Sports and humanities seem an unlikely combination, but when the governor appointed Alabama Sports Hall of Fame Chairman Edgar Welden to the Alabama Humanities Board of Directors in 2002, the match became an ideal fit.
Appointed and reappointed to various terms, Welden used his sports and business acumen along with his generosity to become a leader on the board, and in turn, humanities influenced him to publish a series of books, help students achieve and reward top teachers with scholarships for their classroom.
“I was not a normal prospect for the board,” Welden recalled. “Outside of my real estate business, most of my volunteer work has been in sports-related activities.” But he found a way to bring the two together. He serves as chairman of the Bryant Jordan Scholarship, which has awarded millions of dollars to deserving student athletes statewide to further their education. He founded the Birmingham Athletic Partnership in the City of Birmingham to ensure sports, band and cheerleading in city schools did not fall victim to budget cuts.
And because he was on the humanities board, he said he was influenced to continue his interest in the writing and publishing process. One such venture was when his publishing company, Will Publishing (which is named after his first grandchild) published Hearts of Dixie: 50 Alabamians and the State They Called Home. Former AHF Board Chair Jim Noles, he said, shouldered most of the writing responsibilities and did an admirable job.
A portion of the proceeds went to the Jenice Riley Memorial Scholarships he founded in 2003, which is given each year to deserving teachers to enhance their classroom learning experience. The $1,000 scholarships are awarded by AHF in memory of the daughter of former Gov. Bob and First Lady Patsy Riley.
The former head of Alabama Development Office and Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Welden was active in Alabama politics over the years. He worked on Riley’s campaign for governor and got to know the whole family, he said. “I was especially fond of Jenice Riley. She loved teaching, and I wanted to honor her dedication to teaching.” Tragically, she died of cancer at the young age of 33 when her father was beginning his first campaign for governor.
Welden is proud of the scholarship, which is open to K-8 teachers for civics and social studies projects for their students. “It helps students understand history and the value of public service and civic duty and encourages them to get involved in civic service,” he said.
But his work with humanities and students did not stop there. Will Publishing later partnered with Tom and Jan Bailey of Seacoast Publishing to produce a series of paperback books for fourth-grade students in public schools based on the biographies of famous Alabamians. The series of 45 books is called Alabama Roots. “They expose them to Alabama history,” Welden said, citing an impressive list of native sons and daughters like Julia Tutwiler, Jesse Owens, Joe Lewis, Hank Aaron, Tallulah Bankhead, Harper Lee and Jennifer Chandler, who are among the subjects of the books.
They are written on a level geared toward elementary school children to help them learn through these inspiring stories about famous Alabamians. “I’m proud of that, and it was motivated and inspired by the humanities,” Welden said.
Throughout his tenure on the AHF Board, he has continued to make an impact. He led fundraising opportunities, helping secure governmental funding for AHF projects like Encyclopedia of Alabama and Making Alabama. A Bicentennial Traveling Exhibit, which toured all 67 counties in the state to celebrate 200 years of statehood.
Welden took a tour of his own around the state, again teaming sports and humanities. He traveled to all 67 county seats where he visited all of the courthouses and played tennis in every county. “I wanted to inject sports into humanities, so while I was in each county, I took the opportunity to promote both the AHF and ASHOF. The AHF had a packet of information for a statewide project related to Alabama food traditions, and they were trying to get every county to participate. I took the packet to the local newspapers in every county and encouraged them to run a story on it.”
In another instance, he took a year off from business and traveled to all 50 states, attended 250 different sporting events for 35 different sports. It was the centerpiece of his book, TIME OUT! A Sports Fan’s Dream Year. As a part of this trip, he also visited every state capitol building and learned the history of each state.
As he approaches the end of his final term with Alabama Humanities when he retires from it in December, he talked of the many positive experiences he has had in serving over the years, melding his passion for sports and humanities. He has received AHF’s highest honor, the Alabama Humanities Award, forerunner to Alabama Humanities Fellow, and he has demonstrated leadership in multiple terms serving on the board. “I am proud to have been part of the organization,” he said. “I want to thank all of the board members and AHF staff that I have had the privilege of serving with and who have taught and influenced me so much about the humanities.”
“I have been honored to serve with Edgar as a board member and board chair and now as interim director,” said retired Judge John Rochester. “Over the years, AHF has benefitted greatly from his knowledge, expertise and his deep devotion to the humanities.”