Virgil Stucker visualizes healing in community

Published 6:52 pm Friday, February 14, 2014

Virgil Stucker

Virgil Stucker

Virgil Stucker believes in dreaming big dreams.

With the solid support of family and friends, he’s gone from being a little kid sending messages to the world through wires and antenna affixed to his parents’ trailer home, to being the founding executive director of Cooperriis Healing Farm and the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care.

He has little formal education in psychology, but he believes that connection and community can make the difference in people’s lives.

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“Maybe my confidence comes from being the left-handed only child of caring parents,” Stucker said. “I grew up in modest settings. For many years, I lived in a trailer my parents had purchased, surrounded by other trailers. My sophomore year in high school, we moved to a nice little house. My parents are 95 and 85 now, and they always have been hard-working, gentle and kind.”

Stucker’s parents invested their hopes in their only son, and they believed in his power to create change and improve the world not only for himself, but also for other people.

“In my family, I was the first to go to college, to have the opportunity to learn by going to school. I always have known the value of work,” he said. “My parents have been very supportive. I have no regrets. I majored in philosophy at Ripon College, and minored in political science. I still use the knowledge from that coursework every day as I see the power of communicating and connecting in community.”

Stucker began very modestly, and he developed a strong work ethic from necessity.

“My first job as a youngster in Texas was stacking hay bales, throwing those big bales,” he said.  “In high school, I had three jobs. I was a midnight announcer and I had a morning farm program for farmers, talking on the radio as they were getting up to milk their cows. I also was a ham radio operator and helped install two-way radios, and I pumped gas.”

Stucker loved being a ham radio operator. He began that work in the era that saw the Vietnam War, and he immediately found a way to connect others who needed to communicate together.

“As a ham radio operator, I’d be up at 6 a.m. and report the conditions, barometric pressure and such, to a weather station,” he said. “I’d send the local weather statistics to a weather station, but the most fun I had was patching radio to telephone, to help guys who made calls from Vietnam. I’d patch them into the phone system so they could phone home.”

The work linked him to a much larger world than four walls could encompass.

“All this ham radio work happened in my family’s trailer, so there was a trailer on the flat land draped with all kinds of antennas with wires looped through the trees,” he said. “My parents were very forgiving.”

In 1974, college intrigued Stucker, and all he wanted to do was become a congressional appointee to the Air Force Academy to study astrophysics. He had seen the new reports about the Apollo missions and men landing on the moon, and he wanted to be an astronaut, flying high in space and researching other realms. Then, a friend’s death changed everything.

“As I’ve gone through life, I’ve learned that the bumps in life often open up new pathways,” Stucker said. “One of my friends, troubled from flying planes in Vietnam and dropping napalm on people, flew his plane into a mountainside. It shook me. I changed then. I found that I wanted to focus more on the internal world.”

His former passions nonetheless remain strong within him.

“I still feel fascinated by the stars, and most of my spiritual moments occur under the stars,” he said.

As he began to contemplate what his friend’s death meant to him, he turned inside himself and began to delve deeply into the work that would infiltrate his entire life: communication, connection and community.

“We begin to develop authentic relationships based on what we’re doing together,” Stucker said. “It includes meaning and a sense of destiny, connection, making a difference. I appeal to the natural urges. Whenever you get close to adding meaning to people’s lives, you get such energy, a strength from the melding of their life force and yours.”

His studies in philosophy introduced him to Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic ancient Greek philosopher, who said, “To do the same thing over and over again is not only boredom: it is to be controlled by rather than to control what you do.”

The philosopher’s words rang true to Stucker.

“You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you,” Heraclitus wrote, and soon Stucker stepped out of the mainstream into a flowing river he hadn’t anticipated entering at all in his youth.

“I was driving around the country in a 1946 UPS truck painted bright canary yellow,” Stucker said. “I don’t have it any more, but I see it in my dreams. I stopped at Gould Farm.”

Gould Farm, in Monterey, Mass., became established a 100 years ago as the first residential therapeutic community of its type.

The farm facilitates recovery for adults diagnosed with mental illness, utilizing meaningful work, community life and clinical support. There, Stucker met the woman who would become his partner in life, laughter and love.

“Lis and I met at Gould Farm,” Stucker said. “She was only going to stay for one year. I was only planning to stay for six months. After six weeks, I asked her to marry me. I have no regrets, none whatsoever.

Stucker didn’t set out with the plan to lead Gould Farm, and he didn’t know then that he would become a pioneer in mental health care. He didn’t have any schooling in the field, but he had a heart for creating community, and so did Lis.

“Lis has similar values,” Stucker said. “She volunteered at Gould Farm for the sake of peace, to show people that post-WWII Germans could be active youths setting signs of peace. I had a sense of resonance with her from the beginning. She is the most caring person I ever could meet anywhere. She has been an amazing mother, teacher and partner.”

“I saw the power of community at Gould Farm and decided to stay,” Stucker said. “All over the country, I wanted to help people burdened by fear to replace that fear with understanding.”

The Stuckers left Gould Farm and came to Mill Spring, NC, where they worked with a team of philanthropists and hopeful visionaries like themselves to found CooperRiis Healing Farm, a mental health recovery facility based on the same principles as Gould Farm.

“Any of us can have a mental health condition of some kind, and 25 percent of us already do,” Stucker said. “I believe in community as healing experience, relationship as a fundamental building block of life.”

Stucker found that he had a real knack for encouraging philanthropy to support nonprofit initiatives in mental health care.

“Philanthropists often are disengaged and looking for their destiny as well,” he said. “I really enjoy helping other people be successful and helping philanthropists meet their destiny. I believe in helping others to fulfill their lives’ dreams. My life’s goal has been to help good people do great things, and to do whatever I can do to support the development and fulfillment of those dreams with empathy in community.”

He also became the leader of the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, This international community foundation connects philanthropists to mental health recovery researchers and program directors, in an effort to create family-sensitive, community-based recovery systems. He has spent much of his adult life creating community and connection in this field.

“I seem to become executive director a lot,” he said. “What I am doing has to be my true calling, or I couldn’t do it at all.”

Stucker, quite simply, loves his life. The kid with a ham radio grew into a young man driving a bright yellow UPS truck across the country, and that young man still seeks ways to reduce suffering and enhance healthy communication across the land.

“I love the life I have, and I love to look forward to our tomorrows,” he said. “I have no regrets.”