Family Portraits: Chuck Volz

“I don’t know how we’d do the festival without him. He’s the logistics guy. I take care of the entertainment and the parade and he does all the rest,” said Franny Price, the more visible half of the duo responsible for organizing Philadelphia’s Pride Day this Sunday. Price is referring, of course, to Chuck Volz. “He makes sure all the vendors and staff are in the right places and that everything works. Chuck knows Penn’s Landing better then the people who work there. What’s rare and wonderful is that Chuck is the kind of guy who will do all of the work and not take any of the credit. Usually, it’s the other way around. But he is content to let others shine; it’s the work that’s important to him.”

PGN decided to shine a little light on the man who has quietly kept one of Philly’s favorite events going for more than 17 years.

PGN: So do you come by your Philly pride naturally? CV: Oh yeah, I was born and raised here in a track house in Northeast Philadelphia. I went to school here and have my business here. I never really left.

PGN: Family? CV: I have a sister who’s seven years younger, so for all intents and purposes, I was an only child. My dad was German, mom’s Italian.

PGN: What did they do? CV: Dad was a fireman for the city for 32 years. Then he retired and became the head of security for Nazareth Hospital for 20 years. And mom was the head teller at what used to be PNB bank.

PGN: Was it exciting having a firefighter dad? CV: It was scary. I remember once there were a bunch of firemen killed in nearby Bell’s Corner when a floor collapsed. My mother heard about it and came and got me so we could go check to make sure it wasn’t him. Soon after that he retired. He once told me that I could be anything in the world I wanted to be except a fireman.

PGN: That’s unusual. It seems like I always hear of generations of policeman and firefighters. CV: I don’t think children should ever go into their parent’s profession. They’re either overshadowed or there’s too much competition. They need to find their own thing and I think he realized that.

PGN: What were you like? CV: I was a typical quiet, nerdy student. Then I went from Catholic school to Central High, which was a total culture shock. I met my first black person and first Jewish person there. At the time, Central High was about 75 percent Jewish. I was about the only white Christian person. It was a great experience and a great education.

PGN: Did you go on to college? CV: I went to Villanova and got my bachelor’s and master’s in political science, and then went to Rutgers in Camden for my law degree. I worked my way through school as a cashier at a supermarket.

PGN: Now you’re a pub owner. How did that come about? [Volz owns one-third of popular Irish bar Finnigan’s Wake.] CV: I owned the building. I met my two partners and originally we were going to open an auction house, but we tried the pub first and it was so successful we stayed with it.

PGN: Yes, Franny was telling me that not too many people know that the biggest Irish bar in the country is owned by a gay man. CV: True. My partners are straight and I’m the non-Irish, non-heterosexual partner. My general manager is gay, too, and we have a lot of gay people who come here to hang out. I refer to them all as my sisters. We always come here with the crew after Pride Day and celebrate.

PGN: I understand you’re a single parent? CV: Yes, I am a widow. My wife died when my daughter was 4 months old. My daughter was adopted and soon after that I was given a chance to adopt her biological brother, as well. That’s when I decided to come out because I didn’t want anything to be daddy’s big dark secret. I didn’t want them to think it was something bizarre to hide. That’s when I got involved with the Pride organization. I wanted to do something that didn’t have a narrow political focus. I wanted to do something that would serve the whole community. At the time, it was a pretty dysfunctional unit and about $20,000 in debt. We were able to come out of it and, within a year-and-a-half, I became president. My first official act as president was to turn down the resignation of our parade chairman. It’s a gutsy thing to turn down the resignation of a volunteer, but I’m glad we did because it was none other than Franny Price. I’m thrilled to still be working with her.

PGN: That’s so funny. She told me that she’s turned down your resignation! CV: I know. I kept her from quitting all those years ago and now she’s paying me back. I tried to retire seven years ago. I told her I just couldn’t do it anymore, all the meetings and everything. So she made me senior adviser and I still participate, but on my own time without having to attend meetings. I’m still trying to get someone to replace me. I’m training someone right now because there are other things I’d like to do. I really want to decorate [Penn’s Landing], but when I’m dealing with 120 vendors, there’s no time for that. When people come through the gates, people have a good time but they have no idea how much work went into making it happen. I’ve been on my hands and knees over every inch of Penn’s Landing — I even went so far as to make a map of all of the vendor areas that the Penn’s Landing people now use.

PGN: What were some of the biggest challenges? CV: One year it rained something fierce, which makes you want to pull your hair out. And another year it was 105 degrees out. But I think the worst time was when the antigay protesters, Repent America, got arrested. Franny and I both got sued as individuals. That’s tough because you never know how a jury might rule. If we lost they might have attached a financial penalty. I could have lost my house for volunteering in a job that I never got a penny for. Federal court is no joke.

PGN: Wow, federal court? CV: Yeah, it was a civil-rights violation claim. They waited a year and then notified us two days before the next Pride. It was crazy. Fortunately, our lawyers were all pro bono because the fees would have been upwards of $100,000. If we’d had to pay that out of pocket, we would have lost even when we won. And we didn’t even do anything! I wasn’t even there when it happened. I was helping my kids find parking. I came back and the police had arrested the protesters on their own. As if Franny and I had the power to direct the police to do anything. Another challenge was convincing the board that we had to charge admission. I was outvoted in the beginning, but we were so in debt we almost had to fold. We started charging and now it funds a great part of the event.

PGN: How should people deal with the protestors? CV: [Laughs.] Pray for them! I wish we would ignore them, but I know that’s not always easy. I’ve had them tell me that I’m going to hell and I’ll say, “I have a teenage daughter, I’m already in hell!” The thing that bothers me the most is that I feel we could use some more spirituality in our community and I fear that these protesters are turning people away from God. It’s a shame. They give God a bad name.

PGN: Going back, you mentioned your wife. Did she know you were gay? CV: We spoke about it. At the time, I told her I was bisexual. She just said, “Let me know if it interferes with the marriage.” And it really never did. But we were only married for four years when she died of breast cancer. It was tough but I still have my in-laws. Obviously with the cancer, she couldn’t get pregnant which is why we decided to adopt. At the time, I was very involved with the pro-life movement. One of the clients I represented got pregnant for a second time and she knew that Monica and I wanted to adopt and that’s how we got our daughter. It was a blessing.

PGN: How was coming out? CV: The first person I told was my sister and the last person was my father. I’d taken on Cardinal Bevilacqua and I’d been on TV and the radio all day. I came home and my father didn’t mention it. I brought it up and I don’t know what was worse, telling him or not having had the guts to tell him sooner because his attitude was like, “Who cares? You’re my son and I love you.” And that was it. I did have to leave the pro-life movement. I was running a crisis pregnancy center and they were horrified when I came out. But it was the best thing I ever did. The kids didn’t think anything of it.

PGN: What type of law did you practice? CV: Just general law. I was in the DA’s office as the municipal court law clerk for a short time and then I put up the old shingle in the neighborhood I grew up in and started practicing. I was a Democratic committeeman for eight years and I worked in the local supermarket, so everyone knew me. I did whatever a blue-collar worker might need, just petty stuff, no murder or anything like that mostly domestic disputes, wills and estates, etc. I also represented people who were arrested for protesting abortion clinics. They were the most fun because, in the Philadelphia court system, the judges are used to dealing with thugs, not 50 people sitting with rosary beads praying. They didn’t know what to do with them.

PGN: Tell me something about being a parent. CV: There’s nothing easy about it. My daughter Mercedes is 21 and my son Gabriel is 17. I raised them both since infancy. They know their birth mom and their other siblings. Mercedes works at Finnigan’s a few nights a week and Gabriel is a senior in high school. They’re both good kids but I’m outnumbered! If you have one kid and something happens, you know who did it. If you have two, there’s this big conspiracy and either nobody ever did anything or they blame each other. I grew in a family where even with two parents working, things were tight. My kids have it much better, and I worry that they haven’t developed a sense of how important hard work is. But then again, they’ve had it hard, too, growing up without a mother and having a single dad who is gay. I guess they’ve had a few odd burdens to deal with.

PGN: Any hobbies? CV: You know, you never stop working. You just change the location you’re working in. If I’m not working on Pride, I’m working on the house or on legal things. But I do teach: I taught two semesters at the University of the Sciences, one on criminology and the courts and the other on drugs and drug policy. A lot of the kids graduate and do forensic and crime lab work for the CIA and the FBI, so we try to teach them some criminology and sociology skills. It’s fun; they’re really smart kids. And the mayor just appointed me to the Police Advisory Commission, which should be interesting.

PGN: So Franny says that you’re the type of guy who gets the job done with no fanfare. CV: You know what, it’s never about notoriety. As long we accomplish our goals, I really just don’t care. Even here, I have one of the partners that everybody knows. Most people don’t even know I’m a partner. With Philly Pride, some people know my face just because I’ve been doing it for over 16 years, but everyone knows who Franny is. Some people get bummed about that sort of thing, but it doesn’t faze me.

PGN: What’s something you’re proud of? CV: Many people don’t know that we were the pioneers of a lot of things that other Pride events now do as a regular feature. We were the first LGBT Pride event to have HIV testing, free mammograms and a pet-adoption area. We were the first to think of giving a “Friend of Pride” award to a straight ally and the first to have a youth grand marshal. Now they all do it. We were the first to run a commercial for Gay Pride on cable, the first to have a the gay flag flown from City Hall and the first to offer a gay postmark issued by the U.S. post office. This year, we’re going to have the Ben Franklin Bridge lit up in rainbow colors. And not only were we the first organization to have a National Coming Out Day event, we are now the largest in the country. The Philadelphia LGBT community has a lot to be proud of.

Philadelphia’s Pride Day parade and festival is held from noon-6 p.m. June 13. For more information, visit www.phillypride.org.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].