After 35 years, Orange Town Moderator Christopher Woodcock bids adieu 

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 01-09-2023 12:03 PM

ORANGE — When annual Town Meeting convenes in June it will mark the first time in 35 years Christopher Woodcock hasn’t called the session to order.

The lifelong Orange resident has opted not to run for another term as the town’s moderator, ending a career of one-year terms that started in 1988.

“It’s been a good run and a true privilege to serve the town all these years, and through 35 years I’ve been able to grow and evolve with the role and do, maybe, my small part to give back to my community,” said Woodcock, who turns 68 in March. “But nothing lasts forever, and I’m getting a little bit older and I had been thinking for a couple of years about retiring from the role. And when I contemplated re-election this year, it simply seemed like the right time to move on and give someone new, maybe someone younger, the opportunity to take on the moderator’s role.”

Thursday is the final day to pick up nominations papers, which must be returned to Orange Town Hall by Jan. 17. Though there was once a per-meeting stipend of moderators in Orange, this is no longer the case.

In addition to ensuring annual and special Town Meetings are run fairly and efficiently, a moderator also appoints the members of the Finance Committee, the Human Resource Board and the town’s representatives to the Franklin County Technical School Committee. Woodcock described the job as “a little bit like the home plate umpire in a baseball game or the referee in a football game.”

“Being moderator really became part of my identity,” he said, in an interview at his home. “I see people in town, they say, ‘Hey, mister moderator.’ And I would actually say that the skills that I learned, gained at Town Meeting were actually very helpful in my professional life.”

A journalism major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Woodcock worked as a reporter for the Greenfield Recorder from 1978 to 1985, mostly covering North Quabbin towns, before spending 10 years as a legislative aide for Democrat Carmen Buell, Greenfield’s then-state representative. He then worked a couple of years working in public relations at UMass Medical Center in Worcester and was a director of corporate marketing and communications at what is now Johnson Controls in Westminster for 22 years. He retired in 2018.

“One of the things I think that attracted me to the job is that I’ve always loved Town Meeting and I see it as a town-honored tradition — a very pure form of democracy,” Woodcock said.

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Jane Peirce, who chairs the Orange Selectboard, said Woodcock’s departure will leave a big void.

“It certainly requires somebody with a very good sense of appropriate process and rule-making and how to follow the rules,” she said.

Peirce said she has known Woodcock for years because he graduated with her brother.

“It’s going to be a monumental change for us. (Woodcock has) been with us for so long. He’s an institution,” she said. “He’ll be very hard to replace. He’s actually irreplaceable. He leaves big shoes.”

Woodcock recalled how there was no moderator on the ballot for the 1988 election and people encouraged him to run as a write-in candidate.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t think I want to do that. I don’t think I’d be able to do that. It doesn’t seem like it’s really my thing,’” Woodcock said. “But … I had some relevant skills and attributes. I was working in government and I had covered … Orange Town Meetings for a few years. So I had a pretty good understanding of how Town Meeting worked.”

He said he made hundreds of phone calls to potential voters and on the day of the election in the Orange Armory he handed out stickers bearing his name so people could place the sticker on their ballot. He won roughly 800-72 against another write-in candidate.

Ken Duffy, who now chairs the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee in Athol, was Woodcock’s predecessor and coached him after the latter was elected.

“(Duffy) was very good. He spent a lot of time with me, going over things,” Woodcock said. “You prepare yourself as best you can, but lots of different things happen during the course of a meeting.”

And Woodcock is willing to offer that same type of guidance and mentorship to anyone willing to succeed him.

Keeping it light

Woodcock has been known for starting each annual and special Town Meeting with cheesy humor. He has told “dad jokes,” donned a horse mask, and worn a wig to look more like actress Melanie Lynskey in a playful appeal to Hulu executives to give him a role in “Castle Rock,” the Stephen King-inspired series partially filmed in Orange.

This tradition of silliness dates to his first special Town Meeting, held two or three weeks after he was sworn in.

“I was kind of petrified to find myself, two or three weeks later, standing behind the podium on the stage at Mahar, moderating a Town Meeting with hundreds of people out in the audience,” he said.

A 1973 graduate of Mahar, he commented off the cuff at the meeting that the previous time he had been on that stage he was dressed as Brazilian samba singer Carmen Miranda (with the signature fruit hat outfit) for a variety show with fellow high school senior boys.

“I recall that that remark generated a couple of laughs and seemed to be well-received and seemed to sort of break the tension a little bit,” he recounted. “So from there was kind of born what became the tradition of … trying to do something, add some humor, or some kind of a joke at the beginning of each meeting.

“Most of the humor has been self-deprecating. You know, I put on a silly mask or I tell a corny joke. Probably often people are like, ‘That wasn’t funny,’” he went on to admit. “But it was really me trying to put a unique, personal touch on Town Meeting and my way of trying to lighten the mood, add some levity to what are often very dry proceedings.”

Woodcock also said his wife, Joanne, has always been very supportive and provided him with valuable feedback.

“She’s also very good at being a sounding board on my jokes,” he said. “They would have been even worse without her advanced critique before the meetings. I’m sure my successor will do a great job and will probably have better jokes than I do.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.

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