Cliff and Dennis, lives well lived


By Judge David Allen

It was one of those late-night texts that you only tolerate from family and close friends.  

“Do you know an attorney named Cliff Woodards?” texted my friend of 40 years, Dennis Dooley.   

“Of course,” I texted back.  

Cliff had died a week before in a horrific car crash on Super Bowl Sunday 2021, broadsided by a Detroit Police officer rushing to back up other police officers.   Cliff’s tragic death devastated the Detroit legal and political community.  Everybody knew and loved Cliff. He will be missed. As I approach Super Bowl 2022, Dennis and Cliff have been on my mind.  

I met Cliff Woodards almost 20 years ago, he a recent law school graduate and I a brand new judge.  He tried his first jury trial in my courtroom and although I have forgotten the case, I never forgot the man.

Cliff was a fan favorite in my courtroom and my staff and I enthusiastically welcomed him into our courtroom family. To know Cliff was to love Cliff even if he drove you crazy half the time.  

Dennis Dooley and I met more than 40 years ago as freshmen in high school. We became fast friends playing on the football team together. The term “brother from another mother” aptly describes our relationship. Dennis is a Captain on the Detroit Fire Department, a 30-year well respected, decorated, veteran of the finest and busiest fire department in the world. Under any dictionary definition of the word “hero,” Dennis’ name should appear and suffice.  

After my reply text that I knew Cliff very well, I called Dennis on the phone to find out why he had asked me about Cliff. Dennis recounted that he was the first person to arrive on the scene of the accident with his fire rig and crew. He told me that he immediately got into Cliff’s mangled car and tried to resuscitate and extricate Cliff from the vehicle.

Dennis and his partner were eventually able to remove Cliff from the car and, despite Dennis’ valiant effort, Cliff drew his last breath in Dennis arms. Dennis had no idea at the time who Cliff was until a week or so later when he read some news reports.  

At a distance, Cliff and Dennis are a case study in contrasts. Dennis is to Lou Gehrig as Cliff is to Babe Ruth. Cliff never stopped talking and always had an opinion. His mouth only closed when he slept. Dennis, on the other hand, is the unassuming type, quiet as a mouse. His fire buddies call him the “mole.” Cliff’s style of dress takes its que from the Judge Craig Strong school of style: sharp, polished, colorful and snappy. Dennis is a blue jean, tee-shirt and baseball cap kind of guy. Suits are reserved for weddings and funerals.  

Yet for all of their superficial differences, these two men both exhibited similar traits that they lived and exuded and never had to talk about: integrity, bravery, and commitment.  

Dennis makes a living bravely running into burning buildings. Cliff was never afraid of speaking truth to power, holding powerful folks to account for their actions. Cliff valued justice over power. Cliff took a lot of political lumps for his outspokenness and risked his career in so doing.

In a country that looks to the world of celebrity, sports and entertainment for its faux heroes, the truest heroes, like Cliff and Dennis, live unassumingly amongst us, bettering their corner of the world breath by breath, step by step, day by day.  

As sad as I am about the tragic loss of Cliff, I find some solace that Cliff did not die alone – Cliff was with a fellow comrade as he drew his last breath, peaceful in the arms of one of the most good and decent men I know. Thank you, Dennis, and RIP Cliff.  

(Judge David Allen has been a member of the Wayne County Circuit Court bench since 2003.)


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