Phil Volker, a pilgrim who inspired thousands, dies at 73

Phil Volker, an islander who embarked on a devotional journey that has become an inspiration to thousands of people, died on Sunday October 10 at the age of 73.

The subject of two award-winning films, “Phil’s Camino” (2016) and “Phil’s Camino: So Far, So Good” (2018), Volker was known around the world for his remarkable response to his colon cancer diagnosis ten years ago. years: he made a winding path, through the woods and pastures of his 10-acre land on Vashon, which reproduced El Camino de Santiago, the ancient 500-mile pilgrimage route through Spain.

The films also chronicle Volker’s joy, in 2014, as he traveled to Spain to hike the real Camino after being cleared by his doctors – contrasting his treks through the lush scenery from his Vashon Path to the scenic trip. open and sunny which he undertook in Spain.

Annie O’Neil, the director of both films, called Volker a member of her “soul family”.

“Phil has become a hero to a lot of us because he’s been living life to the full with something that looms like huge fear and feels like it would be such a limitation,” she said.

Volker also created a vibrant community of Camino followers through his daily posts to a blog he started in 2014, Caminoheads, which is still active today.

In recent years, many of the blog’s contributors as well as his closest friends have attended annual gatherings at Phil’s house on Vashon, to walk and pray on Phil’s Camino and also enjoy the friendliness and camaraderie of one another. others. The rally did not take place in 2020, but this summer it resumed in August. By this time, Volker had entered hospice care.

Volker’s wife, Rebecca Graves, said her husband’s approach to his illness and impending death is to embrace his life fully.

“He hated the language of ‘fighting’ or ‘fighting’ cancer,” she said. “He always said, ‘I’m dancing with cancer.’ ”

Volker was also known for other accomplishments on Vashon, where he lived for nearly five decades.

As a veteran of the Navy, Volker was the first commanding officer of American Legion Post 159 in Vashon, which he established on the island in 2002. His skills as a carpenter and carpenter are exhibited in many many homes and businesses in Vashon. He was a long-time member of the Vashon Sports Club, where he taught hunter safety and archery for many years. And as a convert to Catholicism after his cancer diagnosis, he was a faithful parishioner of St. John Vianney Church in Vashon.

Volker’s close friend, Catherine Johnson, with whom he regularly attended mass, said Volker liked to say the Catholic Rosary.

“The luminous mysteries were her favorites,” she said. “He would often ask me, ‘What does it mean to be a person of light?’ Catholicism, with its sacraments, rituals and mystical experiences, without ever fully answering its question, brought it deeper and more peacefully into the light.

Volker’s death occurred in a large four-walled canvas tent, nicknamed “The Elk Hotel,” a short walk from his house on the south end of Vashon, where he had asked to live as he entered. in palliative care for her cancer in July.

The tent, according to his wishes, was decorated by his friends and family to fulfill Volker’s wish to die Civil War general style, on the battlefield, with period furniture, cards and other ornaments of the time.

Graves said her husband’s statement of this vision of his death, made to her hospice nurse, took the nurse and her by surprise. The nurse, she said, took a deep breath after hearing Volker express her wish, before responding with one word: “Costumes?” ”

Throughout their marriage, Graves said, she had been surprised by her husband and described him as a complex and ever-changing person.

Their daughter, Tesia Elani, also said that her father had mellowed in his later years as he gained comfort and joy from expressing his emotions and being with other people.

“The things that were most difficult for him almost became his specialty,” she said, adding that by the time her father’s life had become centered on the divine experiences of his Camino, he had become. transformed.

The seed of her success in achieving this transformation, she said, came from her meticulous approach to tasks – a skill that was evident in the step-by-step construction of her Camino backyard. .

“He measured the mileage and compared it to the Camino [in Spain] where all the places would be, and kept a log of his progress, and who he walked with every day, ”she said. “… He was a carpenter, so he knew how to build something … so he built something that others could hold onto – he created a container for this thriving community.”

Volker was born on December 21, 1947 in Buffalo, New York, to Fred and Jean Volker, from Prussian, German and Polish immigrants. His only brother, a sister, was stillborn in 1945.

Fred had served as a medic in Okinawa, the last great battle of WWII and one of the bloodiest. In 1952, days before Phil’s fifth birthday, his father was seriously injured and witnessed the murder of his employer in a brutal armed robbery at the store where he worked as a jeweler.

After the crime, which was notorious at the time and resulted in the swift capture and execution of two of the three criminals involved, Phil’s father never worked again, forcing Phil’s mother to enter the market. work to support the family.

Decades later, Graves said, Phil embarked on a long and methodical process to forgive the third criminal, who was never arrested and brought to justice for the crime that had so traumatized his family.

After graduating from high school, Phil attended Syracuse University for a year – a short academic career, not least due to being friends with an older student, Joseph Biden, who was his dormitory resident advisor.

At 19, Phil enlisted in the Marines, serving from 1966 to 1969 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he worked in radio communications and as a rifle trainer. After his military service, he sets out on a trip across the country in a Dodge van with a friend, Geo Sheroke. The couple arrived in Vashon in 1972, in the middle of a snowstorm – a place where the two friends eventually settled.

During a Vashon potluck in 1976, Phil met Rebecca Graves; she too had arrived on Vashon during a snowstorm in 1975.

Their outdoor wedding, in 1978, was “the most hippie wedding of all time,” said Graves, who added that at the time of her marriage she believed her husband was “a student of hippie art in the University of Washington, with a ponytail. ”

“It turned out he was much more than that,” she said.

The couple’s daughter, Tesia, was born in 1979; their son, Wiley, arrived a decade later.

In 1981, the family moved to a five-acre lot at the southern end of Vashon, where Phil built a house around a small cabin on the property. Years later, the couple acquired an adjacent five-acre plot – creating the 10-acre plot where Phil would later carve his Camino.

Throughout his life he worked as a landscaper, carpenter and subcontractor, while Rebecca worked as a preschool and substitute teacher, therapist and freelance writer. She is now the author of two books, “That One Day in August” and “Second Time Around”. Currently, she is working on a memoir of her long marriage to Phil, whose last bright act in life made him a celebrity.

Phil’s last gathering with his admirers was on October 9, the day before his death, when O’Neil, the manager of “Phil’s Camino”, hosted a Zoom reunion, attended by over 100 people, in which Volker was the special guest of honor.

Volker told the group, “Don’t be afraid to die. Don’t be afraid to live every moment to the fullest.

Phil’s son, Wiley Volker, who now lives on five acres of the homestead, now follows in his father’s footsteps, walking at least part of Phil’s path daily.

“It’s a sacred space,” Wiley said. “You can feel it when you walk.”

A funeral mass for Phil Volker will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 30, with a rosary recited at 10:30 a.m. before mass. He is survived by his wife, Rebecca Graves, of Vashon; her daughter Tesia Elani, her husband, Ramon and their children, Freya and Osian, of western Massachusetts; and his son, Wiley Volker, and his wife, Henna Volker, of Vashon. Wiley and Henna’s first child will be born in February.

The Volker family intends to set up a Vashon High School Graduate Scholarship. Those wishing to donate can contact [email protected]

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