AMERICAN PEERAGE *** M W Douglass - Houston, TX
Louie Welch (1918-2008)
Former Houston Mayor Louie Welch dies at 89
Louie Welch, five-term mayor of Houston and longtime president of what is now the Greater Houston Partnership, died Sunday. He was 89.
Welch was diagnosed in October with "untreatable stage four lung cancer," said his son, Gary Welch.
"He was one of Houston's finest mayors," said former mayor Bob Lanier. "He was a good and decent man who loved public service and fought to make people's lives better."
Welch, who served four terms on Houston City Council and won the mayor's office on his fourth try, was an effective, aggressive politician whose salty comments occasionally landed him in political trouble.
And while younger generations will remember Welch for the "shoot the queers" joke he made while describing his plan for fighting AIDS that submarined his 1985 mayoral bid, Welch made his most lasting mark on city government decades earlier.
It was on his watch that lakes Conroe and Livingston were completed to provide water for Houston. Welch also boasted of closing 40 inefficient sewage treatment plants; beginning the cleanup of the Houston Ship Channel; bayou beautification; and the development of the downtown Civic Center.
The diminutive Welch (at 5 feet 6 inches) also was an able vote-getter, with a ready smile and a memory for names and faces that served him well.
Welch liked to "press the flesh" with the constituents, a trait he carried over to his job with the then Houston Chamber of Commerce. There he became a kind of ambassador-at-large for the city, singing Houston's praises across the nation and internationally.
Welch's political career, which spanned nearly 40 years, began in 1949 when, as a political unknown, he was elected to Houston City Council. He was a councilman for eight years, from 1950 until 1952 and from 1956 to 1962.
After running unsuccessfully for mayor in 1952 and 1954, Welch was elected mayor for the first time in 1963, ousting the entrenched incumbent, Lewis Cutrer.
In challenging Cutrer, Welch's role was as an outsider jousting with the establishment. As such, he drew support from labor, the poor and minorities. In later years, much of that support evaporated, especially that of blacks.
In 1973 he did not run again, joining what was then the Houston Chamber of Commerce. In his political swan song in 1985, Welch tried to wrest the mayor's job from Kathy Whitmire. In so doing he alienated another group of outsiders, the city's gays, who turned out in force against Welch.
During the campaign, Welch, who often referred to the career of politics as a "shooting gallery," made the notorious remark about homosexuals that was accidentally broadcast during a TV newscast and contributed to his loss to Whitmire.
The newscast included a report about Welch's four-point program to prevent the spread of AIDS. He offered the joke without realizing his microphone was still on.
'Don't shoot, Louie!'The gaffe triggered numerous newspaper articles and denunciations from various political figures and organizations. Some gays struck back with humor, donning T-shirts that sported the slogan: "Don't shoot, Louie!" Welch apologized for the remark, but the damage was done. He lost to Whitmire.
Coincidentally, the remark finally laid to rest an old nickname for Welch, "Shoot-a-quarter Louie." This appellation stemmed from a raid in 1952 on Galveston's luxurious Balinese Room, where illegal gambling was conducted.
Welch and several other Houston city councilmen happened to be in the place when the raid occurred. Welch explained that he never "shot more than a quarter" at the gambling tables.
Welch's opponents might have questioned his judgment in such matters, but few doubted his devotion to Houston. He enjoyed contact with the press and the public.
Perhaps Welch's most vexing problem as mayor stemmed from the police chief who served under him: Herman Short, a tough, no-nonsense, outspoken chief who became a lightning rod for discontent among the city's blacks.
These feelings erupted in May 1967 in two days of battles between Houston police and students at predominantly black Texas Southern University. One police officer was killed and about 500 TSU students were arrested. These events created a rift between the administration and many of the city's blacks.
More than 20 years later, during his race against Mayor Whitmire, Welch acknowledged that the imputation of racism to him in the wake of the TSU episode still rankled.
"It hurt," Welch said. "It still hurts to be accused of racism. It's just a bum rap."
Despite his problems with the black community, Welch boasted of improving race relations in the city. A fluent speaker of Spanish, Welch was deeply interested in Mexican culture. He resented reports that his support among Mexican-Americans had slipped.
As for gay opposition to Welch, it didn't originate with his "shoot the queers" remark. In early 1985, Welch was a leader in the opposition to a discrimination referendum that sought to extend job protection rights to homosexuals employed by the city government.
More than 80 percent of those voting in that referendum voted against the proposal, a major defeat for Whitmire, who had endorsed the idea.
When he lost to Whitmire, Welch said he had lost "the instinct to fight in the rough and tumble that campaigns have become."
Even Welch's political opponents acknowledged that his sense of humor was a redeeming virtue. "I have taken my job very, very seriously," he once said, "but I have tried not to take myself seriously."
Another quip dealt with problems arising from political appointees.
"When I was elected mayor I spent the better part of my first term weeding out the political appointees I had inherited from my predecessor," he said. "Virtually all my second term (I spent) weeding out my own political appointees."
Welch's perseverance, zeal to excel, love of hard work and dedication to traditional moral standards reflected his small-town origins.
He was, in common with many of Houston's leaders over the years, a small-town boy who moved to the city. Welch was born Dec. 9, 1918, in Lockney, a small town east of Plainview in the South Plains of West Texas. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Slaton, a more populous place near Lubbock.
When Welch was a young boy, his father, Gilford Welch, worked as an automobile mechanic. In later years, the elder Welch was service manager at a local automobile dealership.
Lasting impressionWelch's mother, Nora, taught a Bible class in the family's church. Her example evidently made a lasting impression on her son. Louie Welch was for more than 35 years a member of the Garden Oaks Church of Christ. He quoted frequently from the Bible, and was qualified as a minister. He officiated at the weddings of three of his children.
As a boy, Welch sold magazines — the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal and Country Gentleman. Later, he picked up milk from dairy farms and delivered it to a local dairy. He also sold popcorn — a nickel a bag — to passers-by.
His activities in high school — debating and election as president of the senior class — foreshadowed his later interest in politics. He also managed the school's football team, a job that entailed washing the players' uniforms after each game.
Welch attended Abilene Christian College (now a university), graduating in 1940 with high honors in history. At Abilene Christian, Welch met his future wife, Iola Faye Cure. They were married on Dec. 17, 1940.
After graduating, the Welches moved to Dallas where their first children, twins Guy and Gary, were born in 1942.
"I would like for him to be remembered," Gary Welch said, "as a mayor who cared deeply about the city of Houston and each and every person who lived in the city of Houston."
Their other children are Gil, Shannon and Tina. In 1955, another daughter, Lisa Meredith, died of cancer at the age of two.
In the mid-1940s the Welches moved to Houston, where Welch went into the auto parts business, eventually becoming a partner in four stores on the city's North Side. Later, Welch became involved in real estate and investments, working as a broker before, after and occasionally during his stints as a city officeholder. In 1949, encouraged by fellow members of a North Side Lions Club, Welch ran for Houston City Council. Surprisingly, he won.
Welch also served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1972-73 and as vice president of the National League of Cities from 1970 until 1973.
Iola Welch died in 1991. Louie Welch is survived by his second wife, Helen. Funeral arrangements were still pending Sunday with George H. Lewis & Sons.
Chronicle reporter Dale Lezon contributed to this story.