Over a half century, Woody’s Auto Center has serviced vehicles of all makes and models and customers from all walks of life
Mike Dennison remembers the time several years ago when he had to go the extra mile for a customer—literally.
Just before Christmas, a long-time customer’s car broke down while he was headed out of town to move to West Virginia. The car needed a new engine. Dennison drove the repaired vehicle to the family’s new home and arranged to ride back to Columbia with friends. His father rode shotgun to make sure he stayed awake.
“[Woody’s] always goes the second mile,” said G.R. Westwood, a Woody’s customer since 1967. “I’ve never been disappointed with Woody’s.”
Dennison and his wife, Vicki, own Woody’s Auto Center at 222 N. 9th St. downtown. The business was founded 50 years ago, and Jim and Marcia Atkinson purchased it in the early 1970s from Jim’s stepfather, founder Woodrow “Woody” Tate, at its original location on Park Street north of the current operation.
Westwood remembers a pesky problem he had in the 1970s with a Mercury station wagon, in which Atkinson invested many hours. While he was driving down the road, all of the car’s lights would wink off suddenly. Invariably, when he brought the car to Atkinson, the lights would work fine. Eventually, Westwood said, Atkinson admitted momentary defeat and told Westwood he wouldn’t charge him anything until the car was fixed. Eventually, Atkinson traced the problem to a dashboard fuse with a hairline crack.
According to Jim Atkinson, Woody Tate was a local boy who worked in the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression to feed his family. He then served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Master Sergeant Tate helped prepare vehicles for the D-Day invasion and serviced P-51 fighters as the Allies chased the Germans through Europe.
Returning to Columbia after the war, Tate worked for Joe Dietz’s garage on U.S. Highway 40 (now Business Loop 70) until 1955, when he and a friend opened Mike and Woody’s Auto Repair Shop. When his friend died two years later, Tate purchased the business.
After selling the business to his stepson, Jim Atkinson, Woody Tate ran a salvage yard for many years. He died in 1993. “Woody was a really big guy, six-foot-one and 250 pounds, a real gentle giant,” Atkinson said. “Sam May ran the office, and a lot of people didn’t know that Sam wasn’t Woody.”
Woody’s moved across the street to its present building in 1983; Atkinson had built it on the site of a former livery stable and blacksmith shop, carrying on the site’s tradition of transportation service.
In 1990, Dennison joined Woody’s as a mechanic. He purchased the business, building and equipment for close to $1 million in 2001. “Jim didn’t want to sell to just anybody,” Dennison said. “He really wanted somebody who would treat his customers right.”
Atkinson now lives on a farm west of Boonville, where he raises llamas, works on hot rods and holds the part-time post of city clerk in the town of Blackwater.
Woody’s is an AAA-approved facility and the only authorized Bosch Service Center in central Missouri, which is important for owners of European cars such as Mercedes, Volvo and Volkswagen that use Bosch technology in diesel and fuel-injection models. Dennison said he also is affiliated with AC/Delco, which helps with domestic models.
The connections, and better equipment, give him the ability to do virtually all of the same repairs that a dealership can. While many other auto-repair shops use third-party scanners, he said, he owns the same scanners that Ford, GM, Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes and Volvo use, and he currently is waiting for a Saab computer. The only problems he can’t always fix are those that deal with anti-theft devices because auto companies often keep that information confidential, Dennison said.
“The people you choose to work on your car are people who you do need to be able to count on,” said Catherine Parke, another long-time customer. “One of the things about Woody’s is that they understand life. They understand that sense of how the safety of a car and the cost of repair all fit into a life. There’s a large-heartedness to them, as well as really knowing cars.”
Woody’s can service any make of vehicle—even motorcycles. “We can work on anything,” Dennison said. “I even overhauled an engine in an airboat once.”
Dennison said Woody’s has had about 10,000 customers over the years, and he has done fleet work for companies such as Coil Construction, Missouri Mowing, Boone County Family Resources and SERVE in Callaway County. The business employs eight people and generates between $750,000 and $800,000 each year.
Atkinson designed the building so that it can be converted to offices easily if the shop ever needs to move, but Dennison said he likes the downtown location and plans to stay there for a long time.
“It’s a good location, although sometimes there’s not enough room,” he said. “We see a lot of university people and people who work downtown. Business is good; we’re blessed with really loyal customers. Nobody ever complains about getting to us, and a lot of people say, ‘Don’t move.’”
Dennison said Jim Atkinson was one of the first auto shop owners to digitally subscribe to Mitchell, an important resource directory for auto repair, and Woody’s now features a computer in every repair bay. “The whole key to auto repair is information,” he said. “We get a lot of information from different sources.”
For its customers, the shop’s willingness to share information is a key reason they bring their cars to Woody’s. “They are educators,” Parke said. “They will talk with you about what they’re doing, and I’ve really learned a lot over time. There’s participation in the project, and I value that a great deal.”