John Voelker -- firefighter and 'Santa'
Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
San Francisco Chronicle
December was always John Voelker's favorite time of the year: The days were cool and crisp, the holiday lights would come on at dusk, and Christmas was in the air.
Mr. Voelker was the head, the heart and the soul of the San Francisco Firefighters' Toy Program, which gave away 250,000 toys to needy children at Christmastime. He helped any kid who needed help. They called him "the king of toys.''
He died Sunday night at San Francisco's Coming Home Hospice. He was 49. He had been in a coma for 10 months after a motorcycle accident in San Francisco.
"He was a tremendous guy,'' said San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White.
"He was a very special man who cared about everything,'' said fire Captain Tony Smerdel, who knew Mr. Voelker since they were in high school together. "John was a big man, over 300 pounds, but he was all heart.''
Mr. Voelker served 27 years as a San Francisco firefighter and won two meritorious awards for his work in the line of duty. But his avocation was helping people. He took over the volunteer toy program 11 years ago and made it a huge success, working from an old firehouse on Third Street near the baseball park. He and other firefighters turned the firehouse into a kind of Santa's workshop, collecting and storing toys, stuffed bears, dolls, baseball mitts and toy dinosaurs.
"He was a big, jolly guy, a big Santa Claus in the best possible way,'' said his sister, Denise.
"He was bigger than life in all ways,'' said Battalion Chief Brendan Ward.
John Voelker was always proud that he was born in San Francisco. He graduated from Riordan High School, then took the civil service examination for firefighter and entered the department in 1978. His father, also named John Voelker, had been a battalion chief.
The younger Voelker worked at Station 44 in Visitacion Valley, then at Truck 9, not far away on Carroll Avenue. He loved the city with a passion. While other San Franciscans moved to the suburbs, he stayed. "A true native son,'' his sister, Denise, said.
One of his proudest moments came when Gavin Newsom, who had just been elected mayor, asked Mr. Voelker to show him around the troubled Visitacion Valley neighborhood. Mr. Voelker, who owned a home in the neighborhood, had a typically upbeat message, "The area is finally starting to come up,'' he liked to say.
As a young firefighter, he volunteered for the toy program. Not long after, he was taking three months of unpaid leave to work on it, and he later became the chairman.
He increased the donations and got a big rig, got it painted by Bill Graham Presents, loaded it up with toys and took it around the city. They called it "Santa's Workshop on Wheels.''
Christmas was the high point of his season, but Mr. Voelker's efforts lasted year round. He volunteered for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, which helped children who were burn victims, and spent summer days off as a camp counselor at the foundation's Camp Champ in the San Joaquin Valley. "He was a very dedicated guy, a volunteer extraordinaire,'' said Los Angeles city firefighter Dan Gaytan, who also helped with the program.
He also was active in the Bothin Burn Foundation.
Mr. Voelker also sent toys to children left homeless by floods in California and to victims of the Northridge earthquake and other disasters. "He was a first responder in every sense,'' said his sister. He also worked in homeless shelters and in shelters for battered women.
He was a member of the Wind and Fire motorcycle club, and was on his way to a fundraising meeting on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle on Jan. 29 when a truck turned sharply in front of him and he smashed into it. Mr. Voelker was wearing a helmet, but he was so badly hurt he never recovered.
For months his family and friends hoped for a miracle. But Mr. Voelker never regained consciousness. "We tried everything for 10 months,'' Denise Voelker said, "But I think it was never meant to be.''
He is survived by two brothers, Mark of San Francisco and Joe of Concord; and by two sisters, Denise and Lisa, both of Novato.
The rosary will be recited at 7 p.m. Friday at St. Monica's Church, 24th Avenue and Geary Boulevard, and a funeral Mass will be said at St. Monica's Church on Saturday.
The public is asked to take a toy to the services in his memory, or to any San Francisco firehouse. There will also be a memorial lunch in his honor at John's Grill, on Ellis Street. Toys will be welcome at that event as well.
My thoughts and prayers are with the San Francisco Fire Department and the family and friends of Firefighter John Voelker
Rest in peace John
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12-08-2005, 11:25 PM #1
- Join Date
- Nov 2001
Non LODD-San Francisco Firefighter John Voelker
Last edited by superchef; 12-09-2005 at 12:12 AM.
12-08-2005, 11:44 PM #2
Thoughts and prayers are with our fallen Brother and his family
Hope his family is doing alright, especially during the holiday season.
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