Voelker, a Chautauqua giant, scales back duties in semi-retirement

Jack Voelker retired in April as director of the Department of Recreation. He will remain in his post as Chautauqua Golf Club general manager. Eric Shea | Staff Photographer

Grant Engle | Staff Writer

Anyone who has ever enjoyed the Young Readers program, a show from the Family Entertainment Series or sailing lessons on Chautauqua Lake has felt Jack Voelker’s impact on the Institution.

Voelker led the Department of Recreation for almost 25 years under different titles as the position evolved. His title for the majority of his career at Chautauqua was director of the Department of Recreation and Youth Services.

He is now in semi-retirement and serves the Institution as general manager of Chautauqua Golf Club.

Voelker came to Chautauqua after an 11-year stint as the first-ever municipal recreation director for the Village of Westfield. He considers his tenure in Westfield a success, and said he drew inspiration for many of his programs from the most obvious nearby resource — Chautauqua Institution.

“I was trying to enrich my programs with kids by bringing over musicians from Chautauqua to sit with the kids,” Voelker said. “I even had members of the opera company come sing in front of city hall during lunchtime.”

Through his dealings with the Institution, Voelker worked closely with Richard Redington, former vice president of education and planning at Chautauqua.

When the Institution created a position dedicated to recreation, Voelker jumped at the opportunity. He landed the job and started to etch his legacy through a variety of programs that many Chautauquans still enjoy.

Chautauqua Health & Fitness, the John R. Turney Sailing Center, Chautauqua Tennis Center, the CLSC Young Readers Program and the Family Entertainment Series are just a few of the programs and facilities Voelker’s leadership created.

As the Institution’s first director of recreation and youth, Voelker had leeway to experiment with programs and ideas. He considered it a welcome challenge, because he had already forged a path as Westfield’s only recreation director.

“I guess the long and the short of it is that I got to make these jobs up,” Voelker said. “It’s a creative exercise for sure. When you don’t have an obvious model to work from, and you don’t have any particular person to draw from, that’s a pretty fertile climate to work in.”

A growing customer base and the addition of the golf club to the Department of Recreation eventually forced youth services and recreation to separate. Voelker’s long-time administrative assistant and assistant director Gwen Papania was selected to become director of youth services.

Papania credited Voelker with teaching her everything she knows about Chautauqua. She became teary-eyed when she described their work relationship, which lasted more than a decade.

“We were a great team. We became a really smooth-working machine,” Papania said. “It was like we were one unit, and it worked really well. I’m so thankful for what I learned from Jack.”

After 25 years of running recreation at Chautauqua, Voelker said the job’s long, inconsistent work hours began to take a toll on him. He didn’t take the decision to enter semi-retirement lightly, but rather than going straight into full retirement, he decided to drop his full-time position as recreation director and to manage the golf club instead.

Voelker handed the Department of Recreation’s reigns to Andy Freay, who has been running Chautauqua Health & Fitness for seven years. A Mayville native, Freay grew up coming to Chautauqua and attended high school with Voelker’s children.

When the director position opened at the fitness center, Voelker said Freay’s inroads with the community made him a perfect fit.

Voelker also hired fitness center Assistant Director Betsy Freay. Two-and-a-half years later, Andy and Betsy started dating, and they married in 2009.

“Jack likes to take credit for that,” Andy said. “That he played matchmaker, not just in the fitness management but in our personal lives.”

When Voelker decided to enter semi-retirement, he said he knew Andy was the man to lead the Department of Recreation into the future.

“To give a young professional the chance to use his education and experience in a field that doesn’t offer much employment was great for me,” Voelker said. “He’ll be terrific. He’s conscientious, he understands that you have to listen to people, but you can’t be afraid to make decisions.”

Voelker said he plans to use some of his new summer free time enjoying life with his family, gardening and taking a special summer vacation around Europe, which will include a stop in London during the Summer Olympics.

Lengthy summer vacations were never really an option for Voelker as he has spent more than three decades ensuring Westfield residents and Chautauquans could have enjoyable summer activities. He also worked summer jobs during many of his teen years. All that equates to a European vacation being his first significant summer getaway in 50 years.

Voelker said he plans to stay with Chautauqua as the golf club’s general manager until at least 2014 — the year the club will celebrate its 100th birthday. But he has no timetable for when he will fully retire. Voelker described his semi-retirement as a work in progress because he cares so deeply about the people and the Institution.

“Chautauqua has an incredible gravitational pull,” he said. “The reality is that Chautauqua is about relationships. This place, for all of its great programs and facilities, at its roots, is a summer camp.”

As for his legacy, Voelker said it would be nice for people to think of the programs that were created during his tenure as recreation and youth services director, but he cherishes the personal and professional relationships he had at Chautauqua.

“I would hope that I’m remembered as somebody who cared about this place, who appreciated its history and its energy over time and someone who contributed to that history.”