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June 1, 2013

Summer camp gave future DJ his first taste of showbiz

It was on a stage at summer camp that Gregg “Woody” Wood found his calling.

It was on a stage at summer camp that Gregg “Woody” Wood found his calling.

Wood, who co-hosts the popular Woody and Wilcox morning drive-time radio show on WEND-FM (“The End” 106.5), first attended Camp Fox the summer after seventh grade. Camp Fox is a YMCA summer camp for kids ages 13-17 on Catalina Island, off the southern California coast.

His mom thought a week at sleep-away camp would be good for him, so Wood reluctantly packed up and was none too thrilled to discover that the camp was sing-your-heart-out music intensive.

“Not so easy when you’re 13 and trying to be cool,” he recalls.

Quickly, he realized that “all the cool people were clapping and singing” and that one of the best parts of the day was at dusk, when the 300-some campers and counselors gathered nightly to sing and perform skits for each other.

When the time came for his camp acting debut, he had the honor of delivering the skit’s punch line. The crowd erupted in laughter.

“It was a thrill,” Wood, 41, recalled during a recent interview in the Clear Channel studios. “I thought, ‘I’d love to feel this every day.’ ”

And for the next 25 years, he went back to Camp Fox every summer for one week through the Anaheim Family YMCA, ascending from camper to counselor-in-training to volunteer camp director. Some summers he went to two camps a year, volunteering a second week at a camp for younger kids outside of Anaheim. All the while, he went to college and forged a career in radio, honing the skill of entertaining that he first learned putting on skits on the camp stage.

It’s with the goal of changing lives that each summer The Charlotte Observer sponsors the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund. In its fifth year, the fund has drawn donations from readers as well as grants and matching funds, sending nearly 600 children from low-income families to day and overnight camps. This summer, more than 200 children will attend camp through Observer sponsorships.

When Wood got married in 1999, he took his bride, Cynthia, to Camp Fox for their honeymoon. She was put in charge of a girl’s cabin while Wood oversaw a boy’s cabin. Even when the Woody and Wilcox show moved to a station in Anchorage, Alaska, Wood continued to fly down to spend a week of summer vacation at Camp Fox.

“It was such a guiding factor in my life,” Wood said. “I hung my hat for a long time on being a camper. It gave me an identity. It gave me a career.”

These days, Wood is still a hero for the folks at Camp Fox.

“He has such a big heart. He would be the guy who would be up on stage covered in goo, and then the next day pull a kid aside under a tree and have an hourlong heart-to-heart with him,” said Javier Gonzalez, healthy communities director for the Anaheim Family YMCA, who has served as staff camp director at Camp Fox for nine years.

“For him being such a creative genius, I think that really was born at camp,” Gonzalez said of Wood. “Going up on stage (at camp) just really let him find his creative voice. He was able to just delve into different characters.”

Camp Fox, which runs about $600 a week, is open to both California and non-California residents. Campers snorkel, open-water kayak, complete a ropes course, fish and stand-up paddleboard, among other activities. The camp hosts kids from many socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Many attend through scholarships.

Wood’s father died of a sudden heart attack when Wood was 10, and money was often tight in the years that followed. So it was thanks to scholarships and Wood’s work at year-round fundraisers such as Christmas tree sales and pumpkin patch shifts that he attended camp as a teenager.

He says he’s proof that camp can be a life-changing experience.

A tattoo covers Wood’s entire right shoulder and part of his forearm, an homage to his days as a YMCA camper. The innermost symbol is the YMCA “raggers” symbol, surrounded by a mariner’s compass and the Chinese symbols for happiness, family, grace, and his name, Wood. Big blue waves surround the symbols.

“The compass in your life directs you, and this (camp) was my needle that pointed me in the right direction,” he said.

Going through much of his childhood and adolescence without a father, Wood says camp played a huge role in figuring out what it meant to be a man.

Surrounded by so many positive male role models at camp, he says he recognized characteristics he admired in each of them – some for their musical talents, others for their bravery or their sense of humor.

“I could take bits and pieces of all of these guys and think, ‘I am going to become a Voltron of a man.’ ”

Wood’s last summer at camp was in 2008, when he realized that a new crop of volunteer leaders was ready to take over the helm at camp and that his precious vacation time should be spent with his own daughters, now 7-year-old twins Annie Grace and Katalina Lilly. Katalina Lilly is named for a flower that grows on Catalina Island, where Camp Fox is located.

He still counts his camp friends among his best friends, and although there are many miles between them, they still find time to take trips together and stay in close touch.

Wood says once his girls are old enough, he will send them to Camp Fox.

It’s impossible to know if camp will have the same effect on them that it had on their dad, but he says he can’t wait for them to experience sleeping in an open cabin just yards from the ocean, singing songs and taking hikes like he once took.

“It was something that was so central in my life,” he says.

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