The obituary for Don Welch, including information on a public gathering to remember and celebrate his life, is at the conclusion of this tribute.
Here is my video tribute to Don’s life and career:
Here is a beautiful thank you from Sammie Welch, to all of you who have written such nice things about Don:
“David, as I read this beautiful tribute my heart was filled with so many emotions. I cried and smiled. I don’t think Don knew how much he was loved and respected. I have been reading all the comments and they fill my heart with joy. Don fought a long, brave battle against this horrible disease, Lewy Body Dementia. I take comfort in knowing that he is home and his body is healed. That big booming voice is back. I can’t imagine how my life is going to be without him. He was and is the love of my life, my soulmate, my best friend. Thank you to everyone who loved my husband. It was a pleasure sharing him with you.”
We’ve lost a great smile. The life of the party. A man with a booming laugh, whose enthusiasm was contagious. “Hey there, Hi there, Ho there!” “Stay classy, Chattanooga!” Don Welch has passed away at the age of 75, ending his battle with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. The illnesses gradually took away his mobility, but never his sunshine.
Don had a personality that could not be contained within the confines of a radio, or a television. To fully appreciate his charisma, one needed to share a room with him, or even better, the great outdoors.
The Dayton, Tenn. native first made his mark in Chattanooga broadcasting in the 1960s, as a news reader and disc jockey on WDXB radio. Jerry Lingerfelt was in charge of hiring and firing, and got to know Don well, hiring and firing him numerous times.
He remembers one of Don’s more memorable farewells. “I came in one day, and Don had left a pile of his equipment on my desk, with a handwritten note, saying ‘I Quit!’ That’s just Don,” Lingerfelt said.
Don’s most famous goodbye would come in 1989, when his performance on the news, made the news. It’s a story he enjoyed retelling the rest of his life. He had left Chattanooga the previous year, after working 20 years at all three TV stations at one time or another. Nashville had come calling, in need of a weekend weatherman. WTVF, the CBS station had heard of his folksy persona, so Don accepted their invitation to move up to Music City. The good times lasted ten months. There were disagreements over clothing and hairstyles, and one night during the live newscast, Don had had enough. Saying he felt “squashed, persecuted and kicked in the teeth” by station management, he looked into the camera and said, “Folks, have you ever been backed into a corner and they thought you were going to take it?” He was just getting warmed up. The camera crew froze. Is this really happening? Is this some kind of a joke?
He went on. “Well, that’s what’s happened to yours truly here at Channel 5. I’ve been put in a position by management that I cannot accept, and I will not live with. So this will be the last time you’ll see Don Welch in Nashville.” With that, he walked off the set, leaving the stunned anchorman to say, “We’ll be right back!” The Associated Press picked up the story, and the tale of the weatherman’s live-TV walkout went national.
Within days, he was back on the air in Chattanooga, where he stayed until his retirement in 2014.
Don’s 52-year broadcast career was a rollercoaster ride, and he took a few detours along the way. After leaving WDXB radio for the last time in 1967, he became an announcer at WRCB Channel 3. Here is his station ID that played at the top of the hour for several years:
Then-news director Fred Gault said, “He was hired to read commercials, and worked his way into the control room where he learned to direct newscasts.” Yes, Don was deciding which cameras anchorman Mort Lloyd and weatherman John Gray would be looking into. One day, they needed somebody to fill in doing the weather, and Don figured, “I can talk my way through anything, I can do this too.” Don also reported and filmed news stories. Fred said, “I remember sending Don as a cameraman with Allen Jones as the reporter out in the morning expecting them to file multiple reports for the evening news. They would generally come back with ONE story. Allen claimed it was because Don wanted to talk with everyone he came in contact with. I believed him.”
For eight years, did a little bit of everything on Channel 3, eventually becoming the regular weekday weatherman. He also hosted the afternoon “Dialing For Dollars” movie contest. Even then, he was taking pipefitting classes after work.
In 1975, WTVC Channel 9’s new general manager Jane Grams was determined to get the station out of last place in news, where it had been since 1958. The station had selected Darrell Patterson as its new sports anchor, then hired Bob Johnson as news anchor, but needed a weather personality to complete the new team. Patterson knew Welch from their radio days, and told Channel 9 managers he had found the missing piece. They hired Welch away from Channel 3, and suddenly the last-place news station started getting some attention.
The new anchor team clicked immediately. To this day, they’re compared to the Will Ferrell “Anchorman” movie characters of the 1970s. Welch was 33, five years older than Johnson, and seven years older than Patterson, so one would assume he would provide some maturity for his younger teammates. Not a chance! Instead, he led these merry Musketeers on a nightly ride of on-air chaos and some off-air fun too.
While the other channels stuck with their straight-faced style of delivering the news, the Channel 9 crew poked each other like wayward frat boys.
Some called it “happy talk,” but Bob, Darrell and Don chalked it up to natural chemistry. “I’d talk about wooly worms and Grandpappy’s weather lore, and get it right more often than the certified meteorologists,” Welch said. “One time Bob asked me if it would rain tomorrow, so I got out my lucky quarter, flipped the coin, and tails said no. It didn’t rain, so we kept using that quarter. Finally some manager made me stop doing that, I don’t know why!”
The Bob-Don-Darrell team was only in place for about five years, but Channel 9 got out of the ratings basement, and many viewers still remember the trio fondly, calling them “The Three Musketeers.”
Don left TV for two years to work as a pipefitter (“a real job,” he called it), and was lured back by Channel 12 after Harry Thornton retired from hosting “The Morning Show” in 1982. Co-host Judy Corn needed a new sparring partner, and Don accepted the challenge.
Don worked at Channel 12 for six months, but soon returned to Channel 9 where he would host various morning and midday shows, interrupted briefly by his move to Nashville.
Don returned to radio for a while in the late 1980s, with a super-sized beard, joining Garry Mac and Bill Lockhart in the WGOW lineup.
During his most recent stint at Channel 9, he hosted morning and midday shows, and did popular feature reports called “Sideroads.”
He also found time to be a Shriner, and a snare drummer for Highlander Pipes and Drums. He proudly played at Luther Masingill’s memorial service in 2014.
Don Welch’s hearty laugh, big smile and folksy weather wisdom will long be remembered, as will his various fashion choices and hairstyles, ranging from buzz-cut, to Tony Orlando, to Santa Claus.
His wife of 30 years, Sammie, was a constant presence by his side during his illness. During his final days, she said, “He is my life, my breath, my soulmate. My heart is broken.”
During my visits with Don at health care facilities in recent months, I was impressed by his unwavering spirit. The nurses and attendants seemed starstruck when he would wheel over to exchange jokes and wisecracks. “I grew up watching you,” they would tell him. “You’re like family.” One of them told Sammie, “I probably shouldn’t tell him this, but I’ve always thought he was so sexy.” Sammie laughed and said, “Oh, go ahead and tell him. He’ll love it. Besides, a lot of women think he’s sexy. He won’t mind one bit!” Soon there was more laughter.
Until the very end, with his distinctive voice, infectious smile, and a hint of mischief in his eyes, Don Welch charmed us all. Those of us who knew him, and those who only watched him, will be telling “Welch stories” as long as we live. And as Sammie said, he won’t mind one bit.
Emmitt N. “Don” Welch, Jr., passed away peacefully at his Hixson home, surrounded by family, on Sunday, October 15, 2017.
He was born on March 10, 1942, in Dayton, Tennessee, the son of the late Emmitt, Sr. and Mildred White Welch.
Don enjoyed a 52 year career as a broadcaster in the Chattanooga area working with WTVC News Channel 9 where he was affectionately known as “Grandpappy Welch”. Don also hosted Good Morning Chattanooga for many years and ended his career as host of This N That with Don Welch. He retired from the business he loved on April 23, 2014.
Don loved Chattanooga and was very active in many associations and clubs throughout the area. He was a 32nd Degree Mason and held memberships with the York Rite, the Scottish Rite, and the Alahambra Shrine. He was also active in the Royal Order of Jesters, Court 39, as well as, the Highlander Drum and Pipe Band. Don also served on the board for CADAS, the Hamilton County Beer Board and served as a former board member of Goodwill.
In addition to his parents, Don was also preceded in death by his mother-in-law, Muriel Donna McCoy.
Survivors include his wife, Sammie McCoy Welch; children, Cyndi (David) Finley, Stefannie Welch and Mitzi (Slate) Boyd; grandchildren, Ariel (Chad) Brunk, Logan (Ashton) Finley, Olivia and Jake Fuqua and Paytin Boyd; brother, Jack (Jody) Welch; and several nieces and nephews.
A public gathering to remember and celebrate his life will be held on Friday, October 20, 2017, from 4:00-8:00 pm at Hamilton Funeral Home, Hixson Pike.
A private family service and committal will be held at a later date.
Those desiring may make a contribution, in Don’s name, to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Contributions may be made online at www.michaeljfox.org or by mail, Foundation Processing, Michael J. Fox Foundation, Post Office Box 5014, Hagerstown, MD 21741-5014.
Arrangements are by Hamilton Funeral Home & Cremation Services; 4506 Hixson Pike. 423-531-3975