As far back as he can remember, Morris Woodson had the will to push ahead.
It steered him toward college despite the obstacles that faced poor African-Americans during the Great Depression. It propelled him to commute via public transportation from Howard County to New York University on Saturdays during the 1960s to earn his doctoral degree in education.
"There was always something deep down inside of me that kept me pushing," said the 80-year-old resident of Columbia's Long Reach village.
He also has felt compelled to help others. During the past 49 years, he has served the community as an educator, volunteer and concerned citizen.
Though he retired in 1977 as director of elementary education for Howard County schools, Dr. Woodson continues to help the disadvantaged.
Friday, the Community Action Council of Howard County will present Dr. Woodson with the John W. Holland Humanitarian Award for his eight years of service on the council, three of them as president.
The 30-year-old federal agency is an advocacy group for low-income residents and has begun various programs that include surplus food distribution, energy and housing assistance, substance abuse prevention and emergency shelter.
"Dr. Woodson is a humanitarian, a community activist, a staunch church member and a family person," said Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of the Community Action Council. "From our perspective, he is best noted for his work with the low-income person and having served on the board in 1965. . . .
"On a personal note, I was one of his eighth-grade students when he was teaching at Cooksville Elementary School," she said. "I am the product of a black educator who took an interest in my education. I owe my success to him."
The humanitarian award is the most recent of dozens of honors for Dr. Woodson, including recognition by the Howard County NAACP Youth Council in 1993 and his induction into the Maryland Senior Citizens Hall of Fame in 1990.
Earlier this month, he was named a distinguished alumnus of Glassboro High School in Glassboro, N.J.
A list of organizations in which he is an active member includes the Howard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the local, state and national chapters of the Retired Teachers Association, and the state and national chapters of the Phi Delta Kappa educational fraternity.
"I've always done some volunteering," Dr. Woodson said. "Most of these things, I didn't seek out; it's hard to turn down requests when somebody needs help."
His work on the Community Action Council, the Community Development Committee and the Commission on Aging -- all positions appointed by the county executive -- has spanned four county administrations.
Dr. Woodson recalled the early days -- in 1964 -- when he served as chairman of the Community Action Council and seemed especially proud of his work on the Head Start Program, which was designed to provide a learning environment for disadvantaged preschoolers.
"We were trying to give youngsters self-confidence and to teach them how to work with other children," he said. "We provided materials for them to use, such as blocks and puzzles, which they may not have had at home. . . .
"We succeeded in expanding the Head Start Program from several small units that were located mostly in churches to about 10 more whichused school space that was provided by the Board of Education. . . . Head Start became one of the most respectable agencies in the whole state that was helping underprivileged people improve the quality of their lives."
Another important project to Dr. Woodson -- affordable housing -- was tackled by the three-member Community Development Committee, begun in 1968 by the late Omar Jones, the first Howard County executive.
One of the first projects Dr. Woodson, vice chairman of the committee, and the small group worked on was the 35-unit Hilltop housing project near historic Ellicott City.
"We did this so quickly, we didn't have time to get money from the feds or the state," he said. "The houses were built strictly from county money. It was the first housing project in this country to have been completed with local funds."
Integrating teachers, too
While serving on the executive board of the county chapter of the NAACP, Dr. Woodson strove to improve fairness in employment for African-Americans and wrote letters to elected officials regarding integration and open occupancy policies.
As director of the county's elementary schools, he also traveled out of state to recruit teachers from predominantly African-American colleges.
The Guilford Elementary School -- where Dr. Woodson was principal for 10 years -- was the first school in the county that had integration of teachers.
"We had a white teacher who taught music," said Dr. Woodson. "I was for it all of the way; I never heard anything from parents or anybody else. . . . A lot of things were done quietly without a lot of fanfare, and it worked."
Since Dr. Woodson believes there is still work to be done, he continues to work on various committees.
"I still have concerns about housing in the county, people with low income, education.
"We would like to see more African-American teachers hired," he said.
Asked what were his proudest accomplishments, Dr. Woodson paused to reflect.
"I tried to help people individually," he said. "I interceded for the elderly and for those with low income. I tried to help young people with their education. As far as my involvement in all of these organizations, I have given them the best that I have in terms of my knowledge. . . .
"I saw some need and felt, if I could, I would do something about it. And I went ahead and did it."