9.05.2009

A Boswell Moment



(In 2002, Bill Welch, who died on Sept. 4, was honored by Penn State as a Renaissance Scholar. He asked me, among others, to make remarks. My remarks follow.)

Had I known I was going to get my three minutes of fame as Bill Welch’s Boswell—that’s Boswell the biographer, not Boswell the sportswriter—I would have taken notes. Much of what I have to say has been dragged from my aging memory. It has been contextualized, re-contextualized, romanticized—and sanitized.

By sanitized, I mean I won’t say anything that wouldn’t be acceptable in mixed company—mixed company being defined as journalists and non-journalists.

I used to think that Bill was a trivia expert because he could produce information about anything, anywhere, anytime. Now I realize that the man I met more than 30 years ago was a Renaissance scholar. I am here to pay tribute to the scholar.

As a scholar, Bill had a rocky start. When he attended Penn State, he was one of the original HUB Rats. He was so good at it that President Walker red-shirted him—and that’s the real reason it took Bill five years to graduate.

As a scholar, he takes his time. Don’t lend him a book. It took him 20 years to read and return Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I still don’t think he read it, but he did say it helped him fall asleep at night.

Bill is very good at coming up with a light-hearted one-line comment on just about any situation. Shortly after I started working with him at the Centre Daily Times, I noticed a story that referred to him as a native of State College. I pointed out that to be a native of some place, you had to have been born there—and he had been born in Philadelphia. After all, the word “native” is derived from “nativity.”

Without pause, he replied: “True, but I was conceived here.”

Bill may have struck the first blow for fetal rights—and we didn’t know it at the time.

Bill is an original. No cliché has ever passed through his lips or his typewriter. Jerry Weinstein, our editor at the CDT, said that Bill was his best writer—but he didn’t write enough. When I told Bill what Jerry said, Bill said he didn’t write more because he found writing difficult. And while that may sound self-deprecating, it really was his honest response, not his usual one-line quip.

If brevity is, as Polonius said, the soul of wit, then, in Bill’s case, it is also the seed of wisdom. I remember a time when he needed to rein in an aggressive city editor. Trying to find a way to make the person understand good people skills, he said: Your approach is Napoleonic while mine is Socratic.

Consider the sub-text and allusion in that sentence. In one sentence, he was able to size up a situation and give it perspective.

But enough of Bill’s quick wit. The most important thing about Bill Welch is not his humor or his intellect, but his selfless character.

Bill can tell a story about himself and not be the center of the story. It can be an adventure or a travelogue and you feel as though you’re with him. His stories entertain, enlighten and inform.

I have seldom seen Bill angry. The only two times I ever saw him get short with someone involved situations in which the other person was racially insensitive. The blood rose immediately and Bill pounced. No time for Socrates.

I have known longer than many about his medical problems and yet I have never heard him complain.

Even though, in his words, he took life on a respirator to the outer limits and he also needed to go through extensive rehabilitation, he never complained.

Even when he was on dialysis, he never complained.

Even when Borough Council is acting up, he never complains.

Well, a little bit.

He reminds me of Job. Great patience. Great role model. The ability to make us all feel good about ourselves and each other. Not only a Renaissance scholar, but a Renaissance man.

Congratulations to a very deserving person.

Thank you.

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