Published On: Sat, Dec 11th, 2021

They come visiting us carrying a hidden treasure

by Cdr. Bud Slabbaert

For fifteen years now, he and his wife are coming to St Maarten; and that twice a year. Why didn’t we meet them before? I found out that they have so much give: Wilmer Woodland and his wife Carol Stone. Everyone knows him as Woody.

“I don’t like that Mister Woodland stuff. I’m simply Woody and if they learn to know who I am and what I stand for, then, let them consider if they want to give me title of “Mister”. I can do without it.”

Once you get to know him, you will like him too much to ever address him as Mr. Woodland again. I sat down with Woody for what I thought might be a one hour interview; it became a three hour meeting with fascinating conversations about his long line of life experiences. Woody and I both felt that we wanted to talk more and so, I came back the next day and sat down with him for another three hours.

The only reason why we had to stop our first meeting was his wife Carol telling us that it was time to go to the gym and that the traffic in Simpson Bay would be horrible later on. Go to the gym? Really? Woody is 83. Having said that, if you meet him in person, you would estimate him to be in his sixties. A lean bundle of energy that just needs a valve to let some of it go. He has an appearance as if he was skillfully carved from a noble piece of mahogany wood. He has some resemblance with Nelson Mandela; not surprising that some people do call him Mandela. It may not be right compare the two, but Woody is quite a character with an icon personality. His friendliness, straight forwardness, and integrity are downright contagious

“What would you like to do when you come back to St Maarten in November this year?” I asked.

“I would love to help young people at school. I would like to create awareness of how to keep the body healthy and stay in shape. I would like to help the community.” He goes on and on. Woody is a man who only talks about making his wisdom available and contributing to the well being of other people.

“I have heard you were at the Independent Learning Center the other day, at their Science Fair. How did that go?” I inquired.

“I wasn’t on the program or so, just visiting. Before I knew it I was surrounded by the kids of whom some remembered me as Woody from my visit last year. I like to be more often at schools and be with young people. I told them to value their years here. They should understand that from here on they grow and things are going up and down. No one gets younger and learns less with time. They listened. It isn’t always what you say, but rather how you say it. Everyone can tell the goody-goody stuff. I am serious to them and they feel it.”

Woody graduated with a degree in English and communications when he was 58. In his sixties, he was given an assignment three times to teach at different schools as an English coach. Two of those, he gave up fast because he felt that it was too easy for him. The third assignment was at Atlantic City High School. When he arrived at the school to introduce himself to the principal, he saw the kids fighting outside. Woody immediately decided that this was the school where he wanted to be.

“These kids grew up on the streets. Anytime they can negotiate on the streets, they can deal with me and I can deal with them,” Woody explained to me. He had told me that he himself was born and raised in a black ghetto of Philadelphia.

“I told the kids that I was there to teach them, not to fight them. You got to let them know what your role is. And they have a role also. I went around the classroom to shake their hands. I told them that my name was Woody, just Woody. I told them what I wanted to do. ‘I want to help to develop you so that you can be good enough to take care of yourself and your family and can do all of the good things that you need to do. I’ll teach you all this and I want you to help me. Are you gonna do that?’ I asked them. They agreed and then we shook hands on it. I told them how important shaking hands is. ‘I want you to know what it means when you shake a man’s hand. And when you say a word, it should be something that you mean and what you want it to be.’ You have to approach these kids that way.” Woody went on: “If you say it in the right way, the kids will understand that they have a responsibility too. You got to convince them what is right or wrong. Everybody has a sense what’s right or wrong. I said: ‘If you want me to help you, you’ve got to listen to me and I’ve got to listen to you. It’s a two way thing. I’m no better than you, you can teach me something but I’m going to teach you what you need to know if you let me.’ That’s the way I ran it down to them. It is not about letting the kids know that you are better than them. It ain’t about that. I told them that I was just lucky that I knew more; I’m older so I should know more.”

Within three weeks Woody was chosen as the most popular teacher at the Atlantic City High School.

“I never had to use these,” he said as he showed me his fists. “I used those when I was boxing.”

“You were a boxer?” I asked surprised.

“My barber who was on our block was an old man and I liked him. I cleaned the windows and mirrors for him at the barbershop when ever since I was a kid. I always wanted to be like him. When I was about twelve, he heard that my mother was going to spank me for a fight that happened outside, right in front his barbershop. He told my mother that I hadn’t started a fight, they were fighting me. ‘I’m going to take care of your boy and take him here in the gym with me,’ he told my mom. The barber trained some boxers in a big garage in the back of his barber shop. He had everything set up, a gym, the bags, a boxing ring. Every day, I had to bring the boxing gloves from the barber shop to the gym. And those guys were sparring. The barber told me ‘Sonny, when they’re finished and I’ll be going back to cut hair, you bring back the gloves and lock the doors. So, when all the fighters left, I locked the doors but stayed in there myself.

I did how I had seen them hitting the punch bags. I did it for a whole year or so. One day, I forgot to lock the door behind me and I was hitting the a bag: ‘bang, bang, bang.’ I could feel somebody’s eyes on me. I turned around and looked. I saw I left the door open and one of the guys had come back because he had forgotten something. He was watching me over the banister and said: ‘how long have you been doing that?’ I told him that I guessed about a year. He said: ‘tomorrow, you’re coming and you are going to train with the other guys.’ I was about fourteen at the most. I did go and, man I tell you, I was good. He got me to spar with some of the guys. When was fifteen years old, I had to spar with a middle weight fighter who was preparing for a fight with a world class boxer. He was training hard and they had me sparring with him. One day when I took the gloves back to the barbershop and the old barber said: ‘You did a good job sparring with him, sonny.’ I answered that I was doing easy on him. He said: ‘You what? Wait a minute. He is one of the best middle weights in the country. What do you mean, you were taking it easy on him? You come in tomorrow and don’t take it easy on him!’

I came in the next day and worked on him. They had to cancel his fight. Although he wore the head protection, his eyes were swollen. The barber made it clear to me that he didn’t want me to play ‘big boy’ out on the street. I don’t want you to hurt anyone!’ So, I would not fight with anyone. I started boxing with the amateurs and I had five streak wins that summer. Finally, all the old guys in the neighborhood told my mother: ‘Emma you got to see him. That boy of yours is good. He is going to be a champ. You have to see him.’ They got her to come to the ball field where a ring was set up. Everyone was coming to see her sonny fight and let me tell you, I did. The fight was over in one round. When they took off my boxing gloves, I looked at my mother and she shook her head disapproving. I told the guy who took off my gloves that this had been my last fight. My mother didn’t want me to do this. So, I didn’t bother about boxing anymore. I was only fifteen and I did what she told me. She wanted me to go to college.”

“Did you see that there is a boxing event this week on the island?” I asked Woody.

“I did. I wish I could go but we are leaving on Saturday.” he said with a bit of a sigh. “But listen, my boxing time wasn’t over yet!”

“What do you mean?” I wondered, “You just said you didn’t bother about boxing anymore?”

He developed a grin from ear to ear.

“Listen, when I was sixty, I felt like doing it again. I brought up the subject, hoping that my mother had changed her mind. She was 88 and she gave in. She said that I was old enough now, but too old to be getting punched around. ‘You could just go out and get in front of a railroad train if you want to.’ She couldn’t understand my determination to fight. I stayed in shape all those years because I knew that one day I was going to box again. And I’m not talking about an exhibition or tough-man contest with headgear on. I’m talking about legitimate boxing, where people are doing it for money. My workout schedule would make many 17-year-olds cringe. I was shadowboxing for three three-minute rounds, hit the heavy bag for three more three-minute rounds, then stretched and exercise to wind down. Sometimes people reach a certain age and they give up. I don’t.”

Alone Woody’s effort to prepare to fight as a pro is to be labeled a success of its own kind in his life.

“I did many things in my days that others would never dare to do, or could not even understand. I would have had a serious problem with my dear mother, if I didn’t take on any challenge. Believe me, I am as honest as the day is long. I never fear taking on a controversial issue especially when I can justify and validate the issue. In my younger years, when I was a civil rights activist I went to London and at the famous Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park I would climb on a soap box and let my voice be heard. I spoke in Paris and I demonstrated at the Vatican in Rome to make the view of the black people on the needs for equal rights known. When I returned the US and was looking for a job, they put me in charge of ‘Gang Control’ in Philadelphia, the fourth largest city of the USA. Every year 300-400 young people died in gang wars. What did I know about gang wars? Nothings! But, I had to find an approach.

I stepped up between them and made it loud and clear that they shouldn’t try to mess around with me. They accepted me and respected me and agreed that they wouldn’t mess with Woody. I was able to get them together for a dialog. In the black community, if people had a job at daytime, they would face racism and it is sad to have to say that it still exists nowadays. At nighttime, the people had to deal with criminal violence and it was unsafe to get out of the house to buy groceries or medication, or anything. I was in a tough position even to get some understanding form the authorities for the issues that the city was confronted with. They had two problems on hand: drugs and guns. I tried to point out that it is easier get rid of guns; you cannot get rid of drugs. It was a tough time. Once I would have all these experiences behind me, I had envisioned to start a consultancy on eliminating school violence. But in my life every always comes different than expected.”

I changed the subject of our conversation to get from the past into a future direction. I had that in mind already when I started the whole interview when asking the question of what he might want to do when returning to St.Maarten in November.

“How about organizing a jazz festival in St.Maarten?” His first reaction was: “No, not anymore” and his wife Carol who had joined us at the table agreed. Before, Woody had told me a bit about the Jazz Festival they had created back home in the USA, and although one would expect that at their age they would just want to sit back and enjoy their retirement years. But from all I had heard form Woody during our meeting I couldn’t help but detecting that there was some hidden power that just needed a spark.

“Why not?” I asked, “Until recently, in sixteen years, you have passionately organized 33 Jazz Festivals and you had success!”

Years ago, when jazz lovers Woody Woodland and Carol Stone moved to Cape May, N.J., they were bored. They felt that musically there wasn’t enough happening at the time. They just wanted to have some place to go to listen to some good jazz right there. Evidently, so did a lot of other people. In 1993, they set out to turn their idea into reality by organizing a first class Jazz festival in their home town. From their initial idea, the Cape May Jazz Festival was born. At first, Carol and Woody expected it to be a sparsely attended event if it was little-advertised. Woody, deep down is a true public relations man.

“We always used to go to a lot concerts and places where there is live music,” he says as a big grin comes about around his mouth. “After every concert, I would just go on stage in a resolute manner, grab the microphone and make a promotional announcement for our own jazz festival. And when the manager asked the sound engineer why he didn’t cut the sound off when I grabbed the microphone; the engineer answered that I had sounded legitimate and convincing that it appeared as it was part of the show.”

Woody is type of guy who has the flair to do these kinds of things and convince people.

They attracted one thousand jazz lovers to their first event. The seeds of success were planted early on. Attendees booked up rooms at the few hotels and bed-and-breakfasts that were open in the preseason.

“So, why not set up such a festival in St.Maarten where it would be a welcome event to stretch the season, fill up empty hotel rooms and to bring in a different kind of tourism?” I brought into our conversation in an attempt to create the spark. For one I could see a spark in their eyes when talking about it.

“From that first weekend event, our Cape May Jazz Festival grew into one of the premiere weekend musical affairs on the East Coast,” said Woody. “Carol believed that it made sense do it even twice a year. She was excited about it and so we did. She proved to be right. The semi-annual festivals attracted over eight thousand Jazz lovers to the three-day events.”

The growth of the semi-annual musical event’s popularity sure was sweet music to the ears hoteliers and merchants that made the cash registers ring. They loved it, especially since the concerts were held in the shoulder season. From a single venue that first weekend, the Cape May Jazz Festival developed into an event at eight different sites ranging from larger auditoriums like the Convention Hall and the Grand Ballroom of a hotel, to a gymnasium and more intimate settings like the Yacht Club and several supper clubs and restaurants along the beach front.

“I bet you still have the network of musicians and producers to get something started again.” I noticed that the excitement was growing in Woody and Carol. The more we talked about it, the more the enthusiasm started to come back.

“Oh, we had the Count Basie Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Herbie Man, Miles Davis, Chuck Mangeone,” and Woody and Carol recalled and named a long list of world famous musicians who performed at their festivals.

“Do you think that you could get some of these musicians to St.Maarten?” I asked.

“Actually, we know some fantastic musicians here on the island who might be interested participate,” said Carol. She looked at Woody as if the brainstorming had begun. “You know, who would probably like to come?” she said to him and mentioned some well known musicians from the US East Coast to as far away as California. It started to sound realistic to get some going in St.Maarten.

“How about some events that could also involve the local community of St.Maarten?” I inquired.  “How can we help and encourage young talent here on the island?”

“Our Jazz Festival included intimate jam sessions, jazz-gospel performances, and special children’s jazz workshops.”

“We could even have some kind of contest whereby some of these famous musicians could be the expert judges,” I suggested.

“Oh, definitely,” Woody responded, “It could be a stimulus to develop young talents and create a jump board to a possible career as a performer.”

“So what do we need to get started?” I asked determined as if some decisions were made.

“A few good reliable people and a strong commitment out of the community including sponsors,” said Woody. People who will stand by their word and let us do the thing that we know best from our experience.”

“It is also important that we start the first Festival in a venue where we can grow and expand,” Carol brought in.

“We may get something going here in the Today newspaper, plant some seeds in people’s mind and see what the reactions are,” I offered to Woody and Carol and continued: “We may be your first media sponsor if you want to call it that way and then see who will join us to get this show on the road. This will not only be a fun cultural event that contributes to the island community but it will be an event with an economic impact, and it will get the name St.Maarten as a destination out and about.”


Publisher’s Note: This article was originally published in the Today newspaper in December 2016. It was the first article Bud Slabbaert wrote on St. Maarten and it is still worth reading it. As Bud recalled it: “I sat in the office of Hilbert Haar, just casually discussing the possibility of publishing columns. Then this gentlemen walked in, asked for the Editor and then asked Hilbert if someone could do an interview. Hilbert didn’t have the time. So, I offered that I could do it. Hilbert agreed. When I submitted the finished article, Hilbert said that it was longer than normal but he liked it and thus it was published in Today.”

Bud asked if I would publish it again because it does have value. I read it and I agreed.

Terrance Rey