Roger Welsch, who found wit and wisdom in rural Nebraska, dies at 85


There was the story about Nebraska villagers who helped a farm widow harvest her crops. There was another about sisters trying to bring back traditional Pawnee corn and another about a world-class golf course “in the middle of absolutely nowhere” in Nebraska’s Sandhills.

Such heartland tales — big, small, people, places, always true but maybe just a tad embellished for flavor — flowed from folklorist, author and story-spinner Roger Welsch for decades, winning him acclaim as a poet of the Plains from his native Nebraska. He could craft odes to the sounds, smells and scraped knuckles of tractor restoration, or climb a prairie knoll on a cold late-December day and muse about morality and time in his trademark bib overalls, his hair shaggy and wind-tousled.

“From here I can hear the coyotes and the ice cracking down on the river,” he said in a 1990 New Year’s segment for “Sunday Morning” on CBS. He was a popular contributor on the show from 1988 to 2000, with his “Postcards from Nebraska” feature. “Those are the things that always stay the same, year after year, century after century.”

It’s a good yarn in its own right about how Mr. Welsch — who died Sept. 30 at 85 at his home near Dannebrog, Neb. — found his way to a national audience from a 380-person hamlet that he joked was so small “the town square has three sides.”

He was giving a speech at the Chamber of Commerce in West Point, Neb., in 1988. He had just resigned from his tenured professorship at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and hoped to carve out a living for his family with a weekly column in local newspapers and some paid lectures, or least nab a free meal now and then.

“Sunday Morning” host Charles Kuralt had slipped into the audience. Kuralt had occasionally called Mr. Welsch over the years for folksy dispatches from the Great Plains, with Mr. Welsch sharing homespun snippets from the coffee shop or farm stands.

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Mr. Welsch and Kuralt first made contact in the early 1970s when Mr. Welsch, upset over herbicides that killed native grasses and plants, won a seat on the county’s weed-control board under the “pro-weed” ticket: “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”

After Mr. Welsch’s talk in West Point, he said, Kuralt offered him a steady gig on the show with the biweekly “Postcards” series, which ended up churning out nearly 200 episodes in its 12-year run. It became a great match. Kuralt got the Americana he pursued in his “On the Road” segments for the “CBS Evening News” from 1967 to 1980; Mr. Welsch had the country to entertain.

“I can’t even remember your name,” Mr. Welsch told an Associated Press reporter in 1990. “But if you told me a story right now, I would remember that story.”

Small-town chronicler was just one side of Mr. Welsch’s lifelong study of the Great Plains. To him, the region was a palimpsest with overlays of prehistoric oceans, ancient herds of bison and elk, Native cultures and the memory of how they suffered under White settlers — and also of how the Europeans, like his ethnic German ancestors, faced their own miseries while carving out lives in sod-roof homes that just peeked above the prairie grass.

He named one of his daughters Antonia after “My Ántonia,” a 1918 novel by Willa Cather about immigrants from Bohemia struggling in the Nebraska hinterlands. In one of his last Facebook posts, Mr. Welsch called his wife, Linda, “my Bohemian princess.”

Mr. Welsch’s literary output was impressive: more than 40 books that included wit and wisdom cleverly framed around his love of vintage tractors in “Everything I Know About Women, I Learned from My Tractor” (2002) and “Busted Tractors and Rusty Knuckles: Norwegian Torque Wrench Techniques and Other Fine Points of Tractor Restoration” (1997).

His 1990 book “It’s Not the End of the Earth, but You Can See It from Here” recounts his “rural education” after leaving his professorship in Lincoln and his deepening appreciation of Native American spirituality.

He helped win a fight to return skeletal remains and artifacts to Native tribes during the 1980s. He and his wife later struck a deal to will their 60-acre property on the Loup River to the Pawnee Nation, which had been forcibly moved in the 19th century to a reservation in Oklahoma. The Pawnee, Omaha and Oglala tribes made Mr. Welsch an honorary member. His Pawnee name, Panitaka, means White Wolf.

“These people are not guests on our land,” he told the Tulsa World, “but rather we are guests on their land.”

Roger Lee Welsch was born in Lincoln on Nov. 6, 1936, and he later wrote of his upbringing in “Why I’m an Only Child & Other Slightly Naughty Plains Folktales” (2016).

He received a bachelor’s degree in German in 1958 at the University of Nebraska, staying on for a master’s in the same field in 1960. He taught German at Dana College in Blair, Neb., and Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln before moving to University of Nebraska in 1973 on a tenure track.

His class in folklore and anthropology was among the university’s most popular as his television fame grew. “To many Americans you are ‘that guy in overalls from Nebraska’ who dispenses wisdom to Charles Kuralt,” Bill Clinton wrote in 1993 as he was campaigning for president. “I can tell you that our country would be better off if we listened more often to the wisdom of Roger Welsch.”

On Facebook this summer, Mr. Welsch described the dialysis treatments as his kidney disease progressed. Several days before his death, he said he planned home hospice care.

His first marriage, to Marilyn Henry, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 42 years and their daughter Antonia Welsch-Barlage, Mr. Welsch is survived by three children from his first marriage, son Chris and daughters Joyce and Jenny; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

At the only drinking spot in Dannebrog, known by locals as simply “the bar,” he founded the tongue-in-cheek Liars Hall of Fame, dedicated to tale tales, beefed-up narratives and stories in which “lies tell the truth,” said his daughter Antonia. Politicians were not allowed.

In the neighboring town of Boelus, Neb., Mr. Welsch threw a bash at the local tavern each holiday for “drunks, derelicts and everyone nobody likes.”

Over the years, he compiled a 36-page dossier of his TV pieces, books, honors and random thoughts. He emailed copies to his family as his health declined. Tucked into his personal list was an enigmatic item — a quote from a fortune cookie at the Golden Wok in Lincoln in 1999.

“Your sparkle never fades,” it read. “You are always full of light.”

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