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Mourners take familiar route to graveside

BISHOPVILLE, S.C. --- Friends of Luther Welsh followed a caravan up Interstate 20 on Saturday, many tracing the route they had followed just a week earlier.

The procession traveled from the pines and pastures of Luther Welsh's adopted Georgia to the fields of corn that surround Welsh's hometown.

Welsh, 79, Thomson High School's longtime football coach, died July 14 in an Augusta hospital. The coach's wife, Anne, 69, had died just one Thursday earlier.

Mount Zion Presbyterian Church and cemetery was the caravan's destination.

Barely a mile away, the farm home that the Welshes had chosen for their retirement stood empty, two rocking chairs stood idle on its wooden porch, and much of its manicured lawn escaped the July sun in the shade of a magnolia tree.

The Rev. Richard Smith delivered the eulogy. Smith is pastor of Hope Point Church in Spartanburg, S.C. His wife, Lisa, is the daughter of Luther Welsh's brother Josey.

"Despite all his accomplishments, Luther was uncomfortable with the praise he received for his coaching success," Smith said. "He didn't seek fame. But because of the way he lived, fame came looking for him. But the fanfare never changed him. He was more humble the day he stepped off the field than the day he stepped on it."

Smith shared a message of the man behind the coach's uniform. He told of Welsh's brave attitude just days earlier, at the farm, after Anne Welsh's funeral. Smith drew parallels in Scripture.

Asked after the service to summarize his message, Smith said Welsh's full legacy won't be known for a long time, perhaps generations. "Because his players will tell the stories of his service to their own children, and they'll tell these stories to their children," he said.

Thomson athletic faithful Ralph Starling and John Barnett, who had remembered Welsh from another stage earlier Saturday, visited on the walk that separates the church steps from the cemetery. Barnett's SUV then headed toward the Welsh farm.

Welsh's college roommate, Elwin Watt, talked about sharing quarters above the cafeteria at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

Thomson funeral director Keith Beggs continued his duties confidently, while admitting his heart was touched by the Welsh family's loss.

Longtime Welsh assistant Curtis Williams stared into the distance as he talked about losing a friend.

The crowd gradually separated. Many family members retired to the dining hall behind the church. Welsh's brothers Josey and Thomas looked up to greet yet another unfamiliar face and to shake yet another new hand.

The grave workers finished their labor. When told they had just rendered service to the fourth-winningest coach in Georgia high school history, one worker nodded and quietly replied "Is that right?"

Barnett's black SUV headed back west on English Road, back toward St. Charles Road and Bishopville and I-20, back toward Thomson, where Barnett had assisted Welsh through 19 seasons.

The farmhouse where the Welshes would have retired faced east, over a gravel drive, between rows of corn, toward a mailbox that held a single wreath. That arrangement announced the black-and-gold pride of the Thomson Bulldog.

Web posted on Thursday, July 21, 2011

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