State College Mayor Bill Welch remembers vividly the days in the early 1950s when he and his young friends would crowd around the towering, circular iron magazine rack inside the sprawling Hoy Brothers general store on College Avenue.
The sneaky youngsters, he recalls, were hoping to steal a glimpse at the crisp new issue of MAD, their favorite comic book.
The atmosphere in the store was that of a children's wonderland -- a soda fountain spitting out sugary concoctions in the corner, the monstrous pinball machines along the wall flashing and thumping as the steel ball careened from bumper to bumper, inching closer to "TILT." To the boys in Welch's group, the old store, with its creaky wooden floors, gleaming white countertop and cherry red swivel stools, was an adolescent version of a sophisticated gentleman's club in London.
It was hip. It was cool. It was their world.
Welch -- now older, grayer and wiser at age 61 -- emits a glow each time he talks of the town, his eyes lighting up.
"In a war-torn world," Welch says as he eases back in his plush office chair, "State College is a pretty good place to be."
And so perhaps it is befitting that the town and college community that have meant the world to Welch for more than a half century honored him last month as its 2002 Renaissance Man of the Year.
Yet, to many State College residents, he remains a virtual enigma, an unknown face in a close-knit town that he oversees.
"Most of the people in this town don't know who I am or what I do, really," Welch is fond of saying.
Penn State's own Picasso
Pass Bill Welch on the street and you're in no danger of being struck by an overpowering figure of political power and clout. He resembles a detective from a grainy 1940s noir film, with his feathery white Mr. Claus beard, wire-rim eyeglasses, slight squint and thin lips pursed in an all-knowing smirk.
"Bill has always been a Renaissance man," Nadine Kofman, his wife of 27 years, said of her husband's winning achievement. "He's always been this sort of person who was interested in everything."
He also is a devoted husband and father to three daughters: Jennifer, 35; Jessica, 32; and Justine, 23, with whom he continues to hold a strong bond.
Donna Queeney, State College school board member and Welch's long-time friend and neighbor, said the prestigious Renaissance honor doesn't just represent Welch's varying intellectual and social interests, but also the community sentiment.
"I think it's the fact that he has earned the respect of this community and beyond," she said. "He's wonderful, a very good friend."
For Welch, he's just being himself. Whether it's leafing through his collection of 2,000-some-odd stamps, calling his daughters on the phone or maintaining his title as a "huge, huge" Steelers fan on Sundays, Welch -- in his mind -- is doing nothing exceptional. That very outlook, some say, is precisely what makes him exceptional.
William Lee Welch Jr. came bouncing into the world on Nov. 23, 1941, far removed from the wooded acreage of Centre County. Rather, he was born into the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, where his father William Sr., a State College native, was attending medical school.
When Welch was 2 years old, he, his mother Betty and younger brother Jim moved to State College while William Sr. served as a medic in the South Pacific during World War II.
"I was born in Philadelphia," he says, "but I like to think I was conceived in State College."
The quaint environment was perfect for a curious boy. He had the usual hobbies of any precocious youngster his age, but Welch also possessed a ferocious intellectual appetite that occupied a great deal of his leisure time.
When he was 10 years old, he would trudge up to Penn State's Pattee Library -- to his "giant playground" -- and quickly mowed through every book in the fifth grade section.
After attending Penn State -- where he describes his collegiate experience as "more social than educational" -- and earning his degree in English, Welch began to bat around a number of career options, but nothing truly caught his eye. He bounced around jobs for a bit, even working in the municipal office for a spell.
But it was an earlier encounter that would provide him with the direction he sought.
At the behest of his father, Welch met with Centre Daily Times (CDT) editor Jerry Weinstein for some career guidance before he graduated. Journalism appealed to Welch because he had a knack for writing, but Weinstein told him the newspaper had no openings. In the meantime, Welch hung around the office, soaking up the atmosphere.
In September 1964, his luck changed. The CDT, looking to fill some holes in the office, hired him as a staff reporter. It was the break Welch had been looking for.
"I knew the community pretty well, and I knew I was a good writer," Welch said.
Welch found himself quickly floating up the ranks, assuming the post of managing editor in the early 1970s. In 1977, he was named executive editor. Welch not only uncovered a love for reporting while at the CDT -- he also discovered the love of his life.
The inter-office flirtations between Nadine, who worked as a reporter and a photographer at the CDT, and Welch soon blossomed into a full-fledged relationship. Nadine was drawn to his wit. He was attracted to what he felt was a kindred spirit.
"We shared a common sense of sarcastic humor," Nadine said. "We threw some bon mots [French for "witticisms"] at one another in the office. It was more an intellectual attraction than anything."
The pair married in 1975 and has lived in pure, sarcastic bliss since.
"We don't always understand what the other is saying, but we're both low-key people," she said. "He's a pretty swell person."
Cold sweat to no sweat
Welch retired from the CDT in 1985 to become editor of The American Philatelist, a stamp-collecting journal. The job was a contrast to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of daily news, and it was soothing for Welch. But that period of relaxation would soon be shaken.
In late 1988, R. Thomas Berner, professor of journalism and American studies, was a sitting member of the State College Borough Council. Berner, a close friend of Welch's for nearly 20 years, saw something extraordinary in Welch's abilities as a leader and decided to approach Welch.
"I knew he had an interest in being mayor [someday]," Berner said. "I just thought we needed better people in the borough council. All I did was light the fuse of the rocket that was ready to take off."
The transition, Berner reasoned, would be second nature for a community-minded fellow like Welch. After all, he was well versed in a number of academic and pop cultural topics and unusually personable -- with a unique knack for making the last person in a crowded room feel like the most important man or woman in the world.
"I think he's one of the greatest human beings I have ever met," Berner said. "When he tells stories -- even ones about himself -- you're in the story. He makes you feel like a part of it."
But, the can't-miss potential of Welch and his political rocket ship suffered through a number of pre-flight postponements.
The idea of public service was very new -- and frightening -- to the former, self-described "newspaper guy." Welch spent an entire weekend sprawled on his couch, breaking out into periodic cold sweats, ideas and scenarios running wild through his head. Would the people accept him? Was he the man for Borough Council? Could he really be effective in this post?
That Monday, following the gut-wrenching self-evaluation, Welch threw his hat into the race. He promptly won, served four years and then, in 1993, set his appetite on the larger prize at hand: State College mayor.
A new lease
While Welch had his eyes on assuming the highest political post in town, he hit a serious roadblock that threatened to jeopardize his campaign -- and his life.
In October 1992, he checked into the hospital for treatment of pneumonia. While there, doctors discovered something far worse than what he was originally admitted for: Welch had nearly 95 percent renal failure in his kidneys.
Doctors immediately put him on dialysis treatments at Centre County Community Hospital, three days a week, four hours a day. The treatments were painless -- more of a pain in the rear, if you ask Welch.
"They used these horse needles for the dialysis," Welch said, spreading his hands nearly a foot apart. "Biggest f---ing needles I've seen in my life."
Never one to let the mood dampen, Welch made the most of his time spent in the treatment sessions.
"I recall calling him in the hospital," Queeney said. "He answered the phone and there was a lot of background noise. Turns out, he was having a book group meeting with the nurses and interns."
All the while, Welch's dream of being mayor never flickered away. Even with a serious illness, he pounded the State College pavement, knocking on doors and greeting strangers. In November 1993, the hard work and physical perseverance paid off as Welch defeated his Republican opponent to become State College mayor.
Meanwhile, the thrice-weekly dialyses were just buying him time. Doctors soon told him he would need a transplant. Nadine Welch grew worried.
"He was almost dead before he got the kidney," she said.
The search for a donor -- usually an exasperating, frustrating process for those in need -- ended almost directly in Welch's backyard. His daughter Jessica, then 24, was identified as a perfect match.
In January 1994, Welch was sworn into office. Six months later -- the week of Valentine's Day -- Welch got the kidney transplant.
"I literally have a new lease on life thanks to her," he said, the fatherly pride sounding in his voice. "The doctor said I got an absolute, top-of-the-line kidney."
The joy that resulted from the successful transplant lasted for a few years until March 2001, when Welch was taken to Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and placed in a drug-induced coma and hooked to a ventilator after contracting acute respiratory distress syndrome. There he lay in a state of unconsciousness for 11 days.
"I was very frightened; it was very unsettling," said Nadine Welch, who asked a close friend -- who happened to be a doctor -- about her husband's chances of getting through. "He told me it was 50/50."
Welch was oblivious to the worry and strain his family was experiencing. While Nadine Welch had to ask one of her daughters to drive her to Hershey ("I was too distraught to drive"), Bill was enjoying what he called "technicolor adventure" dreams. The illness was terrifying and severe, but the Hershey medical staff got him out of the coma and eventually set him back on the track to good health.
The rehabilitation was strenuous. Welch went from being completely bed-ridden, to using a wheelchair, to a walker and finally to a cane. Today, he walks for nearly a half-hour each day.
Close friend Berner admires Welch's calmness in the face of all that has stricken him.
"He's been through, medically, an awful lot. And I haven't heard him complain," he said. "The guy doesn't complain."
Welch said he's never one to feel down on his luck -- it's not his nature.
"I try not to let any of it slow me down," he said. "I never felt sorry for myself. You have to play the hand that's dealt you."
And, to hear Welch tell it, people are wise not to think for a minute his health problems have affected his mayoral duties.
"I think -- given the various steamrollers that have rolled over me -- I'm doing pretty well," he said with a smile.
Man about town
Now serving his ninth year as mayor of the largest college town in Pennsylvania, the political powerhouse that is Bill Welch has yet to slow down -- and no one is certain when he ever will. What's certain, though, is that the man adores his job.
"It's hard to describe what I do," he said. "It's an ambassador's role that is very distinct from an executive's role. I'm out and about a lot, only occasionally in the office, shuffling through papers."
His primary passion as mayor/ambassador/regular Joe is participating as town figurehead at all community dealings. Listen to him tick off some of the events he has presided over and it's evident why he's a "Renaissance man": He has performed a ceremonial Indian wedding; greeted former President Bill Clinton at University Park Airport in 1996; and tied the knot for a stripper and bouncer at the topless dance club, the End Zone.
"I think it's important for the community to have representation at these events," he said. "Basically, if they invite me, I'll go."
A hard day's work
Homecoming weekend -- and its accompanying Friday night parade -- at Penn State is one of the most anticipated gatherings of the year for the university and State College. More than 10,000 people flock to glimpse the colorful floats and to enjoy the more than two hours of celebration spent with a close-knit community.
For Welch, riding in the chilly October night, perched atop the back seat as a proud parade participant, is one of the perks he receives from being mayor. Fellow leaders might even dread the chore -- but Welch relishes it.
"Homecoming is great; it's always enjoyable," he said. "It's the mayoral highlight of the year. I wave, holler to the people I know, blow kisses to the ladies."
If there's one problem with this most meaningful of nights, he adds, it's his perceived anonymity within the university community.
"Ninety-five percent of the people watching won't know who the hell I am," Welch said, once again drawing upon his finely tuned talent of self-deprecation. " 'The heck with the mayor,' " he feigns in a mock tone meant to symbolize the crowd, " 'we like the car!' "
This time, however, Welch might be correct.
The milky white banners hanging on each door of his white convertible hold an enormous clerical error: "State College Mayor Bill Welsh," the banners read. Noticing the glaring mistake, Welch points and, without missing a beat, shrugs the mistake off like water rolling off a creek's rocks. He has no time to worry about the mistake, he says, instead adjusting his black gloves and olive green cap that will keep him warm during the hour and a half ride. There's a parade to wave in.
Rolling along the route, Welch tosses quick verbal quips to the boisterous crowd lining the parade route -- smiling and bobbing in laughter all the while. This battle of wits with the crowd is an easy science and for him, one of the more endearing parts of homecoming weekend.
"You don't need a vast repertoire of remarks when the audience is always changing. 'Nice hat!' will do you well for about a mile and a half," he said. No one is safe from the lighthearted jabs of humor when Welch is gliding down the road.
"Part of the trick is to catch the attention of the too-cool-to-react people who get mortally embarrassed if they show any emotion at all," he says.
Generally, though, the crowd appears to be receptive to him, Welch observes.
"So far we haven't had any, 'Eat s--- and die, mayor!'" he says with a chuckle.
After 90 minutes, the parade finally winds down, the car climbing up Burrowes Street to the end point.
It's been an eventful night for Welch. He saw several neighbors of his among the sea of faces, and relived some old memories. All the laughs and enjoyment, however, have him exhausted. He slowly climbs out of the car and starts to head off into the evening.
"Had a tough night of sleep," he explains as he walks off. Besides, he has to get home to care for his wife, who is feeling a bit under the weather and needs someone to cook her dinner.
For Welch, duty never fails to call.