He lived a life in verse, shaping beauty from the absence, sharing strength and courage with generations of students, friends and family. His voice resounds from the grave in the works he left behind, offering a guide for lost souls to find a sense of peace in the modern world. Dr. Don Welch spread his influence of hope to hundreds of people. Mine was one of the lives he changed during the journey of his life.
It’s still hard for me to believe that Dr. Welch left this earth one year ago. When I learned of his death, memories rushed back to me, inviting me to stroll the paths he used to at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, bringing me back to his classroom in Thomas Hall where I, as so many had before me, learned from him about poetry, and how it brought truth, beauty and comfort. I learned how poetry could serve as a guide for the lost. Dr. Welch taught me more about life in one year than I’d learned in all the years leading up to his class, and he did so by bringing poetry into my life.
Just days before he died, Dr. Welch’s works were collected into one final book, Homing, that was a culmination of a life in words. On Saturday, his final book was recognized at a ceremony in Lincoln, where it received the 2017 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry.
I met one of my fellow students, Rachel Nozicka, at the ceremony Saturday. Both of our lives were greatly shaped by Dr. Welch and his life’s work. We watched as Dr. Welch’s daughter, Shannon Vesely, accepted the award for her father’s work from Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen, who can be seen here:
Shannon spoke about her father at the ceremony and his philosophy of poetry. She shared a vision of Don Welch that emerges from his poems and the way he led his life.
“As I look through the poems in this final volume of my father’s work, I see a poetic voice in a style that spans an entire writing career. Honestly, it spans his entire life. Perhaps, more importantly what I see is my father the man, the son, the son-in-law, the grandson, the husband, the father, the grand and great-grandfather, the teacher, the student, the colleague, as well as his love for this place we call Nebraska,” said Vesely.
As Shannon continued, she shared her father’s lament about modern poetry lacking a strong, clear voice. That message resounded with me. Applying it to modern life is no stretch of the imagination. As Rachel and I discussed over coffee, there is a lack of focus in society; a lack of originality. Loud voices saying nothing dominate soft ones that offer meaning and truth. Everything appears as a copy of a copy of a copy—a facsimile of what life used to be, and that truth is a difficult one to accept. It can lead anyone to lament. However, as Dr. Welch shared in his life’s work, hope can be found.
Hope can be found in the truth and beauty of a simple life. Many of Dr. Welch’s poems sketched portraits of pure beauty in an accessible and simple way. Yet, their simplicity contained a profundity of thought—Dr. Welch’s voice was a beam of sunlight breaking through the blackest clouds. For that reason, his life was a one of beauty, offering encouragement to those who spoke clearly about things that actually matter. I found inspiration from Dr. Welch.
After the ceremony, Rachel and I walked to a nearby coffee shop, like Dr. Welch would do in Kearney. We ordered coffee and discussed a variety of topics from the writings of Alexander Pope and Søren Kierkegaard to the importance of education and how it can help people to find meaning. I can think of no better way to honor the memory of a man who had such a profound effect on our lives.