In the May 24 issue of the Times, Jim Welsh’s Lanark News column appeared on the bottom of the Sports page, rather than in its typical spot atop the Faith page. Three obituaries, a story about a Gospel Sing, and Faith Briefs had crowded Jim off his usual perch. Space needed to be found. There would be no repeat of the rare mistake of a few weeks prior, when his column was left out of the paper altogether. Space below Sports was found.
It would be the last time Jim Welsh would author the weekly column that was his for decades. The following week, right before Memorial Day, he called to say he would not have his column the next week, as he was going into the hospital. A month later, he would pass away peacefully at the age of 80 surrounded by friends, under the care of Big Bend Hospice at St. James Bay.
Because he was not adept at using computers, Jim used to provide his column to us every week by giving it over the telephone, usually to Lois Swoboda, with whom he had become close in recent years. Prior to that, he had written it out in longhand, and then gone down to the Carrabelle post office to fax it to us from there. When his writing grew tiny, with some words illegible, it was arranged for him to phone it in, and he did so without fail.
In taking the dictation, Lois used the opportunity to comb through Jim’s aging mind for memories of what Lanark Village and Carrabelle had been like years earlier, when Jim was active and vigorous, a Knight of Columbus, a man about town, one of the founders of the Panhandle Players, instrumental and influential in organizations that shaped the life of the eastern end of Franklin County.
At the funeral service for Jim Friday morning, at Sacred Heart Church east of Lanark, where Jim attended dutifully, and cheerfully, Liz Sisung, a contemporary of Jim’s with Panhandle Players, played the organ. She and Angela Le led the congregation in singing while her 2-year-old son Dominic kept up a steady, inquisitive narration as he sat alongside his great-grandfather Robert Ochala in the front pew.
The hymns we sang, “Here I Am Lord,” “Be Not Afraid,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” and “I Call You to My Father’s House” attested to Jim’s faithfulness, as did the words of Father Eddie, who spoke of a man he had seen often at church, of a man who in his greetings and warm spirit, connected with people.
The smoke from incense emanating from the thurble, swung by Roberta Robertson, who attended to Jim in his last days, sweetened the air.
Jim left no children, and lived alone for many years, after the death of a longtime partner. It left him dependent on the kindness of others, and there was much kindness to be shared, reciprocity for who Jim was, a once active social butterfly who delighted in the sharing of news of his small community.
A friend, a snowbird, a longtime newspaper industry insider who loves reading the Times back in Minnesota once told me Jim’s Lanark News column was her favorite thing to read in the paper.
In his latter days the column had grown gradually shorter and more repetitive, with fewer mentions of the movements and passages of the people who he knew well, whose travels in and out of Carrabelle and Lanark he had chronicled over the years. Mostly it included a reminder that the boat club had a breakfast on Saturday morning, or an event was coming up, or that Friday was hamburger night at Camp Gordon Johnston American Legion Post 82, and Sunday it was pizza, and please don’t huff and puff on cigarettes except on the porch during specific hours on those nights.
The news had grown smaller in Jim’s world, but his enthusiasm hadn’t waned with it. He gave it his best, and he did what he could, to make Lanark News as necessary and vital as it had once been. For the Times, that is Jim’s legacy, that he made the column his own and will forever be remembered as a faithful practitioner of the art of wordsmithing.
We are grateful for what he left behind, for what he helped shape. Our comfort lies in the very words he left us with each week, in the last two sentences of the column, always the same broad admonition, with a single clause added to reflect his sentiment for that week.
“Be kind to one another, check in on the sick and housebound,” he would always begin, and then add such phrases as “ASAP stands for Always Say A Prayer,” or “Remember, volunteers make it happen. Become one today.” Or a reminder to “Keep smiling. You may not feel any better, but everyone else will wonder what you’re up to.”
And then the last line would never vary, never stray.
“Until next time, God bless our troops, the poor, homeless and hungry.”
God bless you Jim. May your soul forever rest in peace, with our gratitude.