Constructing a Life of Value:
EMU Foundation Trustee Emeritus John Bodary
With strong high school grades and equally strong test scores, Monroe native John Bodary could have gone to any number of universities, so what prompted him to choose EMU? As one of six children, John had to pay his own way, and Eastern had two distinct advantages – its affordable costs plus proximity to part-time work for John, thanks to a nearby uncle in the brick mason trade.
As far as a major, John had no preconceived notions. “I knew I wanted a college degree,” he recalls, “and wanted to consider other options to mixing mortar and carrying hod as a career, but beyond that I had no idea. It was really fortunate I had a meeting with Ann Kettles, then Director of Advising, who suggested that I look into a brand new program at EMU. It was called Construction Management and that turned out to be the perfect choice for me.”
EMU’s Construction Management degree ultimately led to John’s current role as President of Woods Construction and Interiors, a retail and commercial firm that works with a “who’s who” of national companies – among them Bed Bath & Beyond, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Meijer, PNC, Target, and others. How did John go from an undergrad major to being a corporate CEO? The answer goes all the way back to the Construction Management requirement that students engage in co-op programs so classroom learnings could be applied in real world experiences. For John, those real-world opportunities involved first doing road inspections for the City of Monroe and then working for Hoad Engineers. In both cases, John’s performance led to offers of immediate full-time employment – a major temptation for any student working his or her way through school – but the importance of gaining a university degree prevailed and John graduated in 1984.
While at EMU, though, and even with classes, work, and serving as an RA in what’s now the Honors housing in Downing Hall, John still managed to meet another RA, a young woman who also happened to be captain of the pom-pom squad. That relationship blossomed into an engagement, and with degree in hand and marriage pending, John and his fiancée Michelle eagerly awaited a potential job offer from Woods Construction. That connection was initially fostered by Construction Management faculty member Dr. John Weeks’ friendship with the company’s president, Ozzie Pfaffmann, but the seemingly interminable interview process turned out to last nine calculated months. John finally demanded an answer and at last officially received an offer and a cut in pay to join Woods Construction. Starting at the bottom, he served in virtually every capacity – from liaison between office and work crews to payroll, estimating, safety, and even introducing the organization’s first modern computer system – over time learning and becoming expert in the multiple disciplines of commercial and retail construction. By 1989 John was ready to take the helm and purchased the company from its co-founder.
The company John joined had a contract for construction remodeling at Kresge and then Kresge’s K-Mart stores nationwide, and that represented 95 percent of their business – a risky concentration in an industry itself subject to the uncertainties of economic fluctuation, interest rates, labor availability, consumer sentiments, technology, and numerous others. Managing those known factors, and, much more difficult, the unexpected ones, became part of John’s learning curve as a young president. Examples include when another client company, Ames Department Stores, went bankrupt. But the most recent challenge, the COVID pandemic, was among the most difficult and demanding John experienced.
“We were working in 30 different states as well as multiple cities and faced very different masking, social distancing, and vaccine regulations and requirements in almost every one of them,” John recalls. “It took us six weeks just to figure out how to proceed. Our first objective was simply to keep everyone on staff safe, so we pulled workers off job sites. Our clients eventually understood and respected us for that decision. We also had our office staff work virtually and spend as little time in the office as possible. That was a major financial commitment for us, but unquestionably the right thing to do.”
The right thing to do is perhaps something of a mantra for John and Michelle. They’ve long supported scholarships for students in Construction Management in part, John explains, “because we need to recognize that scholarships can make the difference in a student’s life and his or her ultimate success.” Their gifts and their service to EMU have been such that John was a recipient of the Young Alumni Award in 1996 and has also been an emeritus trustee of the EMU Foundation since 2004. Their most recent gift provides for naming the Construction Management lab and providing additional student support.
It’s an extraordinary record of philanthropy, born from a philosophy of giving back and doing the right thing. For John that means “making sure our workforce in construction looks like the actual world” and not only expressing that sentiment within the company’s own recruitment and promotion policies but advocating for it in the construction organizations in which he’s involved. It’s led to efforts of telling the career story in schools and other venues to let young people especially know that “construction is a good, honorable way to make a living.” And it’s led to a personal and management approach known as “servant leadership” -- essentially turning the organizational pyramid upside down so that the leader is at the bottom, serving as a foundation and resource to support, mentor, and empower other members of the organization. That’s manifest in many ways, but one memorable example was in bringing EMU Construction Management major Deb Williams aboard, whom John has mentored into her current role as a Woods Construction Vice President.
John’s perspective as an alum, a generous donor, and a Foundation trustee emeritus affords him an especially comprehensive perspective when it comes to understanding EMU and what our campaign theme Give Rise means. What he appreciated as a student, and perhaps even more today, is his sense of Eastern’s many strengths and areas of excellence – ranging from not just academic strong suits but the University’s commitment to diversity and its special concern for first generation college students. For John Bodary, Give Rise means telling the stories to raise awareness. “We need to celebrate what EMU is and can be,” he argues. His own life and career perfectly define those possibilities.