Dr Hawthorne Welcher, Sr, An Inspiring Life of Service in Public Education and the Church
by Pastor Dan White
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Dr. Hawthorne Welcher, Sr. was recruited by Lionel Ritchie to sing with his Commodores when they were students at Tuskegee University. After briefly singing with them in the area around Montgomery, Alabama, he turned down an opportunity to tour with them and open concerts for Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. The Lord took him on a different path of service to others in the name of Christ.
Dr. Hawthorne Welcher, Sr. retired in 2009 as principal of Laney High School, an inner city school in Augusta, Georgia, ending a brilliant thirty-six year career of ministry to students through education and the church.
Dr. Welcher and his three brothers were raised in a modest home by their widowed mother, Alice Welcher. She decided to find gainful employment and provided the means for their livelihood working for minimum wages at Snow's Cleaners and eventually worked her way up to manage a branch office.
He has no memory of his father, Freddie Lee Welcher, who tragically drowned in the Savannah River in 1955. Dr. Welcher had just turned four years old.
Dr. Welcher disagrees with the idiom, “It takes a man to teach a boy.” He credits his mother’s strong work ethic, morals, values, faith, and independence as the foundation of his success.
Alice Welcher came to Augusta from Burke County to go to Paine College to become a teacher. But, the tuition and other costs were too great for her parents to meet.
Mrs. Welcher eventually was able to return to her studies and earned certification in nursing services as a Nursing Assistant at the Veterans Administration Hospital, where she worked for many years and retired.
Mrs. Welcher’s faith in Christ caused her to believe that “God will make a way through every trial and tribulation.” She made sure her sons knew about this victorious faith taking them to Beulah Grove Baptist Church in Augusta three times every Sunday.
Singing in the church, Dr. Welcher’s talent was developed. His older brother, Freddie Lee Welcher, Jr., played the piano and Dr. Welcher sang. He and his brother introduced new songs for the congregation to sing. Dr. Welcher’s beautiful singing voice would later cause Lionel Ritchie, a fellow Tuskegee University student, to invite him to sing with the Commodores.
Dr. Welcher had joined a campus singing group, The Soulful Debonairs, as a back-up singer to sing at Tuskegee’s talent shows. If the students liked you, they clapped. If they didn’t like you, they threw pennies on to the stage. After one of their performances, a lot of pennies found their way on to the stage. That was it for Dr. Welcher singing in groups.
However, sometimes “no” is not always “no” especially if there is a pretty girl friend involved. Lionel Ritchie’s wife, Brenda, was good friends with Dr. Welcher’s girlfriend and fellow Tuskegee student, Deborah Kendrick from Georgetown, Georgia. Brenda told her that Lionel wanted Hawthorne to sing in his group, the Commodores. Hawthorne said, “No.” Brenda was persistent and asked Deborah to go back to Hawthorne again to ask him to join the group. Hawthorne told her once more that he was through with groups, and added that if she continued asking him to join the Commodores, then they wouldn’t get married!”
Well, guess who joined the Commodores and who married Deborah?
After receiving acclaim in Montgomery and the surrounding area, Motown signed the Commodores in 1971 to open shows for the Jackson Five. Their first gig was to open for the Jackson 5 in California.
Hawthorne called his mom to tell her he was going to California with the Commodores. She replied, “No son, stay in school. Get your education.”
Hawthorne never made a record with the Commodores since their first record was not cut until two years after they had signed with Motown. Once they started recording, the Commodores became Motown’s best selling male group in the 1970’s and went on to have six number one hits on the rhythm and blues chart and two number one hits on the Top 40 charts. They sold over 75 million records worldwide.
Before Lionel Ritchie called, Dr. Welcher had another chance to become a professional singer.
After an audition for The Tuskegee Golden Voices Choir, he was offered a full scholarship. The 100-voice choir is renowned and known world-wide. In 1932, they opened the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. This event expanded the choir’s prestige worldwide.
In the fall of 1971, Roy Edward Hicks became the director. The highlight of Professor Hicks' tenure was a series of five concert tours to the Northern Tier of the United States Air Force Bases for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1973. The tour also included a concert in New York City. Professor Hicks often had Dr. Welcher sing solos at concerts which he did in New York.
After the concert, twenty-one year old Hawthorne Welcher was offered a position with the legendary McAlpin Hotel on Broadway and 34th Street in Manhattan. When it opened in 1912, it was the largest hotel in the world with twenty-five stories.
Dr. Welcher wanted to accept the offer and turn professional. But, Professor Hicks told him, “You came with us. You’re going back with us. And besides, I don’t want to face your mother and tell her I left you in New York to sing in some night club.”
Today, Dr. Welcher sings in the churches throughout Augusta. He has sung in Chicago, Minnesota, and many other places for the Lord.
Dr. Welcher was featured twice in a concert at Elim Baptist Church in Augusta with Ellis Johnson, a deacon and choir director for the church’s sanctuary choir.
Deacon Johnson like Dr. Welcher was also a Richmond County Educator. Deacon Johnson is a gifted and talented tenor soloist. He was a chapel choir director while serving in the U.S. Army and won the Third Army Vocal Competition Award. He was named Opera Man of the Year by the Augusta Chorale Society and Augusta Symphony. He sang a duet with opera star, Jessye Norman from Augusta. The Georgia Senate honored him with this proclamation: “The [Georgia Senate] recognizes Ellis M. Johnson for his marvelous musical ability and commend him for providing the citizens of his community with a valuable source for personal enrichment and spiritual renewal.” Both of these gifted men, Dr. Welcher and Deacon Johnson, serve the Lord in their community and church. To have both of them together in a concert was a great blessing to all who were present.
Dr. Welcher loves to sing and loves all genres. But today, he is an inspirational singer. He said, “the 1977 Commodore’s highly popular funk–disco song, “Brickhouse,” is just not me anymore.
Many of his friends and acquaintances have asked him to record a CD of favorite inspirational hymns and spirituals. Dr. Welcher can still hit the “G” above treble clef and credits the Lord for sustaining his voice through the years. “Maybe one day I will record,” he says, “if I can find the time. It’s not a priority for me. When I am ready, I will walk into the studio and record.”
Dr. Welcher says that the opportunities that he had to sing professionally in his young adulthood don’t mean a great deal to him. “I could have lived lavishly. If I had become an entertainer, I would not have known the wonderful people here or become a father of four sons or a loving husband to my Tuskegee University Sweetheart, Deborah Kendrick Welcher.” (Mrs. Welcher serves today as the Director of the Wee Patriots Academy at Westside High. School.)
Dr. Welcher continues, “I would not have been able to be a positive influence in the lives of children. I would have been traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast. I am pleased with my life and have always wanted to give back to the community. It’s been rewarding to touch lives and help others.”
Dr. Welcher graduated from Josey High School in Augusta. He remembers as an 8th grader in 1964 entering the brand new High School and excitedly waiting in line for the doors to open to students for the first time.
At the end of his freshman year at Tuskegee, he had to declare a major. He was torn between education and business. He went to one professor after another for advice on what to do. Each professor told him, “Hawthorne, this is your decision.” So, like Gideon in the Old Testament, he put out his fleece, and the Lord directed him to major in education.
Dr. Welcher did his student teaching at Therrell High School in Atlanta. He returned home in 1973 and began his exceptional educational career with the Richmond County Board of Education. He taught at Sand Bar Ferry Junior High under Principal Lee Beard. Dr. Welcher was part of the school’s transition into the middle school model - a first for Richmond County. Today, the school is East Augusta Middle. For six years, he taught at Richmond Academy and then moved into administration as assistant principal at Davison Fine Arts Academy. He went back to Richmond Academy as an assistant principal and then to Joseph Lamar Elementary School as principal for three years. Next, he served as principal at Tubman Middle School and ended his brilliant career at Lucy Laney High School serving seven years as principal.
Dr. Welcher says that his time at Laney was his most enjoyable. His father was a student at Haines Institute. The Institute was renamed in 1934 to Lucy Laney High School in a posthumous honor for the famous African-American educator of Augusta. His father played football for the Institute, and his picture is in the Lucy Laney museum.
Throughout Dr. Welcher’s career especially at Laney, he tried to be a father, grandfather, or uncle. As a father figure, he loved and was proud of all of his students. Many students from Laney have gone on to great success. One student, Terrance Dalbert who was the 2009 Laney High School Valedictorian, is a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Welcher says, Mr. Dalbert could have gone to either Harvard or MIT. He chose MIT, and he is doing quite well in his studies there.”
Dr. Welcher was always available to help students no matter their need, “If I couldn’t help a student, I had surrounded myself with people who could help them. Many of my students were impoverished.
“One of the great needs of our students whether at the Davison Magnet School or at Laney is family and parents who will listen to them. Caring is a strength and not a weakness. I want to help young people find their way.”
Dr. Welcher said, “So many young people wanted to call it quits and drop out of school. Just a simple thing as an encouraging word would keep them in the game.” Dr. Welcher’s ministry to his students have included taking them shopping for clothes and providing food for them.
One of his great frustrations was not being able to do more for his students because of Board policy which he always followed and respected. He explains, “Teachers and administrators in the public schools have to be careful not to overstep the boundaries in getting involved with students’ problems. Those policies are there for good reason. I always tried to bring in outside resources to help disadvantaged students including the church and social agencies to provide food and shelter to those in need.”
Dr. Welcher is grieved and concerned over the huge problems faced by inner city schools. He says, “There are no easy solutions. There are no quick fixes.”
He said that some of the entering freshman class at Laney read on a 3rd grade level. “We had to work to catch them up, and many of them were able to do that and graduate.
“It’s going to take time, patience, and commitment from dedicated, caring individuals working in our inner city schools. It’s going to take highly qualified empathetic and understanding teachers to work with our inner city students. The inner city schools need long serving principals who know his/her constituents and the community. If this is not done, everything is for naught.
“It’s not a one size fits all solution to fix our schools. Individual situations must be addressed. Knowing those home situations, knowing the mother, father, grandmother, and child is extremely helpful. Through my ministry with Beulah Grove Baptist Church, I was able to expand my help for many of my students and their families.”
While serving at Laney, tragedy struck the Welcher family. One of Dr. and Mrs. Welcher’s sons, Frederick Thomas Farrell Welcher, mysteriously died in his sleep from unknown causes on September 29, 2005, the 17th birthday of Dr. and Mrs. Welcher’s youngest son, Trevor. Frederick was in his senior year at Ft. Valley State University. He was only 23 years old. The coroner said in his twenty-five years of work, that he had only three cases where he could not find a cause of death.
Frederick was majoring in animal science. His desire was to become a veterinarian due to his love for animals. He, like his dad, loved to sing the hymns and spirituals of faith. He was a member of the children’s choir at Beulah Grove Baptist Church and a member of the B. I. Vernon Young Adult Choir.
Dr. Welcher recalls the family’s sadness. “It was a trying time. We made it through only by the grace of God, prayer, Christ, and the love of friends and church. We have to find strength in times of loss and grief. Frederick continues to remain a part in all we do as a family.”
Dr. Welcher’s ministry through his church included serving as a deacon, Sunday School teacher, and as principal this past summer for the church’s “Summer Explosion.” This ministry with the children includes a complete faculty. They meet for six weeks from 6AM to 6PM and provide meals. Students are tutored to prepare them for the next grade, prepare for the CRCT, and to remediate basic skills in a positive Christian environment.
Through the church’s brotherhood, he goes with the men to the Charles Webster Detention Center once a month to minister to the incarcerated. Sadly, Dr. Welcher has met some of his former students there. “This breaks my heart. But, this is what the Word of God tells me to do – to share the Good News of the Gospel and bring positive affirmation to their broken lives.”
Two out of many of Dr. Welcher’s favorite Bible verses that have guided his life are “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). And from Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.”
Dr. Welcher credits his success to the foundation his mother laid for him as a child and the guidance of the Lord through His divine intervention in his life and ministry.
Dr. Welcher’s life is expressed in the hymn made famous by Mahalia Jackson, “If I Can Help Somebody,” which is his favorite hymn and one that he often sings in churches.
If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they're travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.
If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,
If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love's message, as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.
My living shall not be in vain,
Then my living shall not be in vain
If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
Then my living shall not be in vain.
Rev. Dan White is the pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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