“Well, apparently we all knew the same guy,” said William Bevis, author and professor emeritus at UM, near the closing of acclaimed author James P. Welch’s memorial last Wednesday, Aug. 27. Bevis was the 13th of 14 speakers to celebrate the life of 62-year-old James Welch—a man who, judging by three hours of memories in an almost-packed Wilma Theatre, touched a far-reaching web of lives with effortless consistency. And humor.
Friends’ stories triggered both easy laughter and heartache, a balance that seemed an apt reflection of Welch. Bevis called him a man of “no false comforts.” Former Congressman Pat Williams declared that Welch’s “smile and chuckle deserved a government patent,” while Kathryn Shanley, chair of UM’s Department of Native American Studies, said he tolerated “no sentimental humor,” tearfully quoting one of his favorite pieces of advice to her: “Never, ever pick up hitchhikers.”
Welch’s editor Gerald Howard spoke of his “innate grace and modesty,” calling Welch a “truly great American writer, and a truly wonderful man”—a combination, he acknowledged with a grin, that’s rare. He said he had always been proud to be the “James Welch Reminder Guy” on behalf of the “literary pioneer” who was, by nature, no self-promoter.
“James was a warrior in his own way,” stated Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet Nation, before singing a Blackfeet warrior song traditionally sung for World War II homecomings. “We don’t get many like him,” echoed author and UM Regents Professor Emeritus William Kittredge. And author and UM Professor of Creative Writing Deirdre McNamer drew on similarly noble memories of the writer and friend who taught her that “brilliance has virtually nothing to do with talking about it. Success has virtually nothing to do with talking about it.”
Whether chief or author, politician or celebrity news anchor (NBC’s Tom Brokaw, in the Wilma crowd, said, “I went to junior high with Jimmy”), everyone who spoke of Welch employed the same words: courage, humility, love, respect, understanding and humor.
But it was in fact Welch’s own words that offered perhaps the most poignant explanation as to why the world should have to endure his loss at all. Recalling his last visit with Welch the week before he died (Welch had been battling lung cancer), author James Harrison remembered his friend looking him in the eye and saying, “These things happen to people.”