A steward of Chautauqua: After 27 years, Voelker set to retire at season’s end

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Jack Voelker stands with the five varieties of hops he has grown on his Dewittville farm. He trades the hops with friends and brewers for their finished product.

Jack Voelker wipes the dirt off his hands onto his already dirt-stained jeans. He cleans his glasses with his black Buffalo Beer Week T-shirt and thrusts those same soiled hands into his frayed pockets. Leaning back, he looks up at his hundreds of healthy hop bines stretching toward the sky. He removes his white Chautauqua tennis hat and takes a hand out of his pocket to comb back his hair.

This hat has shielded Voelker’s face from the sun through hours of weeding, watering and trimming in his hop yard with his wife Diane, his sister Carol and a few of his friends. For Voelker, though, this a more relaxing Saturday morning than most, and these high-maintenance hops are just another one his many hobbies.

Yet, Jack Voelker, general manager of Chautauqua Golf Club, has never been able to put anything less than 100 percent of his energy into anything he has ever done.

“In all the years I’ve known Voelker, he has always had a passion for anything he has done,” said Troy Moss, head professional at the Golf Club. “When he dives into something, he dives in head-first with a positive attitude.”

After more than 27 years of serving Chautauqua — as director of recreation and youth services and then as the Golf Club’s part-time general manager — Voelker will enter full retirement following the culmination of the 2014 season.

Yet, Voelker confessed that he never focused on this summer as his last at the Institution. Instead, he concentrated all his efforts on heightening the excitement at Chautauqua Golf to a level worthy of its historic centennial milestone.

“This summer, I thought more about making sure I was involved in the 100th birthday celebration because I knew that would be a special moment in the Club’s history and Chautauqua’s history,” he said. “I think we can say it was a successful celebratory summer, it exceeded our expectations. That’s a nice feeling to depart with.”

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Voelker stands with sunflowers growing up to 15 feet high in his garden, beside rows of onions and cabbage.

Voelker’s successes did not begin just this season, though. Since he began his career at the Institution in 1987, Voelker has earned his status as a “Giant of Chautauqua,” molding or otherwise enhancing many of the departments and programs that are essential to the Chautauqua experience today.

“If Jack had never been here, we wouldn’t have the Sailing Center,” said Gwen Papania, whom Voelker hired as his assistant over a decade ago, and who is now serving her final season as director of youth services at Chautauqua. “Jack started the CLSC Young Readers program and the Family Entertainment Series, among many other things. The face of Chautauqua would not be the same without his impact.”

Voelker also developed Chautauqua Health & Fitness and oversaw the construction of the Chautauqua Tennis Center and the Sharpe Field grandstand; he helped design the renovations at Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and integrated Club kids into youth services with the counselors-in-training program.

Essentially, Chautauquans cannot walk through the Institution without passing one of his many projects. Voelker’s legacy looms throughout the grounds and beyond.

“Jack Voelker is one of the most insightful, creative and compassionate leaders Chautauqua has ever seen,” said Jen Flanagan, director of programming at Club. “He brought Club into the 21st century, keeping the traditions alive but also making changes to reflect the times for the betterment of Club and youth services in general.”

Beginning as a day camp counselor in high school, Voelker said his commitment to youth has been “a lifelong privilege.” During his college days at the University of Pennsylvania, Voelker served kids from South Philadelphia. Throughout his career in Chautauqua County he has tried to maintain that same commitment.

“It’s rewarding to be involved in a children’s growth and not be their parent,” Voelker said. “By providing service to a child, you can establish a relationship of trust and genuine affection. You can really have a powerful impact on a child’s life.”

In 1976, two years after moving to Chautauqua, Voelker entered his first administrative position — municipal director of recreation for the Village of Westfield. Although he was responsible for the recreational experience for community members of all ages, Voelker admitted he focused primarily on providing these services to the town’s youth.

It was also in Westfield that Voelker began his relationship with the Institution, inviting members of the Opera Company and the Music School Festival Orchestra to perform at the local day camp and in Moore Park. Drawing from these immediate resources, Voelker modeled much of his programming after that of the Institution’s.

After 11 years in Westfield, Voelker was hired to another brand new position, overseeing Chautauqua’s recreation- and youth-oriented activities. Throughout his tenure at the head of these departments, he sustained his community-oriented approach, his connection with kids, and his recreational expertise to start new programs and solidify traditional ones.

“Every job I’ve had has been a new position, and there’s a certain advantage to that,” Voelker said. “I got to mold my position into my own and be fully open to what the community needed. That was a fun position to be in.”

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Voelker opens one of the varieties of hops he grows on his Dewittville farm.

Originally Voelker’s management methods were very hands-on. He said that with programs like Club and Young Readers, he “selfishly” wanted to be on the frontline working directly with the Chautauqua youth. As these programs gained popularity, though, Voelker was forced to change his approach.

“Although trying to wrap my head around a tennis issue and a Young Readers problem at the same time could be pretty stimulating, I started to feel inadequate at times, like I was being stretched too thin,” he said. “But, as I’ve done for a while now, I relied on good people to make good, sound judgments.”

Many who have worked with Voelker in the past acknowledged his team-building mentality and trusting leadership.

“He was easy to work for,” said Greg Prechtl, director of Club. “Everybody who worked for Jack in youth and recreation worked at the highest level because nobody wanted to disappoint him. He was that kind of leader.”

As his administrative scope narrowed over the years, though, Voelker conceded he began to miss his direct connection with the community more and more. Board meetings and budget discussions prevented him from going to Water Olympics or walking down to the Sailing Center as much. In retirement, Voelker said he hopes to interact more with his Chautauqua family and, more importantly, with his children and their children

“The ensuing years are important to me to be helpful to our kids and grandkids,” he said.

However, babysitting is not Voelker’s only plan for post-retirement work. One of his many future projects includes the creation of a nature-oriented “playscape” at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. In conjunction with the Presque Isle Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing programs in the Park that are symbiotic with nature, Voelker plans to build a recreational area for children in a natural environment.

“It won’t have any purchased equipment, but it will have a series of ways kids can connect with the natural world,” Voelker said. “The natural world provides all the sensory tools for good physical, emotional and mental health, and it is a critical thing to a child’s development.”

With this “playscape,” Voelker will combine his two most avid passions: youth and nature. In fact, Voelker’s lifestyle for the past 40 years has been directly related to the natural world.

“In 1974, Diane and I bought our first home, a pre-Civil War farmhouse in Dewittville,” he said. “We found that being able to walk in our own woods, work in our garden, raise our own animals — those things were essential to us. It’s difficult to understand us if you haven’t been to where we live.”

The Voelkers are celebrating their 40th year on their 68-acre family farm. The picturesque property is like a dream, complete with an extensive organic garden, lush blueberry bushes, a quarter-acre of hop bines, a rustic barn and an elegant, wooded creek. In addition to his hops, Voelker has a list of plans, projects and hobbies to tend to.

“I know that having more time means more time to be outdoors doing something,” he said. “The last thing I need is to stop that enjoyment and appreciation of being outdoors.”

The farm has become a part of Voelker and his family, illustrative and symbolic of who they are. Still, Voelker understands the centuries-old sugar maples in front of his house have a stronger claim to the land than he does.

“I’ve come to understand land ownership as not just a deed. It’s a place you take care of for a while,” he said. “You’re a steward.”

In many ways, Voelker views his time at Chautauqua in a similar way. He expressed his confidence in Freay, the current director of recreation, and Matt Ewalt, who will take over Papania’s responsibilities, and hopes the Institution allows them to continue their stalwart stewardship of these departments.

“We’re definitely losing one of the better figures of leadership at Chautauqua with Jack’s full retirement,” Freay said. “It’s a big void to fill.

According to Voelker, though, Freay and Ewalt will not only fill the void, they will continue to mold these programs and make them their own.

“I hope my successors are given the opportunity to put their own stamp on these departments with their own knowledge,” Voelker said. “It cannot be stagnant. By the very nature of Chautauqua, it must evolve.”