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A Utah craftsman races illness to finish a vintage carousel

Vean Woodbrey is in a race with cancer on his final mission: restoring a 1930s carousel for his grandchildren and other kids in Petersboro, Utah.

December 04, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Vean Woodbrey works on a giraffe for a vintage 1930s carousel he's restoring for his grandchildren and other kids in Petersboro, Utah.
Vean Woodbrey works on a giraffe for a vintage 1930s carousel he's… (John M. Glionna, Los Angeles…)

PETERSBORO, Utah — By any measure, Vean Woodbrey looms large.

Dressed in denim bib overalls, he stands 6 feet 4, weighs 275 pounds and wears size 16 shoes. His children — all 16 of them — jokingly call him Sasquatch because of the cartoonish spread of his footprint. So do many of his 70 grandchildren and great-grandkids.

And then there is the 7-foot-tall wooden giraffe he's carving inside his home workshop in this farming town near the Idaho border. He runs a gnarled hand along the figure's neck, wiping off the sawdust that covers everything like an early season snow.

"It's simple, but there's a certain beauty to it," Woodbrey, 69, said. "The best part is that it came straight out of my imagination."

Woodbrey is an aging craftsman on a mission to finish an amusement-park-sized carousel for his grandchildren and other other youth in this Mormon community before his declining health finally fails him.

As he painstakingly crafts a menagerie of 22 animals — horses, a panda, a zebra, a lion, a tiger, a camel, an elephant and the giraffe — Woodbrey knows time is running out. He has already battled prostate and bone cancer, both of which have slowed his once-loping gait. He also suffers from a neuropathy that numbs the toes in both feet, making him teeter like a child's top in its final throes of movement. To keep his balance in his shop, he holds onto his animals and various saws and sanders.

Every morning, he slowly scales the ramp onto his second-floor workshop to create his imaginary world out of scavenged lumber. Each day is one more sunrise wrung out of a life as a father, community leader, coach and scoutmaster.

"I've got to get this carousel done," he said. "There's this sense of urgency, but I'm inching my way there."

There have been delays: Once he stapled three fingers together with a nail gun. Then he took a fall and broke five toes on one foot. He's already burned through two drills.

He shakes his head. The illness has made him see things so clearly. The doctors say the bone cancer is 85% licked, but that either could return at any time. "When you have cancer, you take an inventory of what you've done, but there's so many things you still want to do," Woodbrey said. "Every day, my wife knows exactly where I am — up in the wood shop with my animals. I'm a man on a time clock."

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Woodbrey's fondness for carousels dates to his boyhood in San Diego, where his father took the family's four children to a local amusement park. "My dad would buy one ticket he said would go to the eldest — and that was him," he said. "But he'd grab so many brass rings he'd win free tickets so we could all ride."

When the family moved to Salt Lake City, Woodbrey collected soda bottles to redeem for the money to ride the carousel at a local park. If he was lucky, he'd make enough to buy a drink or an ice cream cone.

Years later, after Woodbrey married his wife, Tonya, and they started raising their 16 kids, he took a job at nearby Hill Air Force Base where, for 40 years, he repaired F-4 fighter jets and, later, Minuteman missile systems. At home, he began making wooden dollhouses for his eight daughters and toys for his eight sons.

At age 58, he was struck with prostate cancer. As he lay in the hospital, one of his kids bought him a copy of a magazine dedicated to carousels. Once again, he was hooked — checking each new issue for trends, seeing which old carousels were up for sale.

Eight years later, Woodbrey was treated for a golf-ball-sized tumor in his skull. After weeks of radiation treatments, weary and depressed, he asked his wife, "What am I going to do?"

"She responded: 'Go do whatever you want. Just don't give up.'"

Woodbrey retired from his job at the base and began scouting a carousel to refurbish. He finally found the 7-ton shell of a 1930s Allan Herschell ride — its animals long ago sold off as antiques by the previous owner — for sale in Montana for $5,000

Woodbrey got the contraption home and set to work. One day, he called his eight sons and eight sons-in-law over to the house for a meal. But first the men were instructed to hoist the carousel's 16-foot center pole aloft into the sky and set it into place. They worked together, grunting and sweating, like Amish barn builders. "I told them nobody could eat until we were done," Woodbrey recalled.

The project, Woodbrey's family says, has given him the will to keep living.

"That carousel," said son Kevin, "has saved my father's life."

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Woodbrey, known around town as Woody, says his project is dedicated not just to his prodigious family, but to all children, especially those with emotional or physical defects.

As a youth baseball coach, he played every kid in every game, even boys who struggled to swing a bat or catch a ball. One boy was bullied by other youths about his thick glasses until Coach Woody set them straight: He told the players they were all a team and needed to rely on one another.

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