Former superintendent Bobby Welch, who helped Coweta County Schools navigate desegregation, passed away from pancreatic cancer on July 24 at the age of 83.
Welch, an Alabama native, came to Coweta County in 1962 with his wife, Geraldine, and a bachelor’s degree in education from what is now Jacksonville State University. Over the next three years, Welch taught at Elm Street School and Newnan Junior High during the school year, and the couple spent summers in Auburn so Welch could work on his master’s degree.
With the requisite three years of teaching experience and his new advanced degree, Welch became eligible for his first principal job, and he took the helm of Arnco-Sargent Elementary School in 1965. He moved to Elm Street in 1966.
But major change was on the horizon. While some token integration had begun in 1965, Coweta was informed in 1967 that the so-called “freedom of choice” plan would not bring local schools into compliance with federal orders.
In January 1968, the merger of the Coweta County and city of Newnan systems was proposed, and voters approved it the following November. In July 1969, a U.S. district court ordered full integration for 96 Georgia school systems, including Coweta.
Welch served as principal of Western High School for one year after the school systems merged before being tapped by then-Superintendent Robert Lee to head a steering committee for desegregation in 1970.
He relocated to the school system’s central office so he could develop a personnel department and a plan to manage the process.
Every employee in the school system – including food service workers, custodial staff members, bus drivers, teachers and administrators – joined a committee of their choice. They joined 100 senior high school students to make decisions on everything from science programs to homecoming queens and class rings for the new, integrated schools and student bodies, and each committee presented a monthly report to the board of education.
“They had to sign off on everything we recommended,” Welch said in a 2018 interview with The Newnan Times-Herald. “I look back now and think how lucky we were to have a board put us out there on the line and follow through with it. They approved every one of our recommendations, and we had a very smooth desegregation.
“I’m sure we could have done some things better,” he added. “But that’s one thing we did that was amazing to me.”
Welch became assistant superintendent, then associate superintendent, and when Lee retired in 1986, Welch was named his successor. During his 33-year career with the Coweta County School System, he helped establish mentoring and after-school programs and other initiatives still in use today.
In 2006, the school system honored Welch, who retired from Coweta Schools in 1994, by naming a new elementary school for him, and Welch was a regular volunteer there for many years.
A longtime community activist and volunteer, Welch had been on the board of directors for the Rutledge Center – which partners with the community to provide services, support and job training for people with disabilities – for a decade when he accepted the position as executive director of the center.
He served in that role for 20 years before retiring a second time in June of 2018. Sandwiched between Coweta schools and Rutledge was a three-year consultancy, during which he helped establish 11 Georgia Youth Science and Technology Centers.
Welch held leadership positions in many community groups over the years. He was a member and officer of the Newnan Civitan Club, the Optimist Club and the White Oak Golden K Kiwanis Club, and a member of First United Methodist Church of Newnan.
He served as president of the Newnan-Coweta County Chamber of Commerce. He was selected Outstanding Young Man of the Year by the Newnan Jaycees in 1972 and Coweta County Citizen of the Year by the Newnan-Coweta County Chamber of Commerce in 2007.
Hundreds of mourners attended a service for Welch Monday at the Donald W. Nixon Centre for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Condolences may be expressed online at www.mckoon.com , and memorial contributions may be made to St. Jude's Children's Research Center, 501 St. Jude's Place, Memphis, TN 38105, or to the Rutledge Center, 61 Hospital Road, Newnan, GA 30263.