Don Welch (1932-2016) is the author of thirty-three books of poetry that champion Nebraskans, nature, and the imagination. His work suggests that nothing is provincial when your audience is the world. Kearney calligrapher (and friend) Art Pierce illustrated many of these works. Most notably, Don is the winner of seven poetry prizes including the distinguished Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry when judged by William Stafford in 1980.
Don graduated from Kearney State Teacher’s College in 1953 where he played on the basketball team and served as treasurer of the student council. Having met his wife Marcia at then Kearney State Teacher College, the two married in the summer of 1953 before he completed his military training the next fall at Ft. Bliss, TX. When Army testing revealed extraordinary intelligence, he was assigned to a domestic post in Chicago for the Counter Intelligence Corps in 1955. After teaching English at Gothenburg High School in Nebraska and Ft. Morgan High School in Colorado, he used the GI Bill to complete his MA from the University of Northern Colorado (1958). He later earned his PhD (with a dissertation on Thoreau’s poetry) from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (1965).
A beloved and award-winning teacher, he taught at the University of Nebraska at Kearney for over fifty years (1959-2011). Welch was fond of saying that classrooms are small courts where we play some of life’s biggest games. During that time of collaborative competing, he won the distinguished Pratt-Heins Foundation Faculty Award (1988) and then the Teaching Excellence Award of the Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges (1990). He held both the Martin Distinguished Professor of English at University of Nebraska-Kearney (1981-89) and then the inaugural Reynolds Chair as Professor of Poetry (1989-97). The Nebraska Humanities Council recognized his work with the coveted Sower Award (2004). As a result, a bronze statue of Welch has stood on the UNK campus since 2001 between the library and Thomas Hall.
Among a legion of others, his loving wife Marcia and father “Dutch” are key influences reflected throughout works that focus on subjects as diverse as birds, family, and his beloved Platte River. His works also demonstrate that philosophy is born with wings, and poetry gives it feet. As a long-time friend of the Rowe Sanctuary, Don was invited to speak and present his poetry on the day the facility was dedicated on June 29, 2001.
If you only know the names of two Nebraska authors, those names should be Willa Cather and Don Welch. Cather is the state’s greatest novelist, and Welch is Nebraska’s finest poet. Cather elevated the people of central Nebraska, and Welch continued this trajectory by highlighting the Plains’ wind and Platte River at their margins. Inspired by her travels to France’s fields and cottonwoods, Cather realized exotic France wasn’t much different from rural Nebraska. As a result, she literally placed her most famous character on a pedestal in the exact position of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker in My Antonia, so that cultured East Coasters might connect the celebrated sculpture to someone alive with grandeur in unvisited Nebraska. What was hard won for Cather became a baton swung by Don Welch for the past four decades, and he’s received numerous awards that remind us what he’s won. Each learned that nothing is provincial when your audience is the world.
Teaching is the world’s most noble profession. Welch was fond of saying that classrooms are small courts where we play some of life’s biggest games. He also modeled that only love makes imperfection bearable. I love teaching Welch at NC State University, right where he belongs —after Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Welch’s works document the first sightings of ring-necked pheasants, the one-fingered waves of farmers, and under-appreciated coneflowers. He knew birds so well he could read the feathers of lost pigeons. But he also knew philosophy is born with wings, and poetry gives it feet.
Bolder than Kooser and more approachable than Neihardt, Don Welch wrote of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression with eyes that absorbed its effects and words that restored language to its old nobility. Unlike a politics of Access Hollywood microphones and deleted emails, his poetry is principled – ready to be exposed to every eye — and it moves with muscular strides. With Welch’s poetry, the cadence is the thought. These are the words on the page you can’t get past: Time will taste all poems on its tongue and remember what lasts – other’s sugar, or Welch’s salt.
Beyond the bronze statue standing on the UNK campus, what else might Nebraska do to celebrate Don Welch? Could his poetry be displayed by calligrapher Art Pierce – or available in print – for all those tourists who’ll visit the wonderful Rowe Sanctuary next spring? Shouldn’t Welch’s books be on the shelves of every bookstore in Nebraska? How are journals such as Prairie Schooner planning to pay tribute? Those who know Don’s works are swearing new oaths to honor his immense legacy by teaching him in their classrooms. If you teach, I ask: Why isn’t Don Welch in your unit plan or on your syllabus?
Teachers now have less excuse for perjuring themselves. Thanks to editor Dwaine Spieker, Don’s collected works, titled Homing, are now available. Make it the next Christmas present wrapped for a friend or kept for your shelf. Preach it to those waiting to be first churched by a flaming baptism of good words. Honor the man who has just passed away by converting new disciples. Nebraska has long had its best novelist from Red Cloud, but who knew that Kearney was home to her closest peer? I only teach two Nebraska authors each semester: Don Welch and Willa Cather.
This sanctuary knows its place.
It has so for a million years,
its grasses the original transcriptions
of how stems whisper winds.
And no one interprets this river
better than the cranes,
each one a long gray syllable
in the book of love.
This sanctuary says, Come in.
Wash your faces in the wind,
co-create wonder with your eyes,
treat your soles to something
other than cement. It says,
worship is a natural event.
It’s here you justify your lives.
Written by Kate Benzel and Jason Miller, scholar
* "Rowe Sanctuary," Don Welch written for Rowe Sanctuary's 40th anniversary, 2014
* Calligraphy of the poem by Art Pierce, calligrapher, is displayed at Rowe Sanctuary
* "Don Welch - Platte River Poetry." Video produced by Kat Shiffler for Platte River Basin Timelapse
* Videography by Kat Shiffler
* Audio by Ariana Brocious
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