Cancer Survivor Builds Carousel in Race Against Time
PHOTO: Cancer survivor Vean Woodbrey builds a carousel in Utah.

Vean Woodbrey, 69, works on his 1930s carousel in his Petersboro, Utah, workshop. Photo credit: Vean Woodbrey

Vean Woodbrey, 69, has worn many different hats in his life.

He's worked as a grocery store clerk, an aircraft electrician at Hill Air Force Base, and has volunteered with the Boy Scouts of America and 4-H.

Now retired, Woodbrey, who has survived two bouts of cancer, has spent the better part of two years surrounded by drills, saws, sanders and paint cans as he refurbishes a late 1930s Allan Herschell carousel. It sits in pieces in the upstairs workshop of his Petersboro, Utah, home.

When he found the rusted remnants of the 1930s carousel, he called the National Carousel Association to verify its authenticity. The association examined Woodbrey's photographs and realized it was one of only two Herschell carousels left.

"It's the type of story that inspires us in the organization to do what we do," said Bette Largent, the president of the National Carousel Association. "I'd love to see this one up and running and entertain all the children that come through this small town."

His wife, Tonya Woodbrey, told, "He devotes every day to that carousel. He'd probably go crazy if he didn't have that to do. It's his dream."

"I burned out another sander yesterday," said Woodbrey. "I'm on my third sander, second drill."

That's not Woodbrey's biggest worry. He's also trying to complete the carousel project before time runs out on his health.

"Anyone can enjoy a carousel," he said. "Now that I've had cancer a couple of times, I feel a need to get this carousel done before I can't work."

His wife believes the carousel undertaking keeps him busy and focused.

"I decided to it after I was diagnosed with cancer. A lot of times when you have cancer, you think about it," said Woodbrey. "This takes my mind off the pain I've gone through, and it gives me a goal." Woodbrey found the antique carousel rusting in pieces in the back of a garage. He estimates it'd been there about 20 years.

"I saved it," said Woodbrey. "Now the two of us are saving one another."

Vean Woodbrey's carousel will hold 20 different kinds of animals on board, including a giraffe, camel and tigers. Photo credit: Vean Woodbrey

Woodbrey's daughter, Kristi Nielsen, agrees.

"If you put your mind to something that means something to you, I think it can help heal you in a sickness," said Nielsen. "I think it helps him live longer."

Woodbrey's first bout with cancer was 17 years ago when doctors diagnosed him with prostate cancer. His diagnosis prompted many in his neighborhood to have themselves checked out.

"They were able to take care of their health before it got as bad as mine," said Woodbrey.

His second diagnosis came three years ago, when doctors told him he had bone cancer. Although both of Woodbrey's cancers have been in remission for the past year, he schedules check-ups every six months.

"Cancer is funny. You don't know you have it until it's too late," he said.

Woodbrey also has diabetes, which affects his hands and legs, and makes the carousel undertaking doubly challenging.

"I can't pick things up like I used to. I feel like there's a need to push and hurry on this carousel," said Woodbrey. "I have a drive to get it done.

Right now, Woodbrey's carousel is missing some key components, such as a fully-functioning 5-horse-power motor, which will cost $1,000. To date, he has spent $30,000 refurbishing and reconstructing this antique.

"I've been at this for two years, and it's gonna take another two years to finish if I don't get some funding," said Woodbrey.

When he can't find the part he's looking for locally, he reaches out to a carousel graveyard in Illinois.

Throughout his life, Woodbrey has always worked with kids, coaching football, basketball and baseball.

"Now that I'm older, I'm looking back and there's a lot of kids who can't ride rides, or play football," he said. "I want to make this carousel handicapped accessible for anybody."

He envisions a special floor with a ramp with wheelchair locks.

"I've also made a carousel lion you sit on like a bench," said Woodbrey. "Even adults who have trouble sitting will be able to get on this lion and sit sideways and go around."

Once completed, the carousel will include 20 animals - a giraffe, camel and tigers - hand-crafted from wood, all to bring joy to children and their families.

Woodbrey's love affair with carousels began in his childhood in Salt Lake City. He said he collected glass soda bottles and recycled them for 2 cents each. When he had enough money, he'd treat himself to a carousel ride.

He always wanted to build a carousel himself. "Now I decided to make my dream come true."

His family's reaction? At first, everyone thought it was crazy, but now his family is on board, even helping him install the carousel frame in the front yard.

Whenever Woodbrey's 62 grandchildren (the couple raised 16 children) visit, they run up to his workshop to "check on grandpa's animals," says his wife.

"They like to work with him when he's outside," said his daughter. "They like to be his little shadow, no matter what he's doing."

Although Woodbrey credits the carousel for keeping him alive, he says it's his family that he lives for, and would never charge for rides on his carousel, once it's finished.

"My hope for this carousel is when a child gets on there and has fun and has a smile, all of a sudden all my work and efforts - it's paid for it."

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