Published on Sunday, April 23, 2000


Every weekday, Woody Wolfe does something he thought he never could.

Usually by the time the sun is up in the Susquehanna River town of Danville, he's on the road in a 1988 Plymouth Reliant that already has given him 118,000 miles. In the backseat is a worn-out guitar, cracked and epoxied in six places, and a bulging canvas pack that is his "magic bag."

He might be headed for Pittsburgh or Hershey or Philadelphia, but the end of the line is always the same: a hospital where sick children, many gravely so, wait for Woody Wolfe to sing to them.

He calls himself a "musicianary." It's a word he made up for the calling that he answered eight years ago, when he quit his job as a cardiac technician and began riding the circuit of pediatric wards across Pennsylvania.
"The last place I want to be is with families in the midst of the most horrible sufferings of their children," he said. "I don't want to be there. Yet God has shown me the most incredible blessings there."

Like in Jake Waltman's room at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. In the world of chronically ill youngsters, the 7-year-old Feasterville boy is a "frequent flier" - a regular - whose cancer keeps him coming back.
On a Thursday, a Philly day for Woody, Jake lay curled in pain in bed, alternately sleeping and vomiting. Woody peeked in, but when Jake's father and the nurses waved him off, he moved to the next room.
A moment later, John Waltman rushed into the hall, tears in his eyes. "Please, can you come play for Jake?" he asked. "He hollered out, 'Woody!' "

Woodrow Wilson Wolfe Jr. is 46 and looks like an old folkie, bald and bearded, with wire-rim glasses and sandals that he wears through the winter. He can play hundreds of songs by heart. "Itsy Bitsy Spider" for a toddler, Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" for a lonely teenager, "The Booger Song" for a child who will laugh at nothing else.

"In a hospital where there are so many people ready to poke you and measure you and examine you, he just comes in and gives," said Gail Hertz, a pediatric resident at the M.S. Hershey Medical Center, where Woody spends Wednesdays.

"The kids go nuts for him. So do the nurses," said Lynn Dempsey, a cardiac ICU nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, his Friday stop. "I follow him around."

In a simple studio he built in his little white duplex by the river, Woody has recorded five cassettes of songs. He has given away 30,000 copies to children and their families, so his music can be there when he is not.

He charges nothing for what he does. Hospitals give him small stipends - $75 a day, tops - and donations from churches and admirers keep him on the road. When he got a haircut the other morning, his barber wouldn't take his money. "Put it in your gas tank," he said. Woody might travel with just $10 in his wallet, yet he counts himself a rich man. "People often live their whole lives hoping to meet their heroes," he said. "I get to meet mine every day."

Walking down a corridor at Hershey Medical Center the other day, he spotted one of them. Jonathan Jagozinski, a Luzerne County boy who has battled leukemia for two of his four years, was playing in bed with Power Rangers and Legos. The boy looked up. "Woodyyyyyyyy!" he yelled. Soon he was singing along to "Love Is." Bending his knees when Woody sang "Love is deeper than the oceans." Raising his arms as far as they would go when Woody sang "Love is higher than a mountain." Flexing his muscles when Woody sang "Love is stronger than a freight train." Running to Woody and hugging his hips with all his might when the song ended. "Through every spinal tap that Jonathan has ever had," said his mother, Jeanne, "he had Woody's music on."

At age 10, Woody Wolfe wanted to be a minister, but he grew up to be a paramedic, assigned to helicopter medevac at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, his hometown. One afternoon in 1981, he got a call from pediatric oncology. A 17-year-old cancer patient, bored with lying in bed, wanted a ride. He took the teen up in the chopper. Woody mentioned he played guitar, and had ever since the Beatles invaded America. "Maybe I could come by and play," he offered.

Almost as soon as he said it, Woody panicked. He was terrified at the thought of playing to sick children, of even talking to them. But he was stuck. So he went. The children loved him. At the time, Woody was thinking about quitting his job and going into seminary. He had a long talk with a minister, a friend who knew about Woody's debut in pediatrics. "Did you ever think your ministry is right where you're at?" the pastor asked. "It can't be," Woody argued. "I crumble around critically ill kids." "That's the point," the pastor replied. "You rely on the greater strength to get through it. That's when you can really get through to parents and kids."

Woody went back to the Geisinger children's ward - every few months at first, then almost daily on his lunch break and after work. "I'd see these kids who looked pretty miserable and soon enough they're smiling," he said. "And their parents, they were pretty wiped out. But when they saw their kids smiling, they became so rejuvenated. To me, that was just a joy." There Woody met "Little Matt."

Seven years old, he was not only a cancer patient but also a foster child. Woody, his wife, Debbie, and their two sons - one of whom also is named Matt - visited the boy so often that "he really became like ours," Woody said. Little Matt was 10 when he died. "The last thing he said to me," Woody said, "was, 'You'll be OK when I'm gone. But I couldn't have done it without you. I love you.' " Woody paused. "I think that's as close as I've come to really knowing what these parents feel." A year later, Woody left Geisinger, where he had become a technician. He called his new one-man mission Heart to Hand Ministries. His wife, a day-care worker, encouraged him - but kept her distance from his work. She told him, "Fine, if that's what you want to do." But after the pain of Little Matt's death, "I just can't get involved with every child."

Word of Woody's music was spread by families, physicians and staff at Geisinger. Soon he was playing hospitals in Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, and camps for sick children as far away as Montana. In the last year, he has stayed closer to home, to be consistently available to Pennsylvania children. On Mondays, he drives to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, or occasionally to Baltimore. On Tuesdays, he plays Geisinger. Wednesdays, Hershey. Thursdays and Fridays, Philadelphia - with a night at a Motel 6 in King of Prussia. He always drives the back roads, a tape recorder on the seat beside him. When inspired or discouraged by the day's experience, he talks. Coming over Blue Mountain in Schuylkill County on a recent morning, he watched a hawk catch the wind and soar over his car. Woody recorded: "The beauty of this hawk comes from it simply being what it was created to be, no more no less. My prayer today is, like that hawk, I might be simply what God created me to be. "May I catch the wind of His spirit and fly."

Connor Nestler, 8, lay alone in his bed at St. Christopher's, surrounded by an armada of machines. When Woody asked whether he wanted a song, Connor refused. Woody doesn't mind if children send him away. They have so little control over their lives, he figures, that if he can give them even the power to say no - well, that's giving them something important. He left a tape. A week later, he visited again. Connor saw him coming and sat up in bed. Woody pulled a chair alongside and, in a voice as easy as an old shoe, started out with "You've Got a Friend in Me," from the movie Toy Story. Two weeks later, Connor had improved enough to move from intensive care to a regular pediatric floor. When a nurse told him Woody was around, Connor posted himself by his door and, at the first sight of him, screamed "Wooodddyyy!" The boy had a request: "Can you do 'The Booger Song?' " Always aiming to please, Woody began singing, to the tune of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain": "There's a booger in the sugar. No there snot." Connor laughed so hard and loud that parents and children from other rooms gathered at the door. "That was pretty disgusting, huh?" Woody asked at the end. "Yeah," Connor replied. "Can you sing it again?"

Slung over Woody's shoulder with his guitar is the magic bag. When he digs into it, just about anything could come out. For families who live more than an hour from the hospital, he reaches deep and fishes out phone cards with 30 minutes of free long-distance calling - a gift from a church that supports him. He might come up with tapes and batteries, candies and McDonald's coupons, even a picture of himself at age 19, long-haired, in front of a VW bus. "I know what it's like to lose your hair," he tells youngsters in oncology as he shows the photo. "I'm still waiting for mine to grow back." He also carries a legal pad with a rap song that he and a patient are writing (they call themselves "The Candy Wrappers").

Always with him is a Bible. Woody doesn't sing religious songs or talk about his faith, unless a patient or family asks. The Bible is for himself, to read after hard days. Also tucked in the magic bag is bereavement literature. Because many of the children Woody meets don't go home. At St. Christopher's recently, he spent an afternoon with Erica Willits, a 4-year-old with cancer. While he sang to Erica, said nurse Rhonda Gibson, "her heart rate and blood pressure got better. And I was, like, 'Woody can't leave!' " Ninety minutes after he did, the girl died.

In the last year, Woody has sung at about 70 funerals and memorial services, and he sang at Erica's, in Fishtown. He performed one of his own compositions, "Because of You," and her family, having heard it so often before, joined in: "Because of you, I've learned to live, "Sharing the joy that your life gives." Which is why, the next day, Woody Wolfe was on the road again to a hospital, where sick children waited to hear him sing.

Michael Vitez's e-mail address is

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