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Nature lover, civic leader Bill Welch dies

The former corporate manager and one-time leader of the local chapter of the Audubon Society died after a recent stroke.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


SUGARMILL WOODS -- As civic leaders in the mid-1990s tried to breathe life into a new vision-setting group called Citrus 20/20, they searched for people who could mesh development concerns with an environmental ethic.

Janice Warren, current Citrus 20/20 chairwoman, said the members of Leadership Citrus turned to William Welch, a former corporate executive, who was president of the Citrus County Audubon Society at the time.

"Leadership Citrus was seen more as a business organization. We saw all he had to offer. He brought credibility to the diversity of what Citrus 20/20 is all about," she said.

On Friday, Mr. Welch died following a recent stroke. He was 70. Friends and colleagues around the county are mourning the loss of a highly regarded community leader who gave a voice to environmental and civic concerns.

Two years ago, Mr. Welch's friend, David Walker, died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. Mr. Welch, who helped set aside space at Central Florida Community College for a collection of Walker's photographs, managed to stay active despite suffering two heart attacks in recent years.

A retired manager who traveled around the world for Borg-Warner (now owned by General Electric), he remained an involved member of Citrus 20/20 while doting on his three grandchildren, friends and family said.

His sudden sense of physical vulnerability deeply affected the former hard-driving executive.

"I think he was feeling on borrowed time and had to make the most of it," Bonnie Smith said.

Betty Welch, Mr. Welch's wife of 46 years, said she met her husband on a blind date in Atlanta. An airline flight attendant at the time, she said the attraction was immediate. He was a native of Greensburg, Pa., and, oddly enough, the two had grown up 15 miles apart. "We were engaged in three weeks and married in three months, and everybody said it wasn't going to work," she said.

Mr. Welch, she said, always respected her sense of independence.

"We're both very strong people, and he was not intimidated by my strength," she said. "I was kind of an independent, free-minded thinker. I had his full support . . . and that's what made it work, I think.

"It's still very unreal," she said. "Most of the time I'm numb in disbelief."

Mr. Welch's parents had graduated from college and valued hard work. Friends frequently cited his work habits as one of his main attributes, along with a keen sense of organization and an ability to work with people.

Life with Mr. Welch was exciting, his wife said. They lived in Europe, visiting dozens of countries while he directed Borg-Warner's materials management and purchasing department. She called it a kind of "Alice in Wonderland type experience" for them and their three children.

Upon GE's purchase of Borg-Warner in the late 1980s, Mr. Welch decided to retire. Betty Welch's parents had lived for many years in St. Petersburg, but, looking to avoid their typical big-city experiences, they opted for the quieter surroundings of Citrus, where she said they had owned property in Sugarmill Woods since 1979.

Friends and colleagues said they both wasted no time in involving themselves in civic affairs.

Bonnie Smith, a friend, said Betty Welch at one time headed the Women of Sugarmill Woods and continued to participate. Mr. Welch, meanwhile, took up the standard of environmental protection as president of the local Audubon Society chapter.

He loved nature, Citrus 20/20 member Curt Ebitz said.

"He was as excited about seeing an egret as he was the first time," Ebitz said.

Mr. Welch "was a very intelligent, thoughtful individual who understood the real world," Ebitz said. "He had a great love for our environment, but he understood the challenges our environment faces. I don't think anybody would like to see this place change more than it has with the growing population. As a result, we have to intelligently manage those resources to the best of our ability."

At a public meeting two years ago on the proposed leg of the Suncoast Parkway through Citrus, Mr. Welch criticized the project as a misguided threat to the environment.

Future generations would suffer from the potential decline of the Nature Coast, he was quoted as saying.

Mr. Welch is survived by one son, Richard K. of Charlotte, N.C.; two daughters, Wendy L. Welch and Linda A. Welch, both of Washington, D.C.; his mother, Frances Welch, of Sun City, and two sisters, Linda Meadows and Nancy Smith, both of Apollo Beach.

A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Crystal River.

Times files were used in this report.

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