Richard Connor: Meet Sonny Burgess, a caring, singing hero who lights up lives

Tori Pence and Sonny Burgess (Photo by Glen E. Ellman)

Sonny Burgess’s eyes sparkle.

The Fort Worth country singer can light up a room with those eyes in a way that reminds you of the George Strait song, You Look So Good in Love.

Oh how you sparkle, and oh how you shine.

Sonny has brightened many a dance hall, honky-tonk and charity event during his long and varied musical career, but never did those smiling eyes hit the hearts of his fans as they do with patients at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.

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His eyes are the beacon for a generous heart and a soul of grace and gratitude.

He works at Cook providing music therapy for sick adolescents in a state-of-the-art recording studio where the patients learn to write songs, sing, play instruments, and even make records. If a child is too sick to come to the studio, Sonny will sit by the patient’s bedside with his guitar and harmonize.

On a recent day at Cook there was a young boy too weak to lift his head from the hospital bed pillow but strong enough to sing four songs while Sonny sat next to him playing guitar.

“Sweet Home, Alabama,” the boy strained to sing.

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“There you go, you got it,” said Sonny, 58, in his unmistakable Cleburne, Texas, twang. Even his voice has a smile to it.

Sonny, the music man, has been helping at Cook for over 20 years and has never missed a fast-moving beat, his cowboy boots carrying him up and down the halls spreading love, offering hope, and being a purposeful distraction.

“These kids come into the studio or start singing with me in their rooms and they forget why they’re in the hospital and what’s wrong,” he says.

Walk with him through the Cook halls and you will quickly see that it’s not just the patients who love Sonny and are touched by his warmth and genuineness, his sheer authenticity. The nurses and the physicians and other hospital employees break out in smiles when they see him.

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On Wednesday night, he was given The Hope Award at the Fort Worth Business Press 2017 Health Care Heroes event, held at the Fort Worth Club.

He had been asked to sing after accepting his award but said he would rather give up his place on the stage and have a former patient perform.

Tori Pence is 20 years old and she was diagnosed several years ago with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of cancer that primarily attacks adolescents in their teenage years – more often boys than girls.

“I was the lucky exception,” Tori said with a wry laugh at her misfortune.

Sonny is a last-minute kind of guy, always on the move. Details escape him except for knowing who to visit first each day in the hospital. Time is often not kind. He decided Wednesday morning that Tori would be the perfect person to sing at the event that night.

When he phoned her, Tori told him she had gone to Cook the previous morning for a scan. She learned the results Wednesday.

“I’m clean,” she was able to tell Sonny as they made plans for a sound check. Tori is in remission.

She had once been hospitalized for more than a year fighting the disease. Sonny marveled at her courage.

“Some days when I visited I thought it might the last time I’d see her,” he said, his voice cracking. “But she just kept fighting.”

During the fight, he encouraged Tori to write music and then to sing those songs.

“She just wanted to pick guitar,” he said.

Well, sing she did and the strong delivery she learned was never more heartfelt or appreciated than Wednesday night when she performed a song she had written about her battle with acute physical pain, fear and doubt. But there she stood, knocking it out, a vision of hope and healing with thanks to Sonny Burgess.

“Calling him my hero is more than an understatement,” she said.

It’s easy to imagine that Sonny never thought working in Fort Worth’s hospital district would be more rewarding than toiling in Nashville, where he used to write songs by day and sleep by night on a recording studio couch.

“Never made any money,” he says. “Heck, now I bring more in a charity auction than I ever got for gig.”

Call it what you will but it’s difficult to deny that a Higher Power is at work in our lives, which we mistakenly think we control.

George Straight is singing about star-crossed lovers, but so what? This is a love story, too. The galaxy of love spread by Sonny Burgess and those dancing bright eyes.

He must have stolen some stars from the sky.

And gave them to you to wear in your eyes.

For a video on Sonny Burgess

(Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at