June 28, 1917 - April 09, 2017
Joseph Volkell passed away on April 9. He was 99 years old – just a couple of months shy of his 100th birthday.
He was the youngest of 7 children of Solomon and Dora Volkell, and was the last surviving member of that family. His brothers and sisters were Anna, Sally, Fannie, Jack, Nat and Bob. Joe’s beloved wife Shirley passed away in 2006, and he never stopped missing her. He is survived by his daughter Debbie, son-in-law Mark, granddaughter Lauren and her husband Tim, and his great-grandchildren Ramona and Sylvia.
Born in the Bronx in 1917, he grew up in the Depression and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. His mother ran a small dry goods store that did not bring in much money because she advanced credit to many of her customers. His father had been a carpenter, but his tools were stolen soon after arriving in the US, and he found work as a stevedore until he hurt his back from the labor. After that, he devoted himself to religious duties in a synagogue.
The Depression years were tough for Joe’s family. He remembered being told, after asking for something to eat, “You’re not hungry; you’re thirsty,” and given a glass of water. Although Joe did not go on to college, he was a gifted athlete, and many things came easily to him. He was a fine singer, with a jazz lilt and a large repertoire of songs, and he sometimes performed at hotels in the Catskills in the summer. He was always confident that he would be able to find work, and he did: in the garment industry, and in defense plants before being drafted into the army. In World War II he served for four years, in Europe and in the Pacific.
Before being drafted, Joe met his future wife, Shirley, at a dance. He was smitten and would do anything to impress her. One time, while pushing a rack of clothes on a street in Manhattan, he saw her coming towards him. Not wanting to be seen doing such menial work, he shoved the rack down the street before she saw it (fortunately retrieving it later). She was the love of his life, and they were married in 1942. Throughout their lives, they did everything together; Joe would take Shirley anywhere she wanted to go, and agree with whatever she wished.
Joe made his career as a salesman, selling fabric and lace to clothing manufacturers. After he retired, they moved to the Berkshires, very happy to be close to Shirley’s much-loved brother Sy and his wife Sue, and not so far from their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, who lived near Boston. After several years, Berkshire winters got a little too tough, and Joe and Shirley moved to Florida. They were very close with Dorothy, who was Joe’s brother Nat’s widow, her husband Tom, and a circle of good friends. Joe continued to amaze by his encyclopedic memory of Great American songbook song lyrics. On hearing that his first great-granddaughter Ramona was born, Joe unhesitatingly sang the 1928 song “Ramona” from beginning to end.
After Shirley’s death, Joe remained in Florida with the help of Rose Biggs, his caregiver. Rose remained his friend, calling him regularly after Joe came to live with his daughter Debbie and son-in-law Mark in Maryland. There, his caregiver was Baron White, and they also developed a close relationship. Although his health was deteriorating, Joe would never complain, and was always thankful for the help he was given. He continued to take immense pleasure in listening to jazz until the last days of his life. He was unflaggingly considerate of everyone around him, and a loving, generous, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
Because of Joe’s lifelong love for jazz, those who wish to make a contribution in Joe’s memory might consider the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides support and medical care for jazz musicians in need. You can give online or send a check, payable to Jazz Foundation of America, to:
Jazz Foundation of America
There will be a private memorial service on Sunday, June 4 at 11:00 a.m. at the home of Deborah and Mark Weinstein, 5021 West Cedar Lane, Bethesda, Maryland.