behind the pitcher, and the ball hit him in the head. The next day I was cut.”
Undaunted, Woodruff found his true athletic calling almost by accident.
“I had an awesome black Lab named Shannon,” he says. “Shannon loved to play catch with a ball and I was just so tired of having slime on my hands, I picked up a lacrosse stick and started using that to throw the ball with her. And I just did it endlessly.”
It clearly paid off. By the time Woodruff graduated from Colgate University in 1983, he had amassed 184 points (131 goals and 53 assists) playing lacrosse, and that number remains third in school history on the all-time scoring list. Then it was on to the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. “I guess I always loved debate,” Woodruff says, “and law was a great form of debate. I also think it’s a great way to develop the brain.”
He graduated from law school in 1987 and was doing M&A work in the New York law firm of Shearman and Sterling, seemingly headed for a comfortable career as a lawyer.
“Then one day that October, the market collapsed and dropped 22 percent,” he says. “Nobody was doing M&A, and I was so bored. I’d studied Chinese when I was at law school, and I was infatuated with China, so I shocked the people at the firm. I told them, ‘I know I’ve only been here eight months, but I want to take a year off to go teach law in China.’ And they said OK, go for it.”
Woodruff and his wife, Lee, had been married just two days in 1988 when they left for Beijing. While there, the young couple had barely settled into their new life when the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in 1989. “That was (an influential) moment in life for me and my wife,” Woodruff says, “and (we’ll never forget) what we witnessed in terms of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It changed my life completely. I was hired by CBS as a driver. I wasn’t fluent in Chinese, but I spoke the language well enough to get them around town.”
Later that same year, he and Lee returned to the United States and Shearman and Sterling’s office in San Francisco, where Woodruff fully expected to resume his legal career.
“I thought I was going to fall in love with law practice when I came back from Tiananmen Square,” he says, “but I didn’t. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what I experienced with CBS during that time in China. And I knew I really wanted to go back and do what seemed to be a great dream job and be a journalist. We had a brand-new son. I would have to take a gigantic pay cut, but I told Lee, ‘I think this is the time in my life that I feel free to do it.’ ”
Lee Woodruff was all in. “She was so open to it all,” Woofruff says. “She’s been remarkable. So I took that gigantic pay cut, became a journalist, and never looked back.”