The sixth son of a German American saloonkeeper, John Donaldson Voelker was born in Ishpeming, Michigan on June 29, 1903 to George O. and Annie (Traver) Voelker. His mother was a music teacher, and after her marriage gave private piano lessons in her home, so it was only natural that young John would learn to play the piano. As his father and brothers were avid outdoorsmen, the young boy was also pulled in that direction. He developed his hunting and fishing skills during his youth, and he found his true avocation in fishing for brook trout in Upper Peninsula streams. After he achieved success as a writer he acquired Uncle Tom’s Pond and built a fishing camp there. Friends were always welcome to join him for a bit of fishing, and the four o’clock break for a round of old fashioneds made in John’s special way became legendary.
Voelker graduated from Ishpeming High School in 1922 and received his teaching certificate from the Northern State Normal School in Marquette in 1924 after completing the life certificate course. He then attended the University of Michigan Law School and received his LL.B. degree in 1928. Following his admission to the bar that summer he returned to Marquette County and joined the law firm of Eldredge & Eldredge in Marquette. During this time he also served as assistant prosecuting attorney under Prosecuting Attorney Clarence Lott. In 1930 he moved to Chicago and joined the law firm of Mayer, Meyer, Austrain & Platt. That same summer he married Grace Taylor of Oak Park, Illinois, whom he had first met while at the University of Michigan. They had four children, Robert, who died at the age of eighteen months, Elizabeth, Julie, and Gracie.
In 1933 Voelker returned to Ishpeming and opened his own law office. The following year he was elected Prosecuting Attorney of Marquette County on the Democratic ticket and served in that office from 1935 through 1942 and from 1945 through 1950, maintaining his office and a private practice in Ishpeming. From 1942 to 1945 he served on the State Board of Law Examiners and was Ishpeming city attorney in 1943-44. In 1943 he was called to Lansing to assist the attorney general with a bribery probe of the Michigan Legislature. After he was defeated for re-election by Edmund Thomas in 1950 he returned to private practice, briefly associating himself with attorney John McDonald of Marquette. His reputation as a defense attorney was made when he successfully defended Army Lieutenant Coleman L. Peterson on a charge of murder by using temporary insanity as a defense. In the last days of 1956 Governor G. Mennen Williams appointed Voelker to a position as Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. The success of Anatomy of a Murder as a novel and film assured Voelker of an adequate income, and he resigned from the Michigan Supreme Court in January 1960 to devote his time to fishing and writing. He was quoted as saying, “Others can write my opinions, but no one else can write my books.” Some people would dispute that as his opinions have been termed the most literate opinions ever to be handed down from the Michigan high court.
Voelker was a member of the Marquette County Bar Association and served as its president from 1939 to 1941. He served on several committees of the State Bar of Michigan, including the Committee on Judicial Selection and Tenure (1941-42), Committee on Local Bar Associations (1941-42), Committee on Legal Education and Admission (1944), Committee on Civil Liberties (1946-49), and Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence (1956-57). He also served as an associate editor of the Michigan State Bar Journal.
Voelker’s interest in writing began at an early age. He claimed to have written his first story, titled “Alone All Night with a Bear in a Swamp,” at age ten, and he always added that after that title all he needed to do was add the “woof!” He began developing his skill as a writer during his years at Ishpeming High School and further honed them at the Northern State Normal School (now Northern Michigan University) under the instruction of A. Bess Clark and James Cloyd Bowman. However, he did not pursue the craft seriously until he returned to Ishpeming in 1933. His first published story was “Iron,” which appeared in the first issue of American Scene in February 1934. In all he published about a hundred stories and essays, including a column “The Traver Treatment” in the Detroit News Sunday Magazine in 1967-68. Voelker’s first book was Troubleshooter (1943), based on his experiences as a prosecuting attorney. This was followed by Danny and the Boys (1951), Small Town D.A. (1954), Anatomy of a Murder (1958), Trout Madness (1960), Hornstein’s Boy (1961), Anatomy of a Fisherman (1964), Laughing Whitefish (1965), The Jealous Mistress (1967), Trout Magic (1974), and People Versus Kirk (1981). His last published work was “Dangling Angling Genes,” which appeared in the May/June 1990 issue of Rod & Reel, less than a year before his death on March 18, 1991.