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

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

These tales from the heart – big, small, people, places, still true but perhaps just a little embellished for flavor – have stemmed from folklorist, author and storyteller Roger Welsch for decades, earning him acclaim as a poet from the plains of his native Nebraska. . He could craft odes to the sounds, smells and scratchy knuckles of tractor restoration, or climb a prairie hill on a cold late December day and ponder morality and time in his suspender overalls, his scruffy hair and ruffled by the wind.

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

It’s a good thread in its own right about how Mr Welsch – who died on September 30 aged 85 at his home near Dannebrog, Neb. the town square has three sides.

He was giving a speech at the West Point, Neb., Chamber of Commerce in 1988. He had just resigned as a tenured professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and hoped to support his family with a weekly column in local newspapers. and a few paid lectures, or at least grab a free lunch once in a while.

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

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Mr. Welsch and Kuralt first made contact in the early 1970s when Mr. Welsch, upset about herbicides that were killing 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 lectured at West Point, he said, Kuralt offered him a regular gig on the show with the bi-weekly “Postcards” series, which ended up churning out nearly 200 episodes over 12 years. It became a great game. Kuralt earned the Americana which 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 don’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 it.”

The small-town chronicler was just one aspect of Mr. Welsch’s lifelong study of the Great Plains. For him, the area was a palimpsest with overlays of prehistoric oceans, ancient bison and elk herds, Indigenous cultures and the memory of how they suffered under white settlers – and also how the Europeans, like his ethnic German ancestors, faced their own miseries while carving out lives in thatched-roof houses that jutted just above the prairie grass.

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

Mr. Welsch’s literary output has been impressive: more than 40 books that included wit and wisdom skillfully framed around his love of vintage tractors in “All I Know About Women I Have Learned From My Tractor” (2002) and “Busted Tractors and Rusty Knuckles: Norwegian Torque Wrench Techniques and Other Tractor Restoration Tricks” (1997).

His 1990 book “It’s Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See It From Here” recounts his “rural upbringing” after leaving his professorship at Lincoln and his deep appreciation of Native American spirituality.

He helped win a fight to return skeletal remains and artifacts to Native tribes in the 1980s. He and his wife later struck a deal to bequeath 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 lands,” he told Tulsa World, “but rather we are guests on their lands.”

Roger Lee Welsch was born in Lincoln on November 6, 1936, and he later wrote about his upbringing in “Why I’m an Only Child and Other Mildly Wicked Plains Folk Tales” (2016).

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

His folklore and anthropology class was among the most popular in the university as his television fame grew. “To many Americans, you are ‘that guy in the overalls from Nebraska’ who dispenses wisdom to Charles Kuralt,” wrote Bill Clinton in 1993 while campaigning for the presidency. “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, Welsch described dialysis treatments as his kidney disease progressed. Several days before his death, he said he had planned hospice care at home.

His first marriage, to Marilyn Henry, ended in divorce. Besides 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.

In the only place to drink in Dannebrog, known to locals as simply “the bar”, he founded the Ironic Liars Hall of Fame, dedicated to tales, reinforced narratives and stories in which “lies tell the truth ,” said his daughter Antonia Politicians were not allowed.

In the nearby town of Boelus, Neb., Mr. Welsch threw a party at the local tavern every holiday for “drunks, wrecks and anyone nobody likes.”

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

“Your shine never fades,” he said. “You are always full of light.”

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