Roger Welsch: He Mined His Native State for Stories Humorous and Sublime

From a New York Times obit by Clay Risen headlined “Roger Welsch, ‘America’s Premier Storyteller,’ Dies at 85”:

When Roger Welsch rose to speak before the Chamber of Commerce of West Point, Neb., population 3,500, one day in 1988, he had no idea his life was about to change forever.

He had recently quit his job as a tenured professor at the University of Nebraska and moved with his family to Dannebrog, a town in the center of the state less than a tenth the size of West Point. He hoped to scrape together a career writing and speaking about the state’s folkways.

He had already had some success as an occasional interviewee on the CBS News program “Sunday Morning.” The show’s folksy host, Charles Kuralt, would check in with him for the news from the heartland which, at least in Mr. Welsch’s telling, involved uncooperative catfish, ancient Allis-Chalmers tractors and unfortunate ice-fishing incidents.

Still, he was barely getting by.

“I told my wife, ‘I’ve got bad news and I’ve got worse news,’” he said in 1990. “‘The bad news is we’re not making it. The worse news is I’m not going back.’”

Little did he know, that day in West Point, that Mr. Kuralt had slipped quietly into the audience. After the event, he approached Mr. Welsch with a proposition. Would he like to join the show as a senior correspondent?

Over the next 13 years, Mr. Welsch became a nationally recognized figure with his biweekly segment, “Postcards From Nebraska.”

A tall, sturdy Falstaff in bib overalls, with a shock of bright-white hair, Mr. Welsch mined the sandhills and endless plains of his native state for the humorous and the sublime, often finding both in the same place. A tour of a rural, Scottish-links-style golf course becomes a meditation on silence; a joke about his friend’s gumbo becomes a reflection on the nature of time.

Mr. Welsch, who was widely considered the dean of Nebraska folklorists and whom Mr. Kuralt called “America’s premier storyteller,” died on Sept. 30 at his home outside Dannebrog at age 85. His son, Chris Welsch, said the cause was kidney failure.

Mr. Welsch was more than a raconteur. He was a noted scholar of American folklore and the settler culture of the Great Plains. In his popular anthropology classes at the University of Nebraska, he impressed upon his students the deeper truths lying within tall tales, urban legends and family lore.

“Only in folklore, curiously, is there a wider reliability,” he wrote in Great Plains Quarterly in 2001. “An individual may tell any story he wishes or knows, but a widely told and known narrative — folklore — is under the constant pressure of communal memory, still fallible but with an internal mechanism of constancy and accuracy the popular or high culture story can never enjoy.”

He treasured the history of the hardscrabble immigrants who had moved to the state after the Civil War, including his grandparents, ethnic Germans whose own ancestors had been resettled by Catherine the Great to the lower Volga region of Russia. People like them came to Nebraska, built houses out of sod and eked a life out of the state’s rich soil.

But he also recognized that white settlers had merely been guests of the Pawnee, Omaha and Oglala, whom they pushed aside. He took the Pawnees’ side against the Nebraska State Historical Society in their demands that the government repatriate Native American remains, a battle they ultimately won.

And when none of his grown children expressed interest in returning home, he and his wife deeded their 60-acre property to the Pawnee Nation in exchange for a lifelong tenancy — an act of generosity that inspired other nearby white landowners to do the same. The Pawnee made him an honorary member, giving him the name White Wolf. So did the Omaha, who called him Big Buffalo Chief, and the Oglala, who called him His Medicine is Contrary.

Roger Lee Welsch was born on in Lincoln, Neb. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1958 and a master’s degree in 1960, both from the University of Nebraska, and both in German, and later studied folklore at the University of Colorado and Indiana University.

Mr. Welsch taught German at Dana College, in Blair, Neb., and Nebraska Wesleyan University before going to the University of Nebraska in 1973. A few years later, he bought a rundown farmhouse outside Dannebrog and spent increasing amounts of time there, repairing the house and learning the basics of farm life, including tractor repair.

His practical interest in tractors, especially antiques, became a fixation in his writing and speaking, and for years he maintained a popular website full of geeky farm-implement arcana. In 1988, The New York Times wrote that Mr. Welsch “is to tractor restoration, and the Allis-Chalmers in particular, what Thoreau was to the lakeside cabin.”

He wrote more than 40 books about love, tractors, dogs and women, including “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) — a book as funny as its title is droll.

He collected stories and wrote his own, often basing them in a fictional town, Centralia, and peopling his tales with characters like Lunchbox, Co-op George, Martin Rosewater and Uncle Grover Bass.

Frustrated with the herbicidal tendencies of the county weed control board, he won a seat on it in 1974 with a pro-weed platform and the motto “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.” The story drew national attention, including that of Mr. Kuralt, who made it the subject of their first interview, over a meal of 12 local weeds.

A decade later, Mr. Welsch was back in the news, this time as the founder of the Liars Hall of Fame.

Politicians, he said, were ineligible for induction. “We have a rule that politicians can’t participate, only amateurs,” he told a reporter in 1988.

That year he gave his old friend Dick Cavett, the TV host and Nebraska native, a “public service” award. Mr. Cavett traveled to Dannebrog to receive it, telling the gathered liars — and some reporters — “All my life I’ve dreamed of being here. Whoops!”

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.”

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