Post Gazette: Meet the singing St. Clair volunteer who croons his way into patients’ hearts

‘My favorite part of the job is trying to put them at ease,’ says retired music teacher Paul Fox

This is the inaugural article in our new They Care series, profiling community members who go above and beyond to increase the health and wellness of others.

He and his wife, Donna, had their minds set on becoming volunteers at St. Clair Hospital. And when their phone inquiries weren’t returned in a timely enough fashion, the Baby Boomers staged a sit-in at the volunteer services office, tracking down the former volunteer director in person so the roles they imagined could become reality.

“If you walk in the snow, you leave footprints. If you walk in the mud, people will see you were there,” he said. “In some respects, one of the things you have to worry about when you retire is finding three things: purpose, community and structure. You want to leave something to show you were there.”

Fox doesn’t always speak in fortune cookie scrolls. He’s quoting advice from a book that guides his post-career life, “How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free” by Ernie Zelinski, who is not the president of Ukraine, Fox, always-the-teacher pointed out.

Since its opening in 2021, Fox, 69, of Upper St. Clair, volunteers at the hospital’s Dunlap Family Outpatient Center, escorting 50 to 80 patients and their families to and from the procedure or recovery rooms and back again. Those tasks seemingly check all three boxes — purpose, community and structure — on their own but, to Fox, they’re simply blank music staffs, asking for an original composition.

He doesn’t just push wheelchairs. He conducts lively conversations and throws around good-natured jabs with nearly every audience member — um, patient — who arrives on his assigned floor’s corridor.

He sings pop music and show tunes that include his patients’ first names, and refuses to admit defeat when a less common moniker stumps him, consulting Google until he finds one.

He dressed as a Christmas tree in December and as a pirate around Halloween, ditching his volunteer’s uniform, though no one seemed to mind.

No one’s defenses are raised, either, when the intangibles of his personality allow him to glide into immediately meaningful conversations with patients so deftly, an eavesdropper might assume the two were old friends, though they’d just met.

While those ways of being are effortless to a man who’s spent a lifetime learning to command an audience, they’re certainly not contrived. They’re acts of genuine compassion.

Paul Fox“These folks are going through some bumpy times,” he said. “They’ve had their colonoscopy prep the night before, and maybe they were up all night. Someone is having surgery, and they’re nervous. My favorite part of the job is trying to put them at ease.

“Some people say, ‘You’re awfully cheerful, Mr. Fox,” and I say, ‘Yes, yes, that’s true,’” although he can’t pinpoint exactly why that’s his nature.

To Fox, there’s no definitive moment, no life path-altering person, who set him on the road of eleemosynary — a word meaning “charitable,” which he challenges readers of his personal blog to look up.

His mother was an elementary school principal, which may explain some of his service-related tendencies. His father was a Westinghouse nuclear engineer, which might contribute to his aptitude for music and balancing of tasks.

But none of that fully explains why Fox treats retirement as a gift to share rather than one to covet.

In addition to his half-day, twice-per-week wheelchair navigating duties, Fox volunteers for the Community Foundation of Upper St. Clair, contributing to their arts committee and communications efforts. He and his wife lead a 32 person-strong community orchestra, giving adults and serious young musicians additional chances to hone their craft. For the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, he’s created more than 100 presentations for workshops given around the region, and teaches classes on retirement and ethics.

He’s written articles on volunteerism, and has been featured in local magazines for his efforts. But he doesn’t seek the limelight for selfish purposes. He uses it to recruit like-minded individuals.

Fox is one of about 130 St. Clair volunteers, but the growing health system requires about 100 more, which he’s quick to remind any potential candidate.

Paul Fox

While each of those volunteers have their strengths, Fox might be first chair.

“The patients just love him. I think he leaves an impression on patients that we’re so friendly and helpful, and when you come to St. Clair, you’ll be put at ease,” said Kim Washel, manager of volunteer and guest services. “He’s such a great face for us. Patients know their experience will be as upbeat as possible.”

But the admiration is mutual for Fox, who arrives at each shift an hour early to leave his metaphorical footprints in the snow.

“It’s good to spend your time where you feel like you can make a difference,” he said. “And it’s a good thing I retired. I wouldn’t have time to do anything I’m trying to do!

“If you’re going to be a good citizen, you need to volunteer.”


First Published January 11, 2024, 5:30am