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A Tribute to Woodie Flowers and His Powerful Idea of ‘Gracious Professionalism’


It’s never easy when a hero leaves us. With the recent death of Woodie Flowers, the FIRST community has been mourning the passing of a legend in STEM innovation and advocacy. Woodie passed away on October 11, 2019 at the age of 75 and is survived by his wife Margaret Flowers, his sister Kay Wells, and his nephew David Morrison.

Woodie was a trailblazer who, over the course of his life, shaped generations of students that are today’s STEM leaders. The result of his efforts changed the lives of people across the globe. So, while a single article about Woodie can’t capture the whole picture of his legacy, it can give us a sense of how special this man truly was.

What Woodie Flowers Was All About

After Dean Kamen founded FIRST, he collaborated with Woodie, an MIT-educated STEM genius, on the creation of the famous FIRST Robotics Competition. After that, Woodie jumped head first into FIRST‘s mission while also maintaining an influential presence in the STEM world. For example, Woodie held the following positions:

  • Co-Chair of the FIRST Executive Advisory Board Distinguished Advisor to FIRST
  • Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

During that time, Woodie coined the term Gracious Professionalism®, which nicely summarizes what Woodie was all about. The phrase captures what made him likeable to so many people and also what made him successful.

FIRST has a nice bird’s-eye-view of Woodie’s three decades spent in STEM advocacy:

Throughout the 30 years of FIRST, Woodie has been an incredible supporter of our mission, a friend to everyone he met, and an inspiration to our students, alumni, mentors, volunteers, supporters, and staff. Woodie’s legacy will live on indefinitely through the gracious nature of our community and our ongoing commitment to empowering educators and building global citizens. Our Woodie Flowers Award recipients, past and future, will carry on his legacy as mentors who inspire young people through the art and science of engineering and design.

If you’re curious about what the term “gracious professionalism” meant to Woodie and how that ethos shaped his life, you can hear a definition from the man himself in this YouTube video.

In a nutshell, it’s an attitude that embraces the pursuit of the highest excellence possible while also nurturing a perspective that values other people and fosters respect among competitors. As FIRST puts it:

“With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process…No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either.

Knowledge, competition, and empathy are comfortably blended…One can add to society and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing one has acted with integrity and sensitivity.”

In other words, it’s a way of looking at life (and the inevitable moments of competition that come with life) with a strategic, others-focused “win-win” mindset instead of the typical win- lose attitude. There is competition, yes, but even competitors can find common ground and come together to support a broader vision bigger than their personal goals (even as they pursue those personal goals with excellence and integrity). This attitude can be applied in both the micro (i.e. kids getting along and respecting each other at robot competitions) and the macro (i.e. when those kids grow up and run large competing companies, the companies foster a mindset of mutual respect and cooperation instead of a ruthless win-lose mindset).

In the big picture and in the long run, the “gracious professionalism” approach can not only change a single robot competition, it can change the culture of communities and even nations.

Another term which has gone hand in hand with Gracious Professionalism has been Coopertition®. This means “displaying unqualified kindness and respect in the face of fierce competition.” It doesn’t mean you decrease the intensity of competition, but it means helping and empowering others whenever possible.

It’s about selflessness and having a vision bigger than an individual’s or organization’s self-interest. Woodie Flowers was all about that, and he was able to spread that vision to generations of students across the world.

Nationwide Tributes

After his death, the New York Times had a touching tribute about his life, “Woodie Flowers, an innovative and flamboyant mechanical engineering professor at M.I.T. (he liked to roller-blade and ride unicycles through its august halls) who championed a hands-on learning philosophy that reshaped engineering and design education and turned him into something of a celebrity…”

The Boston Globe spoke about his impact, He had been the Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of mechanical engineering, though no title could quite encompass his impact and presence at robotics competitions. With a voice that never lost its Deep South beginnings…Dr. Flowers was a cheerleader and taskmaster who stressed the importance of individual accomplishment and of learning to work as part of a team.”

The Sunday Today Show featured Woodie in a special segment titled, A Life Well Lived had this to say, “Dr. Woodie Flowers was an inspiration to generations of the designers who have shaped our world…”

Woodie’s alma mater, MIT, certainly had a lot to say about Woodie too. What’s amazing is that FIRST, though a primary mission of his life, was only one of the STEM-based competitions that he helped create. As MIT notes: “Flowers was instrumental in shaping MIT’s hands-on approach to engineering design education, first developing teaching methods and learning opportunities that culminated in a design competition for class 2.70, now called 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). This annual MIT event, which has now been held for nearly five decades, has impacted generations of students and has been emulated at universities around the world.”

Here are some interesting factoids you’ll learn about Woodie from reading the in-depth MIT tribute:

  • He earned the rank of Eagle Scout as a kid.
  • He loved building cars and rockets as a teenager.
  • He enjoyed camping and collecting/studying butterflies.
  • He designed above-knee prosthetics throughout his career as a scientist.
  • His wife Margaret was a partner in everything he did in the STEM world.
  • He hosted the beloved PBS show “Scientific American Frontiers” in the early 1990s, and he earned a regional Emmy Award for his work on the show.

As far as his work with FIRST, the numbers speak for themselves. FIRST robotics, which has followed the tracks that Dean and Woodie have laid, has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon that serves 660,000 students from more than 100 countries annually. It also gives scholarship opportunities to high school students that total over $80 million dollars.

Woodie’s Impact Closer to Home

When news of Woodie’s passing reached the FIRST in Texas community, social media was where they initially shared their thoughts, experiences and messages of condolences.

Woodie Flowers has inspired millions of people around the world, our team included. It’s painful to believe he’s truly passed away, seeing as he’s become an immortal icon in all of our hearts. Thank you for everything Woodie. Thank you for truly being a good soul. #WoodieFlowers — John Jay Robotics (@TeamOrion3240) October 13, 2019

FRC 2468 Tribute Tweet about Woodie Flower PicsWe are deeply saddened to hear about the loss of Woodie Flowers. He was truly a wonderful man and an inspiration to robotics teams all around the world. 2468 sends their condolences to his friends and family🙏❤️ #WoodieFlowers — Team Appreciate (@FRC2468) October 14, 2019

Dr. Woodie Flowers made a major impact on the many of the members of FIRST. We will miss his amazing ideas and dreams he would share with us every year. He will truly be missed #woodieflowers #FIRST #morethanrobots… — Awtybots (@awtybots5829) October 14, 2019

Woodie Flowers with the Woodrow Wilson Robocats FRC TeamThe Robocats are tremendously grateful for the bold, life-changing influence Woodie Flowers had around the world. We’ve all been touched significantly by his visionary leadership + will continue to be inspired long into the future. May we all live so such may be said of us all. — Woodrow Robotics (@the_robocats) October 17, 2019

Woodie Flowers’ contributions to the FIRST community changed the lives of Team 2583 and countless other teams across the nation and the world. The Robowarriors are forever grateful. Rest in Peace. #RIP #WoodieFlowers — Westwood Robotics (@wwrobowarriors) October 14, 2019

It is with a heavy heart that we mourn the death of an innovator & legend who impacted FIRST Robotics. We will continue to demonstrate your lasting impact through Gracious Professionalism. Thank you Woodie for teaching us what matters most. — Bronc Botz (@BroncBotz) October 12, 2019

We are shocked and have no words. Woodie taught us to bring heart, empathy, compassion and our integrity to everything we do. We will do our very best to honor his legacy and make him proud. Goodbye Woodie. We will miss you so very much.  – Howdy Bots – FRC #6377 (@HowdyBots6377) October 12, 2019

The FIRST Community has just lost a legend that leaves a legacy behind. His impact in shaping lives will continue to shape the future. Our deepest condolences to his wife Margaret Flowers. Thank You #DrGP for being an Inspiration to young people all over the world.🙏❤🤖💙🙏😥 — Mighty ROBO-RANGERS Parent Page (@ROBORANGERTeams) October 12, 2019

Woodie, thank you for your influence, your energy and your inspiration. You will be missed but not forgotten. 💚 #morethanrobots #woodieflowers — Pearadox Robotics (@FRC5414) October 14, 2019

These are just a few examples of the messages the FIRST in Texas community shared online. To see more tributes use the hashtag #WoodieFlowers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Social media wasn’t the only place where stories about Woodie and his impact were shared. We also received emails remembering Woodie like this one from Patricia Baumhart:

picture of Patricia Baumhart with Woodie Flowers at FIRST Championship in HoustonI’m recalling 2017 FTC Worlds when, in his address to the FTC students, Woodie encouraged the youth to be creative in thinking about how to use their talents and abilities to help others.  I only briefly met him but from what I’ve read and observed, he did just that – his contributions to the vision for FIRST and his work with the FIRST team in executing such, is and will continue to have ongoing ripple effects, touching MANY lives.  The generation of kids growing up participating in FIRST programs are and will continue to have a HUGE positive impact on the world, starting with the communities in which they are actively involved and reaching further through the inventions that they will inevitably create during their lifetimes.  The focus on gracious professionalism and other FIRST values have helped form a strong foundation upon which the youth will grow their problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, communication, and leadership skills, as well as their confidence, positive outlook and knowledge that they have agency in creating a good future.  His work is much admired and appreciated. “  

We think Patricia’s experience with Woodie and the long-term impact of his work within FIRST summarizes the overall thoughts many of us had when it came to Woodie as it was a common theme we heard time and time again.

Woodie and His Legacy – The Mission Continues

Dr. Woodie Flowers challenged us to be gracious professionals. He asked us to think critically and act accordingly. He inspired us to make our world a better place.  However, one of the greatest gifts he gave to students, coaches, mentors, and the FIRST community was his time. He listened. He shared. He was present and in the moment.

FIRST in Texas strives to replicate the “gracious professionalism” that Woodie built into the lifeblood of his STEM advocacy. It’s a compass that informs everything we do, whether it’s ensuring our robot competitions are both excellent and encouraging for all of its participants or helping our volunteers and mentors be as effective as possible while also having plenty of fun. The exciting part is that even though Woodie has passed away, his vibrant ethos and vision for the world is still alive and well. In fact, every year his vision expands and influences more kids.

While the FIRST community has indeed lost a great hero in Dr. Woodie Flowers, we will never forget his generous spirit and are thankful for his Gracious Professionalism model. His legacy will live on, endure, and thrive for generations of future FIRSTers.