Editor’s Note: Dana Merryday wrote this tribute story through interviews with friends and family of the late William “Bill” Welt.
COTTAGE GROVE – William “Bill” Welt was a worker. He liked to work hard, had a tremendous amount of pure grit, and really thrived when he had a lot of irons in the fire. He put in at least six days a week up until the day he came home last February, relaxed in his favorite chair, and drifted away peacefully, at age 84.
Welt came from the “old school” – youngest of seven children of a Roseburg family, where he was known as “Willie.” He experienced the deprivations of the Depression and World War II first-hand. He helped add to the family’s dinner table by fishing for salmon and steelhead in the Umpqua, helping his mother in her huge vegetable garden, and picking berries for pies. He also harvested beans to buy his school clothes. Losing his mother, Rachel, when he was just 16 was a hard blow to him, but fortunately he had four older sisters who took him under their wing.
PHOTO PROVIDED – William J. Welt, with his dog and company truck. He ran multiple businesses in Lane County, all with a pup riding shotgun.
Even as a young lad, he was full of sass and moxie, saving his pennies to ante up in the family poker games after dinner, often emerging a winner. When he graduated from Roseburg High School in 1955, he enlisted in the Navy, like his brother Vernon, and ended up on the USS Floyd County.
Noticed for his neat handwriting and competent math skills, he was put in the important position of ship’s clerk. The clerk had many serious responsibilities – keeping accurate service records, managing leave, pay, processing orders, transfers and reams of other paperwork – all while being ready to jump when an order came down from the captain or other senior officers. On ship, Welt picked up many of the skills that served him well later in his life as a businessman. After his service, he courted an old high school classmate, Suzanne Fisher, while they were both working at Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company. They were married in 1959 and settled in Roseburg. A secret to their long and happy marriage was his complete devotion to Susie and the fact that he “always did what mom wanted” didn’t hurt.
They were true life partners. Along with home and family responsibilities, she was right beside him later in his businesses. For example, she would load up the car with the kids and heavy cases of oil until it was low to the ground, and deliver to local businesses, help in the office, and once, took a truck to California to pick up a load of antifreeze.
Some of the light went out of him when he lost her in 2012.
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In 1961, Welt took a position and worked his way quickly up to become manager at the Union 76 Distributor in Roseburg. The young couple bought a little house and started a family there. By 1968 he was ready to go out on his own. Although warned against it (because there were already several others in the oil business here) Bill still chose to buy what would become the William J. Welt Inc., a Union 76 Distributor, the first of many businesses he was to own in Cottage Grove, and beyond.
With a life savings of about $3,000 in a metal box (that is still used as the business cash till today), Welt took the plunge, but he was a risk taker all his life. Not blind wild risks; instead, cold, calculated ones, he also knew that you had to put the effort in to make things work.
“Business is always possible,” he loved saying. He really enjoyed being out of his comfort zone.
DANA MERRYDAY / THE CHRONICLE – Bill’s rainbow, sign of approval over the Welt & Welt Palmer Avenue facility.
In another gamble, Welt took on some customers with spotty financial history that no one else would touch. A very few times he got burned, but a mutual understanding between him and his customers generally ensured his trust was repaid. He often gave people their start, such as young loggers trying to go out on their own, by extending credit for fuel for the first crucial years. Sometimes when people would get behind on their account, it would involve a heart-to-heart talk on the bench outside the office, but things would always seem to work out in the end. He often helped the little guy and the down-and-out because he could relate, and it was the right thing to do.
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It was a family business from the start, a tradition that continues today. Stretching their small grubstake and with just two delivery trucks, Susie and Bill often worked seven days a week to keep things going.
At first, he slept in the small office here in Cottage Grove on a cot, heated in the winter by a potbelly stove because they still had their home in Roseburg and didn’t have a place in the Grove yet.
He saw an opportunity here and was determined to make it work. The story was told how after work he would knock on doors asking people for their business. When he left the office at the end of the day, he flipped the switch so the business phone would ring at his house.
And it often did. Miss Kitty, who ran the messenger service in town, made sure of it. She would track down Welt about emergencies along with calls from regular customers who had run out of fuel.
One night, he got a call from a young mother who had just moved to town. She had no oil for heat, and it was freezing. He delivered the oil and spent over three hours fixing the furnace and making sure it was working before he left, “no charge ma’am.” He knew where she would buy fuel from in the future, and no surprise she did! Relationships, one person at a time, was how Welt built his business. He talked to and learned about his customers and business associates, most becoming lifelong friends.
As hard as Bill and Susie worked, he was always first to admit that they couldn’t have done any of it without their dedicated employees. As his various businesses prospered, he eventually employed hundreds. Many employees stayed with him long term, some families having several generations working for him, and he gave the credit where due.
Bill, as a boss, was very accessible but was also hands on. The company, then as now, not being so big as not to know everybody that worked for them.
“Tiny but mighty” was how it was described. He expected a lot from the team and got it.
Once, he told an office clerk, Oliver, to take good enough directions for deliveries so that he could drive there himself. And out in the country – before GPS or even marked streets – that could be something like “Past the big oak and look for the yellow flagging tape, then turn…”
Bill came in one day, a bit steamed, when he had made a “dry run,” not able to find the customer to make the delivery. Welt had Oliver take the truck and try to find the place himself using his own directions; he returned later, unsuccessful as well. A teachable moment was had.
He was an early adherent to “Shop Local.” He hated going out of town to buy things if he could get it locally, even if it cost more. It was likely also that the local business owner was a customer of his too. He often ate lunch at the Bonanza Drive-Up across from his original business location on Highway 99. Observing how successful it was, he told the owner many times if she ever wanted to sell to let him know.
In 1980, Lillian Magnus told him she was ready to retire, and she mentioned that several other parties had expressed interest. He went to her house that very night, where they came to terms and he wrote out a contract for the sale.
The Bonanza, the first of many other businesses to come, opened with a trail of fire of sorts. The first day of operation under the Welts, the grill caught fire. Even though this learning curve failed to curb his enthusiasm for branching out, they expanded and added seating. The building had been a nursery, a taco place, as well as the original location of the Dairy Queen, but it had only a counter with 13 stools and walk-up service when they took it on.
It was the hot spot for high school kids as well as for many other locals. When McDonald’s and other fast foods arrived in town, they really put a dent in their business. By trying everything from offering breakfast to pies and evolving as ever, the Bonanza is still there, even being recognized in 2020 “America’s Best Burgers” in the Wall Street Journal.
Another local Welt enterprise came about when Bill Triska, the realtor who had sold them their house before becoming good friends, was retiring. Susie encouraged Bill to buy his office, often saying that “We need to invest in some real estate on Main Street.” She also was the one who suggested painting it a bright pink to make it stand out, and Cottage Grove Florist and Gifts was born …
Bill’s son Brad, fresh from graduating with a business degree from UO, and his sister Brenda found themselves thrown into the florist business which proved quite successful. After 12 years of working the holidays and dealing with moody brides they decided to switch to barbecue and milkshakes and the Pink House restaurant was on its way with Brenda at the helm.
A dizzying array of businesses followed through Welt and Welt and Lucky Five Inc., formed by Brad and his dad. Pacific Pride cardlock, the move to Palmer Avenue, a truck stop in Coburg, deliveries to Eugene and surrounding towns, Giant Burger in Springfield, providing racing fuel to the local Speedway and jet fuel for Life Flight. A few years ago, “Snowmageddon” caused them to add generators to Welt Elements, their stove business, always with an eye to the needs of their customers.
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Bill had an interesting world view, formed from an experience he had as a kid. He and his brothers heard the fishing report on the radio that day saying it was the worst conditions possible. They went anyway and made a record catch. From then on, he would say “turn off the news and live your life!”
Welt was an avid Oregon Duck fan who hated it when they lost, a lifelong member of the Elks, and a proud grandpa who cherished his granddaughter Harper. He loved animals and had a series of pups in the trucks with him. Longtime office mascots were the “Poodle Brothers.” He managed to fit some travels and fishing trips into his busy life.
At his memorial at Riverside Church a number of “Weltisms” were shared. A few are:
“It’s not a sale until the money is in the bank.”
“That didn’t look good; it looked like homemade soap.”
“What were you thinking?”
One story stuck with me. A man came into the office and wanted to see Welt. He was effusive in thanking him for stopping along the highway at Drain helping him when he was broken down. After he had left, Welt’s colleague asked him if he remembered doing that. He replied, “Naw, but I probably did.” That was the kind of man he was always helping people because that is what one should do.
On his way to his resting place at Sears Cemetery, Bill was honored with a funeral procession and police escort which made a special tour past all the local Welt businesses, a final review and acknowledgement of the mark he left on his town. With the US and Navy flags flapping on the hearse it was touching to the family to see him so honored.
Brad, wife Sally, and Brenda graciously took time to remember their dad and share stories with me recently. While their loss is still fresh, they expressed their gratitude for having such a strong role model in both of their parents who always had their backs. They were also grateful that they had the opportunity to see, be with or talk to him nearly every single day.
He was a strong presence in their lives and that lives on. “I feel like he is still riding along with me in the truck,” Brad said.
As we were leaving the office, there was a rainbow over the state-of-the-art, environmentally safe, above ground fuel tanks, which we took to be a message from Bill and Suzy in heaven saying things are going to be fine, turn off the news and get out there and do some good in this world.