Since its beginning in 1953, Sun State has remained an extraordinary plumbing business. Its founder, Cliff Wood, is no less extraordinary. With reliable service and good ethics, he built the company’s reputation, which still exists today. Cliff’s story is not limited to founding a business or fixing toilets, however. He says, “We’ve had a pretty exciting life.” From serving in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters in World War II to owning a series of airplanes, Cliff’s story has been both full and varied. Like many great tales, this one begins with a story of love.
“And that’s where it started”
Clifford Wood grew up in the country outside the little town of Ada, Oklahoma. He and Velma Myers grew up as neighbors and attended school together as children. Cliff recalls, “But we did not have a whole lot to do with each other. She wouldn’t give me the time of day back in them days. I was just one of them ol’ boys.”
When Cliff grew old enough to leave home, he moved to Oakland, California. While living with relatives, Cliff helped with the war effort by working in the shipyards. During one fateful visit to Oklahoma, Cliff says, “I don’t know…I wound up at this skating rink and there was Velma. And that’s where it started.” Cliff and Velma “went together” during Cliff’s visit before he returned to California.
“Get that girl!”
While in California, Cliff bought a car. He says, “I was gonna go back to Oklahoma and get that girl!” On his way to pick up rationing stamps in order to buy gas on the trip, however, Cliff was involved in an accident. His car was ruined, and Cliff was unable to make the trip. Luckily, his mother and father were planning to move to California to run a boarding house. Cliff immediately wrote his parents, “Don’t come to California without bringing Velma!” Cliff chuckles as he says, “Believe it or not, her mama let her come!”
Velma was too young to be married legally in the state of California (she was only seventeen; Cliff was eighteen). On October 2, 1943, Cliff and Velma were married “across the border” in Reno, Nevada.
The Navy: “Accelerate Your Life”
With World War II raging, Cliff suspected that he was going to be drafted into the Army, but he really wanted to be in the Navy. About a month before he was married, Cliff went to the Navy recruiter’s office to try to enlist himself. The recruiter informed Cliff that he was not allowed to join yet; he would have to wait and go through the draft procedure. Shortly after his wedding, Cliff was drafted into the Navy. After two months of training to be a sailor, he was allowed to come home for a week before being shipped out to Norfolk, Virginia. Velma rushed back to Oklahoma, thinking that Cliff might be able to come back one more time before being assigned to a ship. Cliff did not get that leave but instead was immediately put aboard a landing craft ship. The ship picked up equipment in New York and soon set off for England.
Cliff recalls his involvement in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944: “Our ship was not the first ship to hit the beach, but we were all just waiting in line out in the ocean a little ways from the beach. There were ships everywhere. We were just waiting our time because there were so many ships. We landed and unloaded our cargo during the invasion of Normandy Beachhead.”
After D-Day, Cliff’s ship sailed back and forth, taking wounded Allied soldiers to England and returning to France with fresh equipment and troops. During this time, the mail service had been stopped. However, a few months after the invasion of France, Cliff received a surprise. “I got a letter saying that I was a daddy. Joyce was born.”
The Other Side of the World
Cliff finally had a chance to come home for a visit when Joyce was nine months old. After taking the ship down to New Orleans for ship home porting, he received a leave of thirty days. He spent the month with his wife and baby. After his leave was over, Cliff rejoined his ship and went to Mobile, Alabama. He was in Mobile when President Roosevelt died. Shortly thereafter, Cliff’s ship was loaded with ammunition and sent through the Panama Canal to Hawaii. From there, the plan was to invade Okinawa. Although the invasion occurred, Cliff and his shipmates did not take part due to a problem with one of the engines aboard ship. After the problem was fixed, Cliff’s ship joined many other Navy ships in the Marshall and Caroline Islands, waiting to invade Japan.
The physical invasion of Japan never occurred; the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki spared Cliff and his shipmates from having to invade. Cliff expresses his regret for the need to use such strong measures to end the war, but he indicates his support of President Truman’s choice: “There’s a lot of people criticizing the United States for dropping those bombs on Japan. Well, there’s two things. First of all, we didn’t start that war; they started it. We ended it. Secondly, there would be a whole lot of us, me probably included, who wouldn’t be here today if we had had to invade Japan proper. Still, it’s too bad we had to do that.”
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
After Japan’s surrender, Cliff’s ship unloaded its cargo in the Philippines. From there, they carried army trucks, jeeps, and personnel to Korea, where they picked up Japanese prisoners to return to Okinawa. Cliff’s ship completed this circle a few times before Cliff was released from the Navy. He explains, “It counted if you had kids. So Joyce gave me some points, and I was put on a troop ship with some other guys, and they sent us back to Portland, Oregon. I thought I was going to get to come home for Christmas.”
It appeared that Cliff’s wish to be home for Christmas might come true when the ship reached Portland on December 1, 1945. Unfortunately for Cliff and the rest of his shipmates, however, someone on the ship came down with typhoid fever, causing the whole ship to be quarantined. Cliff spent Christmas day on the Columbus River. Fortunately, Cliff was allowed to leave the ship a day or two later. He was sent to the base at Norman, Oklahoma, where he was discharged.
“I’ve come to get my daddy”
While he was on leave from New Orleans, Cliff had bought a little Ford car. Velma did not know how to drive at the time, but she learned quickly. When Cliff was sent to Norman, his father sat down with Velma at the kitchen table in Ada, Oklahoma, with a map and explained to her how to get from there to Norman. Cliff laughs as he remarks, “Until she came to California and we got married, she had never even been out of Pontotoc County!” Despite her inexperience at traveling, Velma made it to Norman with Joyce, who was about a year and a half old. When they arrived at the gate of the base, the guard asked how he could help. Cliff has a twinkle in his eye as he recounts, “Little Joyce piped up, she’d come to get her daddy. She didn’t even know what a daddy was, but she knew other kids had a daddy, and she was going to get one too.”
“So that’s how I came to be a plumber”
As Cliff rejoined his family, he also joined the ranks of young ex-servicemen without a trade. Cliff did not immediately go to work; instead, he took advantage of a GI program which provided a paid period of time for veterans to find a job. Velma was working at a little hamburger joint called the Hamburger King in Ada, Oklahoma. Cliff fondly recalls, “That used to be the place. Everybody went to the Hamburger King to get their hamburgers. They were good hamburgers, too. Velma still knows how to cook a good hamburger.”
Cliff eventually got a job as a carpenter’s helper at an apartment building that was being built in town. Both his and Velma’s parents lived only about five miles outside town, so they took turns babysitting Joyce while her parents were at work.
One day, it was raining as Cliff delivered Joyce to his parents’ house. His car got stuck in the mud on the way back to town, and he did not make it to work on time. When his supervisor gave him a hard time about being late to work, Cliff explains, “I’d already spent two and a half years in the Navy, having people tell me what to do. I didn’t take too kindly to his telling me what to do. So I told him he could take his job, and I hit the plumber up on the job [site] and he hired me. They had a GI program at the time that if you wanted to learn a trade, the government would pay half your wages and give you some tools and stuff if you would stick with it and learn the trade. So that’s how I came to be a plumber.”
“Might as well starve to death”
After a while, Cliff and Velma decided that they did not see a lot of hope in Ada, Oklahoma. Velma had an uncle who went down to Roswell, New Mexico to pick cotton every year, and Cliff and Velma decided to follow suit. They towed their “rinkey-dink” trailer to New Mexico in November, 1948. Cliff jokes, “We were going to pick cotton to keep from starving to death. After a couple or three weeks of picking cotton, we figured we might as well starve to death. We didn’t see any future in picking cotton.”
After their cotton-picking experience, the Woods decided to visit Albuquerque. Cliff went into the plumbers’ union and told them that he was a non-union plumber from Oklahoma and that he was looking for a job. In reality, he was a union apprentice plumber in Oklahoma, but he did not tell the union this information. The people at the plumbers’ union informed Cliff that plumbers were needed badly all over the city of Albuquerque. After talking it over, Cliff and Velma decided to hurry back to Roswell and move their house on wheels up to Albuquerque.
Cliff began working for a company in the Heights called Reynold’s Plumbing Company. After about a year and a half, he went to Los Alamos to get some experience up there. Meanwhile, the plumber’s union found out that Cliff was not a full-fledged plumber; he was only an apprentice plumber. Luckily, Cliff had been working as a plumber for so long that he was allowed to keep working as one.
“Really living it up!”
Cliff and Velma lived in several places around Albuquerque. After going through two small trailers, they bought a bigger house trailer that even had a bathroom in it. Cliff smiles. “We were really living it up then!” He and Velma eventually bought a vacant lot near Second Street, which is still the location of Sun State Mechanical. Slowly, the Woods began building permanent structures, beginning with the shop building (the current office).
The Woods talked frequently about their dream of owning a business. Finally, on January 1, 1953, they decided to start their own business. Cliff laughs as he says, “As I look back on it now, we owed on the shop building and we owed on the trailer house. How in the world we managed it, I do not know, but we started our own plumbing business. And that’s when that little shop started, 1953. Mark wasn’t even around; that shop is three years older than he is! But we’re glad he runs it now.”
Cliff and Velma usually had about a dozen employees for the first few years that they were in business. Cliff’s two brothers, who had recently been discharged from the Army, were among the first employees. The Woods also employed some friends from Oklahoma that they convinced to move to Albuquerque and get into plumbing. Cliff recalls, “Most of the plumbers we had, we taught them from scratch.”
Growth and Innovation
In 1954, Cliff and Velma built their first real house. The house was built on the property of Sun State in front of the office. The house is still owned by the shop.
After working in Albuquerque and nearby areas for several years, Sun State began to do jobs all over the state of New Mexico. As the company’s radius of service grew, so did the need for rapid travel. The influence of several friends convinced the Woods to buy an airplane in 1959. Cliff learned how to fly first, followed closely by Velma. She was still in the learning stages when, Cliff teases, “She landed upside down.” Velma insists that the mud on the landing field caused the plane to flip over. Whatever the case, the incident ruined the airplane, although fortunately no one was hurt. Over the course of a decade, the Woods went through three planes. Velma even competed in the Powder Puff Derby races sponsored by the Women Pilots Association.
Soon, Sun State began doing work for customers throughout the country. The first big out-of-state job Sun State undertook was a Naval apartment complex in San Diego, California, a job which lasted a couple of years. Sun State also did the plumbing for several large school complexes in Northern Arizona which included housing for the
teachers and apartments for the children. The list of jobs was expanded to include a shopping mall in Durango, Colorado, and a hotel complex in Cortez, Colorado. Sun State assisted in the creation of a Titan II missile assembly station in a B-52 bomber hanger in Wichita, Kansas; a radar site in Fallon, Nevada followed. Within New Mexico, Sun State did the plumbing for a ski lift and for the world’s longest aerial tramway, located in Albuquerque.
Due to the plethora of jobs it was receiving, Sun State kept growing larger. At the peak of its operations, Sun State had one hundred seventy-five employees. To accommodate the needs of the growing company, a large metal showroom facing Second Street was built in 1962. The building is still there, although it is no longer owned by Sun State.
The Woods installed a radio system in their business which was quite novel for the time. All of the trucks were equipped with radios, and Cliff had both a radio and a mobile phone in his truck. There was even a radio on the airplane. Cliff could communicate with his workers at their jobs and with the office no matter where he was.
The Woods received a huge windfall when a job in Tennessee almost put Sun State out of business. The job had been bid too low and the contractor did not really care about his subcontractors. To worsen the situation, the plumbers were working in the worst winter weather Tennessee had seen in fifty years. The ground was frozen so hard that the men had to dig trenches with a jackhammer! Although the contractor should have shut the job down for the period of bad weather, he did not. On top of all this, Cliff says, “the union boys out there were trying to eat us up too.”
Being almost put out of business forced Cliff to re-think his strategy. He decided to stay within New Mexico and begin depending more on loyal repeat customers and service jobs. When the company turned this corner, it no longer needed as many employees nor the big showroom. Operations of the company were moved back into the original shop, where the current office is.
In 1970, Cliff built Green Acres Mobile Home Park. He wanted to sell the plumbing business and “retire” to living in and running the mobile home park, but Velma disagreed. She began to run the business with the help of Gordon Lovedall. Velma ran Sun State for about fifteen years before selling it to Gordon in 1985.
Cliff Wood attributes his success in his business to two things: his wonderful wife and his faith in God. Without these two things, there is no way that he could have achieved all that he has. He states:
“I had a lot of ambitions. I wanted to have something in life. But I had a helper that did too. Velma and I together made a team. I had two brothers that at one time tried to start businesses, and neither one of them had a wife that would help them. I attribute the success of that plumbing business to Velma being able to pick up the pieces behind me and keep the
books. She kept the money in the bank. She was real good at it. Everybody knew her as “The Lady Boss,” because she signed the checks. Grandma and I made it because we worked together.”
Cliff and Velma became Christians in 1952. At the time, Cliff was car-pooling to work at Reynold’s Plumbing Company up in the Heights with Bill Laswell and Toby Watson, two other workers who lived in the Valley. He explains:
“Well, ol’ Toby was having Friday night Bible studies with a group of neighbors, taking turns in different homes. The pastor who taught them was the pastor of Alameda Bible Chapel. Toby at the time was going to Alameda Bible Chapel. Bill, who was in the plumbing business, was going there too. So they both began to work on us. Toby kept bugging me about coming to the Bible studies. I thought it was pretty nice for the wife and kids to go, but I didn’t feel like I needed to. But he kept bugging me, and I had to ride to work with him every day, you know. So finally, I talked to Velma and we decided we’d go to one of them Bible studies. I thought maybe he’d quit bugging me. On that first Friday night, I heard things that I had never heard before. I thought it got to be pretty interesting, so from then on, we started going to Friday night Bible studies.
“During the summer, the church had a daily Vacation Bible School, and Joyce went to that school. She came home one day telling us that she’d gotten saved. So we got to thinking that going to Bible studies and getting saved and all that kind of stuff, we should start going to church.”
Cliff and Velma accepted Christ in 1952, soon after they started the business. They visited frequently with the church’s pastor and his wife when they came to the shop. Cliff also enjoyed
going camping with a retired Presbyterian minister who attended Alameda Bible Chapel. While they were camping, they would hold Bible studies. Cliff and Velma have been faithful to the church (now called Alameda Bible Church) for over fifty years. Cliff remarks, “I think it’s true that Velma and I are the oldest people of that church over there. I don’t necessarily mean in age, but I’m saying that we’ve gone to that church longer than anybody else.
So we’ve seen that church come from a little steep-pitched roof with a bellhouse on the front to what it is today. In fact, we have built part of it. Sun State Plumbing has always been good to that church, and it still is.”
All throughout their business years, Cliff and Velma Wood tried to serve the Lord through their business. Mark Watkins, the current owner of Sun State, appreciates the solid foundation of Christian ethics created by the Woods. He enjoys being able to continue the legacy of godly business and supporting God’s work at Alameda Bible Church. Thanks to the hard work and Christian principles of the Woods, Sun State has continued to thrive.