CHAPEL HILL — John Santa stood at the front of the room, his eyes teary and voice breaking.
In the back of the American Legion Hall, Lorie Southerland of Fort Bragg Fisher House sat in a folding chair and smiled.
“Oh John, he’s awesome,” said the operations assistant at the house for military families in medical crisis.
“It’s from his heart,” she said. “He sees it, and he gets it.”
What Santa got last weekend was $8,000 for Fisher House, a cause he has rallied local bluegrass musicians around for nearly $50,000 the past five years. Each year, dozens gather for a 12-hour Marathon Jam, playing for sponsors and taking requests for 20 bucks.
Last year the nonprofit Fisher House at Bragg served 253 families and provided about 1,900 “free bed nights,” Southerland said. Supporters will break ground soon on a new 12-bedroom house to replace the current seven-bedroom house.
Santa wanted to raise $10,000 Saturday but faced competition from a State-Carolina game and rain.
Neither kept him from hosting and playing from 1 p.m. until nearly 1:30 a.m. Musicians that last the whole 12 hours are called “Iron Pickers.” Santa’s an Iron Picker one 10 times over.
“If I had to play by myself for 12 hours, I’d do it,” he said.
The event started out as a group of studio musicians playing for fun. They played for different charitries before Santa settled on Fisher House.
It’s a low-key event, tin-foil wrapped trays of food for the musicians along the wall, people coming and going into the night. Anyone can bring a guitar or other instrument and join the circle or play from a folding chair.
“It’s not about politics,” Santa said, wiping the sweat from his bald head after a rousing song.
“It’s about families,” he said. “It’s about kids. All they know is mom or dad is sick. They’re gonna heal better if they’re together.”
Since 1990, that’s what the now 54 Fisher Houses around the world, many in walking distance of base hospitals, help do.
Santa, who is not a veteran, said his connection to military families came out of a friend shipping off to Iraq five years ago.
“I went up to him and said, ‘I don’t want you to go.’ He’s got three kids,” Santa said. “I told him we’re gonna raise money for you.”
His friend laughed at him.
When he returned safely, “He said, ‘We’re fine, but play for Fisher House,” Santa recalled. “I said, ‘What the hell is Fisher House?’”
Santa was a college student at UNC when Vietnam veterans returned home. He watched how others treated them and he hated it.
Then and now, he said, “These guys went and served because they believed in something.”
“I don’t want any of them to go.”