In 1919, Ernest Woodruff led a group of investors in purchasing the Coca-Cola Company from Asa Candler. In 1923, he asked his son, Robert, to lead the company. Robert W. Woodruff was president from 1923 until 1954, remaining on the Board of Directors until 1984.
Over several decades, the success of Coca-Cola and resulting net worth of its president meant Woodruff held great influence in the city of Atlanta. Yet, he used his influence behind-the-scenes and donated money anonymously. Atlanta mayors, including William B. Hartsfield and Ivan Allen Jr., called him “Boss,” and considered his support crucial. In 1968, Woodruff assisted the city in covering costs of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Woodruff’s philanthropic gifts include the Woodruff Arts Center and Woodruff Park (both named in his honor following his death in 1985), and donations to several educational institutions.
His largest philanthropic legacy was Emory University. In 1979, Woodruff gave $105 million to Emory, which at the time was the largest gift ever to a university. Later gifts to Emory from the Woodruff Foundation total more than $500 million.