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Peers remember their friend

Former Thomson High School Principal Bob Smith said he considered Luther Welsh a very close, personal friend.

Many shared Smith's sentiments in the hours following the coach's death July 14 at the age of 79.

Smith, who was principal from 1981 to 2000, now serves on the McDuffie County Board of Education. Smith said he first recommended the board hire Welsh in 1984.

Smith said in his first two years Welsh's teams recorded 29 wins, 0 losses, 1 tie and back-to-back state championships. "He made me look like a very intelligent man," Smith said.

"We got tied by Newton County in Covington," Smith said. "We played them away, and we just had a bad night."

"I considered him a good, moral Christian person, and he was an excellent football coach, the best I've ever seen at making adjustments during the course of a football game," Smith said.

"He was the kind of individual who would follow chastisement with encouragement, and he always left a kid with that supportive comment," Smith said. "He would come back three plays later and tell them they did well, now do it every time."

Smith said Welsh would help students with clothes or lunch money, and he also helped adults.

"Even kids who had graduated came back to him with major life decisions and he advised them well," Smith said. "They looked at him as a father figure.

"I was glad he came our way.

"He was a coach you'd be happy to have your son play for. He was hard-nosed, old-school. You might beat him, but you wouldn't outwork him the other four or five days a week.

"He loved the personal touch of getting out on a tractor and cutting his football field. That field was his place where he presented the kids who represent Thomson High School, and he wanted it to look great and he wanted his football teams to look good."

Just days earlier, Smith had attended the memorial service for the coach's wife, Anne Welsh, 69.

"They were both excellent ambassadors representing Thomson High School out in the community," Smith said.

Thomson Mayor Kenneth Usry said Welsh was a dedicated educator. "Our community has lost a great leader for our young people and a good example for the rest of us," Usry said.

"His work habits were absolutely super. He was absolutely a great leader and was admired by the young people of our community and will be missed very much."

Banker and athletic booster Ralph Starling said he has called Welsh a friend since the coach's first stint in Thomson began in 1984. He said while Welsh was working elsewhere, they talked on a weekly basis.

Of course Welsh will be remembered for his coaching, Starling said. His voice trailed. "I'm gonna remember him as one of the most wonderful ..."

"He's in heaven with Miss Anne now," Starling said. "And the lives that he touched. He did what God wanted him to do on this Earth. God sent him here to make a difference in young people's lives, and he did it well.

"There'll be a void in my heart for the rest of my life."

John Barnett, a family friend and a coaching assistant to Welsh for 19 years, made himself available to assist Welsh's family in the hours after the coach's death. The previous day, though, Barnett shared his grief over Welsh's deteriorating condition.

"It's grave," Barnett said. "I felt like I was telling him goodbye. I felt like it was time to quit fighting."

On the morning of Welsh's death, the Thomson High School football team huddled in prayer, as usual, with first-year coach Milan Turner.

"Remember everything he worked for and how he wants us to live this day," Turner told them.

New part-time coach Howard Ellis stood on the outer edge of the prayer ring and rested his hand on the shoulder of a player as the athletes bowed their heads.

Ellis, who was a defensive coordinator in Lincoln County for 29 years before joining the Thomson program part-time this season, said he never coached against Welsh in the regular season but met the Bulldogs in scrimmages.

"He was very hardworking," Ellis said. "One of the best coaches in the state of Georgia."

"He's no longer suffering," said Lee Hutto, who played for Welsh and served as an assistant on the 2002 state championship team. "He's with Miss Anne and the Lord. He's where he wants to be."

McDuffie County Schools Superintendent Jim LeBrun issued a statement within hours of the coach's death.

"Today, Thomson High School, McDuffie County and Georgia lost a true coaching legend with the passing of Coach Luther Welsh," LeBrun wrote.

"Coach Welsh was a fixture on the sidelines for many years. He made winning become a habit for the Bulldogs and their fans. He raised the performance bar to a new level with high expectations the norm.

"Coach Luther Welsh and his wife, Anne, will long be remembered for more than just bringing a winning tradition to Thomson High School. They will always be remembered for the positive influences they made in the lives of so many young people. Thousands of individuals were touched by this committed duo over the years. Coach Welsh and Anne will be deeply missed.

"Our thoughts and prayers remain with their family."

Chris Gay of Morris News Service contributed to this report.

Web posted on Thursday, July 21, 2011

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