For 88 years, Thorp has been home to Gilbert “Gib” Voelker; 52 of them on his family’s farm where he was born. These days, he and his beloved wife of 62 years, Bette, live on a quiet street in town where Gib, with the help of his grandchildren, tends to his famed garden and Bette keeps the kitchen bustling and the cookie jar full.
Even in their 80s, the Voelkers keep busy and active, as they have their entire marriage, raising nine children and maintaining the family farm.
A lifelong member of St. Bernard Parish, Gib grew up with his parents and one brother after two others died during childhood. He and his brother Francis were frequent altar servers.
Born in Illinois, Bette says, “I don’t remember much of my childhood, but I had an adventurous life.” Her parents moved the family back and forth between Illinois and Wisconsin, with their longest stay being eight years. Four boys were eventually added to their household. When Bette graduated from high school she began nursing school at St. Joseph’s in Marshfield.
“My mother and dad just couldn’t hold on to anything,” Bette explained. As the oldest child, she had a lot of responsibility and also a lot of worry about the family’s financial situation. “I survived but I learned that I never wanted debt. I would rather do without,” Bette shared. This is a lesson she carried with her all her life.
Bette was baptized Catholic but doesn’t remember being part of a church community except a visit or two to an Episcopalian church. But while living in Nekoosa and attending Assumption High School in Wisconsin Rapids, Bette met a nice sister-teacher. She found many Catholic friends, and had a very supportive pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Nekoosa, Father Timmerman, who helped her learn the Faith. What she learned and experienced attracted her to begin RCIA and come into full communion of the Catholic Church. Her mother signed her brothers up right along with her. So, in 1953, the siblings received their first holy Communion at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and the following year Bette made her confirmation at Ss. Peter and Paul in Wisconsin Rapids. Father Timmerman kept up with Bette (and Gib), always encouraging them in their Faith and family life. In such a tumultuous childhood, the Catholic Faith became one constant for Bette as she came of age.
The rosary has been an especially comforting devotion for Bette. When at nursing school, the students prayed the rosary together every evening at 9 p.m. Ever since then, it has become a habit. Even today, her kids often comment: “Mom, your hands are always folded.” “That’s me!” she says with a smile.
When Gib was 16 and a sophomore in high school, his dad broke his hip and underwent surgery. Gib’s brother Francis was at college, so Gib started running the family farm.
During the fall of 1958—Gib was running the farm and Bette was working at St. Mary Hospital in Wausau—both stood up in a wedding at Holy Rosary Parish in Owen. The young strangers were paired up and really hit it off. They began dating and a year later, married.
Bette moved to the farm with Gib and his parents and quickly became a farm wife. She enjoyed the adventure of feeding and caring for animals and her family, driving tractors, bailing hay and milking. Bette also supplemented the farm income by working various other jobs. While living on the farm, the Voelkers had nine children, four boys and five girls.
“Farm life was good for the children,” the couple agrees. They reminisce about their children learning responsibility both indoors and out, helping with the pigs, cows and garden and also cooking and cleaning for the family. There always seemed to be some extra 4H project animals around—geese, rabbits, goats or ducks. They also learned to share, having only one bathroom. No matter the challenge or workload, the family worked together to face it.
We’re very fortunate to have nine children who are very supportive of us.” – Gib and Bette
Just as Bette’s Catholic Faith became a constant in her life after receiving the sacraments during high school, she and Gib made sure that it remained so for the whole family. Mass at St. Bernard Parish was a big part of the family life they shared. The boys all served Mass, which was especially meaningful for their siblings’ reception of the sacraments. The rosary was prayed often, especially on car trips. Seven of their nine children attended Thorp Catholic School.
When the Voelker’s eighth child, Carolyn, was four, she began experiencing seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. The family’s focus became the care and supervision of Carolyn, who had frequent seizures that didn’t discriminate in time or place. Each family member pitched in. Gib and Bette say of their children: “They’ve all been so supportive of her. [Her condition] didn’t bother them. They knew this was their sister.” They were very protective and ready to educate anyone who might try to tease or bully her. And Carolyn didn’t let her struggles stop her from doing anything. She carried on with life—always with a smile and a prayer.
In the late 1980s, after necessary upgrades to old farm equipment, and amid their best efforts to make it work financially, the Voelkers were forced to file bankruptcy and sell the farm. It was a difficult transition, leaving the farm life they’d grown accustomed to. They faced this challenge, as a family, just as they had faced each challenge before.
“We taught our kids to be truthful, be honest & say your prayers.”
The family rented for a time while they saved to purchase a home in town. The children got summer jobs using all the skills they had gained on the farm and saved money to pay for school. Bette began working the night shift for the nursing home in Thorp so she could be with the children while Gib worked cutting grass for the City of Thorp during the day. “I started on one side of town on Monday and ended on the other side on Friday,” he laughed.
Then, in the winter, he ran the skating rink in town. Gib was well-liked and the kids asked him long after retirement if he’d come back: “You take care of us,” they’d say.
“He had rules and the kids abided by them,” Bette added.
“I didn’t put up with nothin’,” Gib shares with a chuckle. “I still miss it.”
Gib was also a fair chaperone each summer. “I was a father there,” he says as he recalls his many long summer weekends living at the fairgrounds, again expanding his fatherly role to include all the local kids.
Caring for Carolyn and managing her condition continued to be a focus in the Voelker household. When she was 20, Carolyn had surgery for her epilepsy that, by the Grace of God, was successful and she has been seizure free ever since.
When she was in school, Carolyn became a very active participant in the Special Olympics. She excelled in athletics and thrived in social settings. So, after Carolyn graduated and was no longer commuting to school in Cadott, her parents couldn’t make it work to commute to either Eau Claire or Chippewa Falls to bring her to compete due to their work schedules and meeting the needs of the other children. But Bette knew how important the Special Olympics was to her daughter and was committed to somehow figuring out a way to keep her involved. After a bit of encouragement, Bette started her own group in Thorp. She really had no idea where to begin. But Carolyn’s previous coach said: “You’ve got Carolyn, start with her.”
“Well, one by one, and now I have 20 something athletes,” Bette laughs. Carolyn’s four sisters are coaches for the group while Carolyn continues to compete.
Carolyn has traveled around the world competing in Special Olympics: track and field in Ireland, skiing and bowling in Alaska, skiing in Japan and even a police torch run in Greece. Wherever she goes, her positivity and prayerfulness rub off on those she meets. She’s always had a full fan section, filled with her doting family.
Even amid their schedules and responsibilities, Gib and Bette have always remained involved at St. Bernard Parish. Gib sang in the choir and served as an usher, was chief ranger of the Catholic Order of Foresters and a Knight of Columbus. Bette was a Lady Forester and involved in St. Mary’s Christian Mothers group.
Additionally, through the good times and the struggles, Gib has always said night prayers for his family and their intentions. A cousin of his who grew up in Thorp became a diocesan priest. Father Michael Mertens was a role model for Gib and a great support to the Voelkers throughout their lives.
There wasn’t much time for hobbies in the Voelkers’ days per se, but Gib has always had a knack for gardening and bowling, playing on a league since he was young. And Bette loves her scrapbooking and journaling—chronicling the family’s life.
One look around Gib and Bette’s house reveals that their family is the heart of their home. The couple is surrounded by beautiful gifts lovingly handmade for them in recognition of the great love and sacrifice they have shown their family. Family photographs adorn the walls, with many stories to accompany them.
Gib and Bette’s nine children live within an hour of them, most within a few miles and Carolyn continues to live in their home. She helps care for them and they her. The family has expanded to include 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, five of whom continue in the tradition of attending Thorp Catholic School, where their daughter Susan also teaches. The couple often babysits their grandchildren, continuing to instill the values they’ve always encouraged in their children.
“We taught our kids to be truthful, be honest and say your prayers. That’s all so important,” Bette explains.
To the Voelkers, family gatherings are an essential, especially the traditions surrounding Christmas. “We have the house all decorated and the kids come. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. The kids don’t feel right unless celebrating together at mom and dad’s,” Bette laughs. They do a potluck, play many games and have a full house of fun.
Several years ago, Bette’s youngest brother and his wife, who were unable to have children, came to visit at Christmas to experience their big family coming together for the holidays. “They enjoyed it so much, they’ve been coming every year!” Bette shares.
“We’re very fortunate to have nine children who are very supportive of us,” the couple agrees. “If we need something, they’re there.”
For Gib and Bette’s 60th wedding anniversary in November 2019, they planned a special family Mass at St. Bernard–St. Hedwig Parish where much of the family took part, with their pastor, Father Baskaran Sandhiyahu, celebrating. It was a special time to look over their marriage and their life. Recalling how they met and got married, Bette explains: “It happened fast.” Gib chuckles and adds: “And lasted long.” The fruits of their years together are clear, looking at just a few comments on their anniversary tribute board made during the celebration:
“I love that you are my parents. God bless you always.”
“We hope to have a family with as much love and faith as you have had. We love you.” –Kyle & Emily (grandchildren)
“You have been an inspiration to many.” –Deb (daughter)
“Thanks for being a good role model for our marriage.” –Laurie (daughter)
Authors sometimes get it best, and here Laura Ingalls Wilder’s words seem to capture the Voelker’s years together: “The real things in life haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”
Story by Amy Eichsteadt
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the November 2021 Issue of Catholic Life Magazine