A Tough Man Who Knew How to Show His Love
On Feb. 4, 1998, William Howard “Whiskers” Welker (my father) told Mother to phone Aunt Jane (his sister), who lived just one block away. Dad quietly explained to Mom that he didn’t feel well, and Aunt Jane could help in dressing him for an unscheduled hospital visit.
Dad knew what was happening; his heart was giving out. To the very end, his mind was acutely perceptive. As Mom and Aunt Jane were dressing him, my dad told them “I feel very tired,” turned away, and departed from this world at the venerable age of 81.
Later, Mom tearfully lamented that Dad forgot to hug and kiss her before he went. I told her Dad’s “hug and kiss” was having her call Aunt Jane, so she wouldn’t be alone during his passing.
What a dignified death it was, but it only complemented the life of dignity Dad always lived. Let me proudly share his story with you.
Dad was one of eleven children, whose mother worked diligently as a housewife, and whose father was a stern coal miner. Grandmother Welker died when Dad was very young, so he never really experienced the devoted love of a mother.
Dad earned his nickname, “Whiskers,” as a result of being quite a street-fighter. If you called him “Whiskers” Welker, you were asking for an opportunity to challenge his manhood. From what my uncles have told me, Dad rarely had problems defending his manhood. He wrestled a little bit in high school, but most of Dad’s time was spent shining shoes and working at his father’s cigar stores. Grandpa Welker wisely invested his coal mining money in other business ventures. Granddad owned seven cigar stores when he finally retired.
As a young man, my father also had to take care of his older brother, Louie, who was crippled by an untimely sports accident. The duties Dad had to perform for my Uncle Louie before he died … only the strongest of men could understand. After graduating from high school, Dad opened the doors of his own cigar store, and later, a clothing store, with his “best friend” in life, Andy Ryan. Their very close, almost brotherly, relationship was quite unique for those times.
During the 1940s, Protestants and Catholics were deeply divided by their differences in religious beliefs. Dad was a German Presbyterian and Andy was an Irish Roman Catholic. Go figure.
Then Father fell in love with Dorothy Irene Bertolette, a proper, college-educated girl from the other side of the mining tracks. And she loved him right back with a passion that most people can only imagine. They produced two sons: Floyd and five years later, Billy. Dad taught his sons about life and sports, while Mom (along with Grandma Bertolette) instructed them regarding the value of books and the doctrines of Godly living.
Keep in mind, Dad and Mom did everything together as a team. During the joys and sorrows of their 56-year marriage, they kept the family institution strong by their partnership of love.
Now to Dad’s lessons in life and athletics that prepared Floyd and me for adult-living. Whatever my brother and I decided to try, Dad was always ready to assist us. Whether it was learning how to ride a bike, hit a baseball, drive a car, carry a football, throw a punch, swing a golf club, shoot a takedown or think for ourselves, Dad was there to guide us.
Our most memorable experiences regarding sports involved Dad’s nightly wrestling demonstrations on the blanketed living room floor. Floyd and I often practiced with him after our regular workouts at school. Dad had an uncanny understanding of “the basics” in the mat sport.
I smile when I think of two experiences Floyd and I shared with Dad during his after-dinner wrestling workouts. While still in high school, Floyd broke one of Mom’s vases as we were tumbling around. Dad valiantly took the blame, humbly apologizing to Mom, who forgave him … about a week later.
Then there was the time Floyd came home from Penn State. Dad thought a “new move” Floyd learned from legendary coach, Bill Koll, would not work … and he was going to prove his point. After about 10 seconds of living room wrestling, Dad (who was lying on his back) sheepishly looked up at Floyd and commented, “I guess it will work.”
At dual meets and tournaments, Dad never shouted or screamed at us or the referees. Instead, Dad cringed and writhed in the bleachers as though he was the one wrestling. Once Dad even fell off the edge of the bleachers in his quiet frenzy to help Floyd win. Dad lost the battle with gravity, but his son won and that was good enough for Dad.
But he went far beyond being a loving and totally dedicated sports father. Dad also cared for other parents’ offspring, and would never allow us to make excuses if we fell short of defeating our athletic adversaries. On the contrary, Dad taught us to look within ourselves to determine why our opponents prevailed on the playing field or mat.
As a student, Dad was average in the classroom, but he always admired those who were well-educated, especially Grandfather Bertolette. He made it clear to his sons that higher learning made for a fuller and more well-rounded person. Dad had the simple, universal wisdom of a contemporary Shakespeare.
Don’t get me wrong. Dad was as human as anyone. He was a very opinionated man, who had a temper. Dad wasn’t one to compromise and could be quite demanding; moreover, he was an austere disciplinarian. But if you understand the times in which he grew up, you would understand the man.
Dad had a very humanistic and compassionate side as well. On a one-to-one basis, he judged people by their actions, not their race, color, or creed. Those individuals, who had the privilege of knowing Dad, liked and respected him.
One personal anecdote. As a youth, I often watched TV with Dad. Whenever we viewed a sad movie, Dad would cry openly. He was truly a man of character.
Yes, Dad died with dignity, but more importantly, he left his entire family with many, many wonderful memories. The following is my fondest.
When I was about 12 years old, Dad had to admonish me for misbehaving during supper. He didn’t spank me. Instead, I received the “quiet treatment” from Dad, which hurt even more. Oh, what I would have given for a spanking. Sent to bed early that evening, I was extremely depressed and couldn’t get to sleep. Dad did not know I was awake when he quietly crept into my bedroom, kissed me on the forehead, and gently whispered “I love you, Billy.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
Guest columnist Welker, Ed.D., is a Wheeling resident who retired after serving as an educator from 1969-2009. He is a nationally recognized expert on wrestling who has published hundreds of articles and a book on the subject.