Naples mourns loss of pioneering Realtor John R. Wood, considered 'larger than life'
From humble beginnings, John R. Wood carved out a life full of meaning and joy.
He didn't just build the successful real estate business that still bears his name.
He built a successful life — a life that touched so many others in Southwest Florida and beyond. For his positive impact and influence on others, he's remembered most.
Wood, founder of John R. Wood Properties, a Naples-based real estate firm, died Aug. 4, six weeks shy of his 92nd birthday.
Founded under a similar name in 1958, the firm still stands as the oldest active real estate brokerage in Southwest Florida. It's more than 60 years old.
After hanging up his hat as an attorney and relocating to the Naples area from Arkansas decades ago, John R. Wood became a true real estate pioneer, mostly brokering lots or acreage, because there weren't many homes to sell, with only a few thousand residents living here at the time.
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"Everyone was doing a lot of land sales back then. There just weren't that many homes in Naples because it was still so small, but there were a lot of people willing to buy land," said Phil Wood, John's only child.
While unscrupulous sellers misrepresented swampland as developable real estate at the time, John adopted a "walk on it before you buy" slogan, offering to take potential buyers on Jeep tours of available acreage, instead of deceptive helicopter flybys.
To him, ethics and honesty always mattered. So did community involvement and philanthropy.
"He was a mentor to me and definitely a role model," Phil said of his dad.
Phil joined his father in the real estate business in 1977 after graduating from college with a business degree.
"We were one of the top companies even then, with nine agents," he recalled. "That just shows you how small everything was back then."
Phil took over day-to-day operations as the firm's president and CEO about 25 years ago.
Yet, the elder Wood continued to serve as the company's board chairman and to sit on its executive committee for some time after mostly retiring in the mid-1990s.
By 2005, John had little involvement in the firm. By then, it had gained such a strong and diverse management team — and had grown in a way he never imagined when he started it on a shoestring budget.
Indeed, when he and his wife opened the company's first location on Fifth Avenue South in downtown Naples money was so tight that they rented out one of the desks to an insurance agency and another to a pest control business to afford their monthly payments, according to a family-written obituary.
The company has come a long way since then.
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A fierce competitor
Today, John R. Wood Properties ranks as one of Southwest Florida's largest real estate firms, with 19 offices in Lee and Collier counties — and more than 700 employees, some of whom have worked for the company for more than two decades.
From Jan. 1 through June 30, the company's agents sold more residential listings, closed more deals and achieved higher sales volume than any of its competitors in the region.
The Southwest Florida Multiple Listing Service, or MLS, shows the firm's agents have sold more than $1.6 billion in residential real estate year-to-date, beating the closest competitor by more than $42.3 million.
“In addition to a record-breaking 2020, we are having an impressive 2021, with hundreds of seven- and eight-figure sales as de-urbanization fuels the hot housing market,” Phil said.
Until recently, Phil had owned 100% of the company for about 15 years. Now, his two daughters share in the ownership.
In a strategic move to reflect its history, while emphasizing its continued use of modern technology, John R. Wood Properties recently announced a comprehensive rebranding effort.
John Wood and his older brother Jim caught the entrepreneurship bug from their father, who owned a fishing lure manufacturing business and a jukebox company in El Dorado, Arkansas.
The boys started their first business at their dad's store, selling model airplanes. At 17, John hit the road, traveling to dozens of stores out of state over the summer, to sell lures to sporting goods stores. It appeared sales and determination were in his blood.
A well-loved, jovial man, John will be sorely missed by his family and friends, as well as his former employees and peers, who he inspired with his deep business knowledge, giving heart and caring spirit.
"I was very fortunate to work with him. It was a lot of fun," Phil said.
While they sometimes butted heads over differences of opinion at management meetings, it "always worked out," he said.
"He was a role model to a lot of different people. Not so much for how to sell real estate, but just for how to lead your life," Phil said.
Then, there were the funny stories and countless jokes he loved to share.
One of his favorite jokes involved his native state. It went something like this: Did you know Arkansas is the only state mentioned in the Bible? Why? Because Noah looked out of the “Ark and saw.”
While John told many amusing stories, one that stands out to Phil involves his father's aunt with a false eye, who didn't see his cousin Thomas fall out of her car as she made a hard left turn. She kept driving, until finally noticing that he'd vanished from the back seat, with no help from her passengers.
"She was very mad no one told her because she couldn't see," Phil said with a chuckle.
In their younger years, John and Jim, and their cousin Thomas, could be rather mischievous.
At 5 or 6 years old, they took a family car for a spin. One of the boys pressed the accelerator crouched on the floor, while the others took over the steering wheel. Luckily, they had only a minor crash, but their parents "duly disciplined" them afterward, according to the family obituary.
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A different time
Born in 1929, in the small town near El Dorado, John grew up during the Great Depression, which taught him to be frugal and resourceful.
"In a lot of parts in the U.S., there were only outhouses. Some places didn't have electricity. It was a different time," Phil said.
Despite his mischief, John turned out to be a good student in grade school and college, showing his more serious side.
After high school, he started college at Louisiana Tech before a two-year tour of duty in the Navy following World War II.
After serving in the Navy, John finished his undergraduate studies at Henderson State College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where he met his wife Wanda.
Following graduation from the state college, the couple continued their studies at the University of Arkansas, where she earned a master's degree in English and he got a law degree. They saved up money to pay for their advanced degrees by working at a local drive-in movie theater, which closed long ago.
John practiced law for a few years in Arkadelphia, alongside his father-in-law, before deciding it wasn't his calling.
After that revelation, the couple packed up their lives and headed to Florida, following friends who'd moved to St. Petersburg.
On a weekend jaunt, they discovered Naples a few hours away and fell in love, seeing it as the perfect place to call home. They were sold.
John's father, who lived in Fort Myers, suggested he go into real estate, seeing the opportunity for growth in then-sleepy Southwest Florida.
Although John took and passed the Florida Bar exam, just in case his new career in real estate didn't pan out, he never returned to law. However, he still found his law degree of benefit in handling property exchanges and land sales.
Corey McCloskey, one of his granddaughters, also followed in his footsteps to become a local Realtor.
She's a Realtor and vice president of operations for John R. Wood Properties.
"It's amazing to be able to work here every day," McCloskey said. "I've been in this business for 18 years."
Although John was "small in stature, he was larger than life," she said.
"Growing up here in Naples, you couldn't go anywhere without running into somebody that he knew and he always had that amazing personal connection with a lot of people," McCloskey said.
Even when she traveled out of town to attend state and national real estate conventions, McCloskey would get the question: "How's John?"
"He touched so many lives, not only here locally, but all over the U.S.," she said.
Early on in his real estate career, John got involved in the Naples Board of Realtors. After serving two years as president, he went on to become chairman of the Florida Real Estate Commission, as well as president of the Florida Association of Realtors and then the National Association of Realtors.
McCloskey described her grandfather as the "most genuine and caring man."
While sometimes corny, she appreciated his jokes — and so did her children.
"I really don't know how or where he got them," she said. "He had an endless supply, and he had a great memory. "
Even in retirement, when John visited the headquarters or a sales office, he still took the time to visit and check in with every employee he came across, not only asking them questions about their jobs, but their families.
"He knew how to make you feel special," McCloskey said.
John's other granddaughter, Nikki Wood, who also works for his company as a Realtor, couldn't agree more.
She said she didn't know of anyone who didn't like her grandfather.
"He was an incredible person. An incredible grandfather, dad and husband — and anything, really," she said.
He not only preached about doing the right thing, she said, but showed how to do it by his own actions.
John had many good friends, including longtime Naples resident Norm Harris.
Harris met John in the late 1950s. He bought his first home in the area through John's real estate firm, when it was still in its infancy.
The two men later became close friends, after Harris took a job as the executive officer for the Naples Board of Realtors in 1964. They worked together closely in the two years John served as the board's president.
Harris characterized John as "diplomatic."
"I've never seen John get upset about anything," he said. "I've seen him handle difficult situations with grace, dignity and consideration. He could state his position, without trying to put the other side in a difficult position."
On top of that, John was just a "happy guy to be around," he said.
A friend to count on
Once competitors at different residential real estate firms, Harris went to work for John nearly 20 years ago and hasn't looked back
"He was probably one of the most honest and ethical people that I've ever met in my life. And certainly, he had a distinguished real estate career. Everybody that knew John respected him for his knowledge and his being just who he was. Everybody who was around him, he just made them feel better," Harris said.
You could always count on John for good advice and counsel, he said.
"John was always there," Harris said, "always willing to listen, the best that he could."
The fact that so many of John's employees have worked at his firm for more than two decades is telling.
"That's just extremely unusual in this business," Harris said. "And it's testimony to the fact that he's always managed and run a very good, highly respected and extremely professional company."
Spencer Haynes, a vice president of business development and broker for John R. Wood Properties, said John had been a good friend to his family for decades.
For Haynes, John's mentorship meant the world, second only to his own father's. One piece of advice from John he'll always remember? It went something like this:
"Words matter and once you say them they never go away. Just like how you can take nails out of a board, but the holes are still there."
John received many awards and recognitions over his lifetime, including his induction into the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame, for his business success and service as a role model to youth and his peers, and his commitment to the local community,
Other honors include clinching the Hodges Humanitarian Award and taking home the Naples Daily News Citizen of the Year award in 2007.
Over the years, John helped out various civic and philanthropic groups. Among them: the United Way, the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, the Boy Scouts and St. Matthew’s House.
Besides his son and two granddaughters, John is survived by his daughter-in-law Mary Popiolek and two great-grandchildren Hunter and Ryli.
Funeral services have yet to be arranged, due to COVID concerns.
This much is clear: John's spirit lives on through his family, friends and many others he touched.
The family's obituary for him appropriately ends this way: "We know that John is up there telling all his old friends a joke right now."