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Innerviews: UC first lady values West Virginia roots (with video)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The University of Charleston's first lady holds three graduate degrees, including a doctorate. Her home -- vividly decorated in limes and yellows and other eye-popping hues -- looks like something from Southern Living magazine. Pictures and artifacts reflect a full life of travel and hobnobbing with VIPs.

Gracious, well-spoken and well-dressed, she exudes an air of vibrant elegance.

People can't believe it when Janet Welch tells them she grew up in a village called Sissonville. She's proud of those rural West Virginia roots. She wrote her dissertation on the Appalachian culture that shaped her.

Before arriving at UC 24 years ago, she taught at West Virginia Wesleyan, where she met her future husband. She engineered the appointment of Jay Rockefeller as Wesleyan president.

At UC, she transformed the dreary, rundown president's home into a showplace and, among other projects, established the Erma Byrd Gallery to salute the work of West Virginia women artists.

In 2005, she discovered she had cancer, a treatable lymphoma. Last year, it recurred more aggressively. In this extensive interview, she talks first about her experience with cancer and later about her journey to the UC campus.

 

"I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, 'It teaches you, being ugly.' Well, it teaches you, having cancer. We were going along full speed ahead and in 2005, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I had a swollen place on my neck. When they did a biopsy it was lymphoma.

"The day they told me I had cancer was the only I ever cried. I had a type that could be treated with drugs. Until last year, most people didn't know I had a problem. It's an invisible disease. It doesn't incapacitate me in any way.

"I responded to the drugs right away and went straight into remission. I always thought, well, the drugs are there if it comes back. I didn't worry about it much during those years. If you do, you can't live your life.

"Last year, it turned into another kind of NHL, an aggressive form. This past year has been quite an ordeal. Only 3 percent of all lymphoma patients transform as I did. I had to have radiation. When they stick you in that machine and go out and close that door, it's the most lonely feeling in the world. I went through that for several weeks.

"That had to be followed with chemo, a whole new ballgame. I had two PICC [peripherally inserted central catheter] lines in my arm to receive the drugs. Every morning, Ed would flush them.

"I still suffer from closed throat syndrome. I have difficulty talking because my throat closes up. I was in the hospital for five days because I couldn't eat.

"You stand in the shower and look down at fistfuls of what once was your lush head of hair, and you feel true humility. You've been self-confident and self-assertive and suddenly you realize you are no longer in charge and you might as well learn to live with it.

"I'm still wearing my wig. My hair is slowly growing back. Right now, I am lymphoma-free. We don't know which one of my lymphomas might come back. Maybe neither one.

"If you let this rule your life, you will crawl up in a corner. I'm very extroverted, but I'm a very private person. It's very difficult for me to talk about my cancer. Someone said, 'Did it make you more aware of life?' I said, 'No, it annoyed me.' It takes the joy out of your life. It's always there lingering, like a shadow. All those people who say they are inspired by it, I never felt any inspiration.

"I talk about it very openly now. Charleston is the largest small town in the world. When you live on a small university campus and are married to the president, everybody knows everything anyway. You might as well let it all out there and hope somebody will learn from it.

"I feel lucky, even as a cancer victim. I'm surviving cancer. I have a lot of good people touching my life. There are drugs available for my lymphoma. I will probably die of old age maladies. My mother had half a lung removed when she had TB in midlife and lived to be 101, so she is my model.

"When people come through the reception line at UC, they usually know that Ed is from Maryland because it's in his bio. They ask me, 'Where were you born?' I say, 'A village right across the river.' And that always surprises them.

"I grew up in Sissonville. Sissonville is named after one of my great-grandfathers, John Sisson, who once owned all the land there. Across the river, the Gibsons bought land. My mother was a Gibson.

"One of my favorite stories that my great-grandmother told me is that her great-grandmother said, 'Daniel Boone, that dirty old frontiersman, keeps coming out here and he needs a bath!' I checked the dates and realized that yes, he was in the valley then.

"My maiden name was Boggess. My father worked at Libbey-Owens in Kanawha City as a foreman.

"Sissonville was a good little place to grow up, excellent for country kids. I had excellent teachers from Charleston. We had a lively little town, but my Sissonville is gone. High waters destroyed it.

"I was a straight-A student, the brain, a stigma. In my day, a girl got a certain amount of education then settled down and got married. I wanted to live in other places, travel, go on through school.

"Today, I have three higher education degrees, I've lived in eight states and have had some interesting jobs. Ed and I have difficulty finding a country we haven't visited. So those girlish dreams I had, I did them.

"I was editor of the high school newspaper and later the college newspaper at West Virginia Wesleyan. I was an English major.

"I thought I was going to major in journalism at Marshall, but I got a small scholarship to Wesleyan. I went to the University of Maryland for graduate school.

"I got my first job in Washington in public relations. My would-be employer was irritated that the college graduates he had interviewed didn't know how to size pictures. So I picked up a ruler from his desk and showed him how it was done. And he hired me on the spot.

"I had learned that sitting on the grimy floor in Howard Hiner's old photo shop in Buckhannon. He taught me about photography and the newspaper world.

"Next, I went to Tampa where I was public relations director for five hospitals. I wrote these dramatic stories, 'The Lights Never Go Out at Tampa General' and 'What Really Goes on in the Operating Room.'

"I came back to Washington and became an editor for the American Political Science Association. Ed Welch was working across town in the White House, but we never knew each other.

"At the American Political Science Association, we did the first book done in the Washington, D.C., area by primitive computer. We had keypunch operators and proofs that weighed several pounds. I thought, 'This is supposed to be better?'

"When we were living in the Midwest, there was a fledgling computer department and one of the geeks wrote a program to analyze interviews I'd done for my Ph.D. Computers weren't used for that yet. They were as big as small refrigerators.

"I actually passed my doctoral language exam in computer language. It was considered a language back then.

"I was teaching at Wesleyan when Jay Rockefeller was the school president. I was on the search committee and we were having trouble. When Jay lost to Arch [Moore] that first time, I called Bill Watson, his campaign manager. I said, 'I know he wants to stay in West Virginia. Do you think he would consider being president of Wesleyan for a couple of years?' Bill said, 'Stay there. Don't go away.' And the rest is history.

"Jay never had any money on him. People in the cafeteria line always had to loan him money. We were standing in the Pittsburgh airport on a recruiting trip. I was rummaging in my change purse trying to find a dime so Jay Rockefeller could get into a stall in the men's room.

"People at Wesleyan liked Jay, and he will tell you those were four of the best years of his life.

"Ed and I met when we were both on the faculty at Wesleyan. I'm Appalachian and I talk with my hands and I'm very emotional. I walked into the faculty lounge at Wesleyan waving the college paper and yelling, 'What idiot gave this interview to the paper?' This tall, lanky guy rose up and said, 'I am Ed Welch and I gave that interview to the students.' I backed out with my foot in my mouth. We didn't exchange many words that particular year.

"The second year, he was voted professor of the year by the students. And guess who came in second? That didn't endear him to me either. They did vote me professor with the best sense of humor. I never figured that out. I take everything too seriously. Ed is just the opposite. He's calm and methodical. He takes people as they are and thinks problems are there to be solved. I think the problems shouldn't be there in the first place.

"When we met, we were married to other people. As faculty people at Wesleyan, we did a lot of writing projects. We wrote Jay's whole inauguration ceremony. We had to drive across state to Bethany College, where Cecil Underwood was president, to borrow Bethany's mace for Jay's ceremony. You can imagine what a big laugh Cecil got out of loaning Jay Rockefeller his mace.

"Jay and I were working on a project one time, and I told him, 'You could be on a yacht in the Mediterranean instead of doing what we're doing.' And he said with a look of horror on his face, 'I can't think of anything more boring than being on a yacht in the Mediterranean.'

"By the time Ed and I left Wesleyan, we had worked together closely. We kept in touch. Both our marriages broke up, and we ended up marrying. I guess more sparks flew that first day than I realized. We've been married 35 years.

"I started my Ph.D at the University of Maryland. I was going to do my dissertation on 'Body Language in Faulkner's Novels.' Then one day I was walking across campus at Maryland and heard these two people talking, and I thought, they're Appalachian. I recognized their accents. I decided to find an adviser who would let me write a dissertation on Appalachia.

"I eventually did 165 hours of interviews here in the hills of West Virginia. The worst problem I had was out-of-state license plates. I had to convince people I was a native. One lady tested me. She was in her garden. She told me to go up on the porch and bring back a poke. When I came back with a paper bag, she said 'Yes, you are a West Virginian. People from out of state never know what a poke is.'

"We lived in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin before we came here in 1989. The house hadn't been lived in for a couple of years. It was dark inside, the paint and the woodwork. Outside was painted a tomato red. The best thing I did as far as neighbors were concerned is paint the house white with yellow shutters.

"The former presidents hadn't made the greatest impression on Charleston, so we had to get people to trust us, even to getting faculty to come to the president's house. They thought we'd be like some of the others, using UC to pad their resumes. We had trouble getting people to realize we were not going anywhere.

"The only time I thought about leaving was about four years into our time here when we got ready to build a new dorm and neighbors got it in their heads that we were ruining the neighborhood. They went to City Council trying to stop these construction projects. There were personal attacks.

"A school in a neighboring state had been after Ed. I got him to take a weekend and visit the campus. On the way back, I looked at the set of that jaw and knew it was a wasted trip. We were going to bite the bullet and solve the problems here.

"We built that dorm and others and the sky didn't fall in and the neighborhood blossomed and new people moved in to live near the school and property values have soared.

"In those early years, Ed got a bee in his bonnet to give an honorary degree to Betty White. She came to Charleston and loved it. She has been our houseguest three times. The first time, we had a party to introduce her. When the party was over, I looked around and didn't know where she was. She was in the kitchen washing the dishes.

"The third visit, she was helping us dedicate a building. We had a gathering here. The conversation turned to politics and world events. Afterward, she said, 'I just loved that. No one in Hollywood ever talks about anything important. They're afraid they will be quoted.'

"You've heard of the horse whisperer? Betty is an animal whisperer. The squirrels on this lawn never come near people. She sat on the veranda and squirrels gathered around her chair. When she was leaving, we were surprised to see two little squirrel bodies plastered against the storm window as if to tell her goodbye.

"Ed has dinner with Betty whenever he's in California. She used to send us funny gifts. One was a nutcracker shaped like a squirrel. Now every Christmas she sponsors a Seeing Eye dog in our name.

"One of the projects I'm proudest of is the Erma Byrd Gallery. It had been a library. It sat empty for three years, collecting junk. One day, I pulled on one of the gauze curtains with 50 years of dust and it fell on top of me, and I thought, 'This is one of the most beautiful rooms on campus and nobody knows it.'

"I went to the administration with this idea. I had to use every persuasion in the book. When I finally said we could make money on it -- as a small, private university, you are always trying to make money -- that was the magic word.

"It took me 18 months to collect the paintings, 162 paintings by West Virginia women artists. The gallery has brought in a lot of funds as a place for meetings and dinners and weddings.

"I'd like to retire sometime, but Ed says he is not finished at the University of Charleston. His staff just wishes he would slow down. He has made quite a reputation for himself nationally as being ahead of game in the changes occurring in higher education.

"When he does decide to retire, we will stay here in Charleston. The other Welch finally found a home. We were in China once, and a Chinese leader asked me where my home was. I said it was West Virginia. Ed said, incredulously, 'You have lived in Iowa eight years. Why did you tell him that?' Well, he asked me where my home was, not where I lived. Ed was a minister's son and moved around a lot. He has finally found a home.

"I said to him once, 'Ed, the problem is, you come from a long line of Methodist teetotalers, and I come from a long line of West Virginia moonshiners.' And that has made all the difference."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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