Alumnus reflects on racism, athletics and philanthropy

Alumnus reflects on racism, athletics and philanthropy

By Sean Phee, @SeanPheeDE

Harvey Welch worked his way up in the world and now he is paying it forward.

Welch was the first African-American on the basketball team at SIU, playing from 1951 to 1954. But his achievements go far beyond the court.

He was born in Centralia and had five siblings. His father died when he was young, so his mother had to raise all her children and her three nieces alone, despite having only a sixth-grade education.


Welch said he wanted more out of life and knew education was the way to get it. He said he had black elementary school teachers tell him to work harder to get what he deserved, even though he would not be treated equal.

“I believed if I got an education, all these barriers that were on me because I was black, would come off,” Welch said. “It was a lie because I got the talent, skill and education. I was still not able to enjoy many privileges because of the color of my skin.”

Still, he became the first black student to complete the ROTC program at the university.

Welch said it was tough being a black athlete in the early 1950s. He said a small child once threw a basketball directly at his head from close range at Southeast Missouri State.

Harold Bardo, interim athletic director, said he first met Welch as a student in 1957. Bardo said Welch means a lot to the university and community.

“It’s hard for young people to appreciate what he’s done for this university,” Bardo said.

He is a Saluki sports Hall-of-Famer and two-time All-Conference selection. However, he said after college, golf became his favorite sport.


Welch has helped make golf more accessible to minorities through the National Minority Golf Foundation, where he is able to combine two of his favorite things, golf and helping others. He raises money with the Harvey Welch Jr. Golf Scramble. He and his wife, Trish, use the money to give scholarships to students in need every year.

“Having an opportunity to serve students is probably my proudest and happiest thing, and I will continue to try to do that,” Welch said.

Welch uses golf as a metaphor when giving advice to students.

“If you can model your life and behavior around the rules of golf, you can be a successful person,” he said. “In golf, you have to play the ball where it lies, and in life you must accept responsibility. Anybody can tee the ball up and then hit a good shot, but in life it’s not that easy. When you play the ball where it lies you must dig down, think and work at it to be successful.”

After college, Welch had a 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force, where he became one of the first three black colonels.

Welch said most Air Force officers did not have bachelor’s degrees in the 1950s, but he had one and a master’s degree. Despite these qualifications, he said it took him longer to earn promotions than others.

“One of my bosses wrote on a report that Lt. Welch had a good education for a negro,” Welch said. “A brave sergeant saw that and reported it to the director personnel and said, ‘This isn’t right.’”

After the Air Force, Welch served as the first black dean of student life at SIU and subsequently served as vice chancellor of student affairs.

He is district governor of Rotary International, serves on the board of directors for Lutheran Social Services and is a board member of the Carbondale Park District. He also served on the board of directors for Southern Illinois Regional Social Services.

Welch still lives in southern Illinois and makes his best effort to walk the track in the Recreation Center every day.

Sean Phee can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311 ext. 269.