Tempe honors Woody Wilson’s humanitarian efforts

By Bridgette M. Redman

Woody Wilson’s talents have led him to start a jazz group, co-found a social services organization for senior citizens and serve on multiple boards addressing many issues.

It also earned the 73-year-old man the coveted Don Carlos Humanitarian Award in Tempe.

“We have this award because Tempe has always been a community that looks after its own from top to bottom,” Wilson says.

“It’s a really big deal in Tempe because we have so much history of community service. I’m really proud to have won it. It’s kind of an out-of-body experience—who is that guy? I’m really going to have to get to know him.  It’s a great honor and I couldn’t be happier.”

The award honors individuals who have made the city a better place to live through work that addresses human-service needs. The virtual ceremony is October 14.

To those who know Wilson, it isn’t a surprise that he won. Wilson, a former cartoon writer who worked on “Judge Parker” and “Rex Morgan MD” for 29 years until he retired in 2016, has made his mark in Tempe.

“Woody Wilson absolutely embodies the humanitarian spirit of the Don Carlos Awards,” says Tamara Reed, board chairwoman of the Tempe Community Council, which hands out the award. “From helping ensure that our seniors can age in place to promoting arts and culture in our community, to working to preserve Tempe history, Woody is a tireless advocate and consensus builder who always knows how to get things done.”

His list of involvement is long:

• Selected to Class of ‘21 of Tempe Leadership Program.

• Co-founded Tempe Neighbors Helping Neighbors to assist older adults in the community.

• Active on the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission.

• Past president of Tempe Community Council.

• Advisory board member of Tempe Community Foundation.

• Past president of Tempe Historic Preservation Foundation and manager of fundraising to save the Rose Eisendrath House.

• Worked with former City Councilwoman Barb Carter to pass 2018 arts tax that permanently extends 0.001% sales tax to fund arts and cultural programs.

• Founder and president of Lakeshore Music, a nonprofit that presents an annual jazz concert series at Tempe Center for the Arts.

• Partner in Southeast Valley-based Cuba Rhythm and Views, which conducts cultural exchanges and tours of the island each year.

They have all sprung out of interests he is passionate about.

He came to Tempe from Scottsdale when he married his wife, Carol. He worked from home as a cartoon writer, something he said was isolating. They left for a time in the 1990s to live in Barbados when Carol got a job in health care policy working for an inter-American development bank.

When they returned to Tempe, he was eager to meet people. He jumped in with both feet.

“It’s, over time, as many years pass, you just see things that you like,” Wilson says. “Showing up and contributing is the major factor. It just gets you in deeper and deeper. It’s been a long, wonderful run here in Tempe for me. I love the people.”

He has high praise for his adopted city as a place that does human services better than anywhere else.

“We take care of our own,” Wilson says. “That’s always appealed to me.”

One example is his work with Tempe Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which helps older people stay in their homes. It started by helping seniors do yard work, and the organization grew.

“We have a lot of older Americans aging in place,” Wilson says. “They don’t have family nearby or don’t have the resources to move into other places where they can be helped, so they remain in their houses. We started doing yard work and it grew into basically a full-service program that helped older people—taking them to the grocery store or the pharmacy or doing things around the house.”

The organization received a larger grant from Maricopa County. It used that money to continue to grow as a grassroots organization.

Then, two years ago, it was faced with the need to change.

“It was time to either grow or cash it in because finding volunteers is very difficult to do, at least the kind of volunteers to do what we did,” Wilson says.

The organization spoke with other agencies about merging their services. More than a year ago, it joined forces with the Tempe Community Action Agency.

“That was a great thing for the community,” Wilson says. “It was a bigger partner with bigger resources and a lot more expertise.”

It was also perfect timing for Wilson, who needed to shift focus in life.

In January, Carol was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They locked down two months before everyone else. She was undergoing chemo treatments, and he became her primary caregiver. He says she didn’t see anyone but medical people from January to August.

“It’s been an exercise in isolation,” he says. “Right now, I’m concentrating on just enjoying my life. My wife and I have bought a motor home, and we’re looking forward to getting out and doing some exploring once it cools off.”

Even amid her illness, he’s been trying to keep Lakeshore Music going. A performance was held in Feburary, but March, April and May were canceled.

“All that revenue went away with three shows canceled, then we had to figure out what we were going to do for ’20-’21,” Wilson says. “We had that all planned out, and of course before we were supposed to start with that schedule (in the fall), that was all canceled.”

He’s hoping they can come back in January, but they face new challenges with making the group fiscally stable. He also still serves on the Tempe Community Foundation. Wilson is thrilled with his award.

“It’s like winning the Academy Award and Emmy and Pulitzer and Nobel at the same time,” Wilson says. “It is Tempe’s lifetime achievement award.”