Music

Emerson Hospital’s Tom Ruggles Is the Spirit of the Holidays

The ukulele-playing 89-year-old sings to patients in a Santa hat and light-up bowtie.

No one wants to spend the holidays at the hospital. At a time when most look forward to celebrating and relaxing at home with family, it’s not the cheeriest of places to be. Except, of course, when Tom Ruggles comes around.

Dressed up in a spiffy red vest, a Santa hat, and a bowtie dotted with blinking lights, Ruggles, 89, has spent the holiday season bringing cheer to patients at Emerson Hospital, singing holiday tunes and strumming his ukulele. Emerson posted a video on YouTube this week of Ruggles singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to a patient, and it’s among the most heart-warming minutes of footage I’ve ever seen.

But this is nothing new, Emerson staff say. Ruggles is something of a year-round celebrity at the hospital in Concord. And his cheery spirit, they say, isn’t just for the holidays. “It’s 365 days a year,” says Sam Brault, a medical-surgical nurse who has been at Emerson for four years. Brault says she and fellow staff at the hospital in Concord adore Ruggles, and so do patients. “He brings his ukulele and helps these patients on some of the worst days of their lives, and tries to make the hospital a little more bearable,” she says. “He definitely makes everybody smile.”

If you ask Ruggles, who’s been volunteering at Emerson for more than a decade, he’ll tell you he gets more out of it than do his audiences—which include everyone from families comforting sick relatives to people battling illnesses on their own through the holidays. “People say, ‘Gee, it must be wonderful for the patients.’ But it’s wonderful for me!” says Ruggles, reached by phone on Friday. “It’s very nourishing.”

Once a week, Ruggles says, he strolls the halls of the hospital with his “uke,” as he calls it, checking in at each and every one of its more than 100 beds. “Anybody who wants a song gets one,” he says. He prefers the classics, like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” or “Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines Nellie,” which he likes to augment by incorporating the patient’s name. Names are very important, he says. Around the holidays, he switches to Christmas classics, like “Rudolph” or “Silent Night.”

Music has always been a part of life for Ruggles, a former traveling salesman for portable trade show exhibits who has lived in Concord since 1969. He sang in a barbershop quartet for 40 years, he says, and currently contributes his talents (he also plays guitar and banjo) to a total of four bands. That takes a whole lot of energy for an 89-year-old, sure, and he admits the three or so hours he spends on his feet roaming Emerson take their toll. “When I go home I’m ready for a nap,” he says. But Ruggles says the music has kept him young. And also, he notes with a laugh, he was born on a leap year, so technically he’s only 22.

His red-and-white get-up, which he wears at the hospital year-round, is “the typical troubadour costume,” he says, the kind he’s worn over the years in various musical ensembles. It’s essential for setting the mood, and the light-up bowtie certainly helps. “When I walk into the room, people know they’re going to get something special besides a bottle of juice or a fruitcake or whatever.”

He’s had his share of experiences on the receiving end of care at Emerson, he says, most recently during his last days with his wife of 65 years, Janot, who died a year and a half ago. A memorial brick engraved with her name is embedded in the hospital’s floor, and Ruggles visits it twice each time he volunteers—once on his way in, and again on his way out—”to make sure it’s safe.”

This year, he’s headed south to be with family for Christmas in Baltimore, and then he’ll be vacationing in Hawaii. But soon, he says, he’ll be back to his shifts spreading cheer at the hospital, until he can’t do it anymore.

“He’s the sweetest,” says Brault, the medical-surgical nurse. “He really is.”