Class of 1988 honors lost classmates with annual scholarship

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By Jamie Baker-Nantz


Jeff Voelker was 17 years old at Grant County High School when he was diagnosed with melanoma or skin cancer in a mole on his arm.

“We didn’t know much about cancer and really didn’t know how serious it was,” said his mother, Charlotte Voelker.

Jeff had surgery and took monthly treatments at Duke University. Doctors told him if the cancer didn’t return within a year, he likely had beaten it.

“Just before the year was up, the cancer was back,” said Charlotte. 

Jeff spent the next four years undergoing experimental treatments. The cancer spread to his brain and after months at Markey Cancer Center in Lexington and the University of Cincinnati, Volker died of cancer at the age of 21.

 “He was never in a bad mood and always a lot of fun to be around,” said David Sponcil, a friend of Voelker’s. 

“He was down to earth and never thought he was better than anyone, “ said Gina Austin Smith, also a classmate of Voelker’s.

Voelker loved farming and was a member of the Future Farmer’s of America. He also loved horses.

When the GCHS’s Class of 1988 five-year reunion approached, Voelker’s classmates decided that his memory would not be forgotten.

“He was a very special person, not just to the GCHS Class of 1988. His loss was devastating to his family and friends,” said Mary Lee Chance Smith, president of the GCHS Class of 1988. 

Voelker was a volunteer firefighter with the Williamstown Fire Department and was someone who loved life.

“He was amazing, just one of a kind,” said Charlotte. “He sure did love life and he never felt sorry for himself.”

Even after his cancer diagnosis, Voelker said her son would be the first to visit and talk with a neighbor when they received a cancer diagnosis.

At the five-year reunion, the class started collecting donations with hopes of establishing a scholarship in Voelker’s name.

“We wanted to keep Jeff’s memory alive and help a graduating senior at the same time,” Smith said.

In 1998, at the 10th-year reunion, the group became more focused and included information about establishing a scholarship in a mailing they sent out to more than 160 graduates.

“We still weren’t sure we could ever actually make this happen, but we were determined to try,” Smith said.

Before the 15th class reunion, Chance said classmates reached out to his parents, John and Charlotte Voelker, and others bringing the total amount collected to $2,500.

They began working with GCHS staff, established a scholarship application and formed a selection committee composed of David Sponcil, Todd Davis and Patrick Gambrell.

In 2004, they were able to award the Jeff Voelker Scholarship to LeAnnda Gordon. This year, marked the 10th scholarship they’ve given away to a senior.

“It’s very sweet of his friends,” said Charlotte. “We were just moved and touched that they wanted to keep his memory alive.”

Each May, Amy Prather Robinson, a member of the GCHS Class of 1988 and now a teacher at GCHS, awards the $250 scholarship.

“We know it isn’t a lot of money, but we do it for much more than the money. We’re hoping that they can put it with other money they receive and it will help,” Smith said.

Another unexpected benefit came in the form of keeping a sense of unity among classmates. 

“I enjoy coming together and working on this and I look forward to each reunion because it is the time to remember,” Smith said.

GCHS’s Class of 1988 will hold their 25th reunion from 6 to 10 p.m. on Sept. 7 at Verona Vineyards. The cost is $40 per person and includes dinner. For more information, call Smith at 859-240-7739 or by email at mlcsmith@insightbb.com.

Since Voelker’s death, five other classmates (Richie Chamberlain, Chuck Conley, Bobby Clemons, Craig Glacken and Mike Plunkett) have also died.

“Even though the scholarship is named for Jeff, we do feel it’s a way to bring us together and remember the ones who are no longer with us,” Smith said. “We know a lot of our classmates are in the middle of raising families so it’s a challenge to get financial support to keep the scholarship going, but we are hoping that people who knew and loved Jeff will join us.”



Jeff Voelker Scholarship Recipients:

2004 – LeAnnda Gordon

2005 – Melissa Gordon

2006 – Shawn Saylor

2007 – Raven Marie Mineo

2008 – Nathan Wayne Kitchens

2009 – Felicity Nicole Spicer

2010 – Ryan Eldridge

2011 – Michael Patrick Shultz

2012 – Kaira Marianna McKinnon

2013 – Sarah Elizabeth Kellam