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FRANCIS H. WOODS
AN ALBANIAN whom his fellow-citizens delight to honor is Francis H. Woods. He was born forty-five years ago in this city, which has always been his cherished home. His love for the city and his pride in its history have often found eloquent expression in him.
Early in the present century his parents emigrated to this country from Longford county, Ireland – a. county which gave Maria Edgeworth and Oliver Goldsmith to the world, and which is also notable for being the birthplace of the progenitors of the Clintons, so illustrious in the history of the state. No wonder then that he glories in his ancestral land or that he is in full sympathy with her struggling patriots.
He received his early education at the school of Capt. Michael O’Sullivan, and subsequently took the English course in the Albany Boys’ academy, where he won the principal’s prize for his essay on “Mahomet.” His favorite teacher here was Prof. E. P. Waterbury. A beautiful friendship existed between teacher and pupil which only the hand of death could break.
He soon began to take an active part in the more public duties of life. His ardent nature loved excitement and while a delegate from the famous engine company No. ii, he was, after a contest which is still recalled, elected president of the Albany fire department in 1865, and by his prudent management secured the stability of the relief fund – a fund which is to this day accomplishing great good. A quarter of a century ago the fire department had a strange fascination for the young men of the cities. Its perils and dangers and unselfish labors for the saving of life and property of the citizens made the engine-house the natural rendezvous of the spirited young men of the town. It enshrined the heroic element of our civic life. Frank Woods exemplified this spirit in a high degree.
In the meantime he was preparing himself to enter into other exciting fields of action – those of the law and politics. In 1865 he was admitted to the bar, having made his preliminary studies in the office of Mr. Warren S. Kelly, and subsequently going into partnership with ex-Judge James A. McKown. His popularity so rapidly increased that in 1867 he was elected to the assembly over the Hon. Henry Smith. Mr. Smith had carried the same district the year before by seven hundred majority, but was defeated by Mr. Woods, after an exciting contest, by three hundred votes. Mr. Woods was a useful and active member of the legislature and served with much credit on the committee on judiciary. At the expiration of his term he again devoted himself to his professional work with marked success. But this success was now to meet with a temporary obstruction. In 1871 he was seriously injured in a runaway accident, which resulted in a present slight lameness. After a long and painful confinement, while still an invalid, in 1873, he was persuaded to become a candidate for justice of the justices’ court, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Dennis B. Gaffney, who, like Mr. Woods himself, had been a favorite spokesman of his party, and was elected by fifteen hundred majority. He was again elected for a full term by three thousand majority, and again for a third term without opposition, five thousand republican ballots having been cast for him.
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In 1878, on the death of Hon. Terrence J. Quinn, Mr. Woods was induced, against his personal inclinations, to be a candidate for congress. Hon. John M. Bailey was the republican nominee, while Henry Hilton, of Guilderland, was the greenback labor candidate. Mr. Bailey was elected by a plurality of one hundred and ninety-eight; Mr. Hilton polling five thousand votes, four-fifths of which were concededly democratic. It is a political tradition that certain politicians proposed to count Mr. Woods in at any cost, but that he indignantly refused to tolerate any such scheme and denounced it. Regarding this matter the Albany Evening Journal declared that Mr. Woods had borne himself through the canvass and through the subsequent doubt ” in an honorable and dignified manner, worthy of the good name he bears and the personal esteem in which he is held; he comes out of the contest without dishonor,” And the Albany Argus remarked that he had proved himself a strong man to the state and a very honorable and excellent one to the county, and that he had made himself eligible to even higher marks of confidence by his party.
After an honorable, painstaking and impartial career, Mr. Woods retired from the justices’ court in 1883. On this occasion many members of the bar united in presenting him with an elegant cane and a handsomely engrossed testimonial in which they state: ” We take pleasure in saying that your influence has been uniformly and constantly exerted to protect litigants from imposition and to secure them their rights, and to prevent them from incurring the pains and expense of hopeless litigation. You have never fostered strife or contention, but have always, within the limits prescribed by the proprieties of your office, striven to secure an amicable settlement of differences rather than to encourage their determination by course of an action. In your individual administration of justice we have always found you possessed of legal learning well calculated to adorn the higher courts, careful and painstaking in the researches into the law and facts rendered necessary by the exigencies and peculiarities of the particular action and notably correct in your conclusions and just in your decisions, nor should we omit mention of what is a crowning merit in a judicial officer: Patience is a large element of justice, and we acknowledge the uniform exercise on your part toward the members of the bar of patient attention to and careful consideration of their oft-times diverse and conflicting views; and to this patience you join unvarying courtesy.”
In the fall of 1883 Mr. Woods was unanimously nominated by his party for the office of surrogate, and was elected by a commanding majority. He discharged the duties of that important office for the full term of six years with credit to himself and satisfaction to the people. On his retirement every newspaper in the county made him the subject of laudatory editorial notice, commending him for his industry, courtesy, learning and integrity, and showing a remarkable consensus of favorable opinion as to the judicial services of a magistrate, who for an extended term was engaged in adjusting the most delicate interests and determining the administrations of hundreds of large estates where a lack of good nature and polite attention and sound judgment is often more annoying and harmful than a want of legal erudition.
The period of Mr. Woods’ incumbency as surrogate is the brightest chapter in his career, as it is one of the most honorable and creditable chapters in the county history. Mr. Woods is now serving as a member of the commission recently appointed by Governor Hill, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, to propose amendments to the sixth or judiciary article of the state constitution. This commission embraces within it some of the most distinguished lawyers of the state – a designation to its membership is a rare distinction.
A good business man who observed his course as surrogate has stated that his quick, sure judgment as to bonds presented in that court was quite remarkable, and so quietly exercised as not to be generally known, but its fruit was the comparatively small loss to estates during his term. His natural characteristics as a peacemaker promoted many settlements, healed dissension and warded off expensive litigation. He has had many important cases, among the most noted of which were the contested wills of William Hawley, Weare C. Little, Robert Higgins, Philip Luke, John H. Lasher, Sarah Lansing, John J. Oliver, Mary E. Sterling, John D. Turnbull, Sarah J. Ferry, Isabella Sarauw, Seeley Lockwood, and Eliza Ann Vedder. His decision affirming the will of Eliza Ann Vedder shows a deep study of the law as to the bearing of delusions in the question of testamentary capacity. His probate judgments stand unreversed. His decision affirming the constitutionality of what is known as the collateral tax law, was affirmed by the court of appeals in the estate of Mary MacPherson, and he has since made many notable rulings under this same law, especially those exempting all legacies under $500 from taxation. In court he was attentive to hear, quick to understand, and slow to decide. He has executive ability of the first order.
As a democratic orator, Mr. Woods most notable work was in his friend, Mayor Nolan’s campaign; in the various addresses he made while accompanying Mr. Manning and the Democratic Phalanx to the Chicago convention, which nominated Grover Cleveland; in the rejoicing journey home from there; at the great Fort Plain meeting with Mr. Apgar, being the first Cleveland meeting in the interior of the state; and in a speech at Franklin Square, at Troy, which is said to have done much to stem the tide that was running toward Blaine and Butler in that city. He displayed great activity, and was at his best in scores of outdoor gatherings in the campaign of 1888, and accompanied his friend, John Boyd Thacher, in a part of the novel cruise of the boat Thomas Jefferson down the Erie Canal, making speeches of electric power at Schenectady, West Troy and Albany from the bow of the boat. But in the intense heat of political speech he never forgets that his opponents are his neighbors and fellow-citizens. He wisely seeks to inspire his own ranks with that enthusiasm which is essential to success in political warfare.
It is understood that Mr. Woods devotes much study and care to the preparation of his addresses on ceremonial occasions and takes no little pride in them. Among the most notable of these are his oration in the old capitol on the 4th of July, 1877, in which his characterization of the new capitol as, ” a dream of beauty frozen in granite,” will be remembered; his welcome to Parnell and Dillon in 1880, which Mr. Parnell pronounced ” a speech of magnificent eloquence; ” his address at the bar meeting on the death of Hale Kingsley; his address for Company B to the New Haven Greys; his response to the toast ” City of Albany,” at the semi-centennial of the Burgesses corps; his address to the delegates to the French convention, which was copied into the French papers of Montreal, Quebec and Paris; and his speech at Faneuil hall to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery company. Among the brightest and wittiest of his efforts was the response to the toast of “The Young Physician ” at the State Homoeopathic society’s banquet in 1889. His response to the memory of Burns at the banquet celebrating the unveiling of the monument of the poet in our park was glowing, tender and sympathetic and will abide long in the memory of the Scotchmen who heard it. On St. Valentine’s eve in 1889, at the famous banquet of the Holland society, to the toast ” Our Brother Nationalities,” he won the rapt attention and then the thundering plaudits of as distinguished a company as ever gathered in Albany on festive occasion, in a speech at once instructive, entertaining, eloquent in phrasing and charming in expression.
Judge Woods is a born orator, and he may justly rank with the really good speakers of the country. His appearance on the platform is indicative of power and ability. His voice is flexible and resonant, and partakes more of the rotund quality than is generally found in voices not trained in the actor’s art. His method of speaking is strong and effective, his articulation clear and distinct, his modulations harmonious, and his transitions well defined. Possessing an abundant vocabulary, he is never at a loss for a word, and there is no hesitancy or tripping in his speech. When deeply moved his words come forth with a dramatic force and intensity which arouses in his hearers the emotions which he himself feels. His gestures, never redundant, are graceful and appropriate, and are used with discretion. Hence he commands attention at a point where most speakers grow monotonous, and, therefore, weak and ineffective. The contrast between his early campaign speeches and the addresses delivered by him within the past two years – one we particularly recall, and that was the address on the ” Life and Labors of Father Matthew,” which was not a temperance lecture, but a beautiful word painting – shows marks of decided difference in style, and proves the Judge to possess the requisites of an accomplished orator – the power to adapt himself to the subject, the time and the occasion.
He is an intelligent lawyer, a lover of books, a sound adviser. His best and most far-sighted friends believe that in his ripened powers and with his special gifts, his field of highest and most congenial work will be as an advocate at the bar, and in the high debate of legislative councils and deliberative assemblies. Simple-mannered and kind-hearted, he has in the love of many friends a support that has been generous and constant.