Gerry Welch has been mayor of Webster Groves for 15 years. However, after she completed a four-year term on the Webster Groves City Council in 1998, prior to her time as mayor, she said she wanted nothing more than to run from politics.
“We had a lot of turmoil here, lots of turmoil in Webster (Groves),” Welch said. “I didn’t want anything to do with this anymore, and then I got talked into running for mayor by a lot of folks.”
Welch recalls feeling ‘scared to death’ at the idea of campaigning. She said she never intended to live a political life. She tests as a high I, or introvert, on the Myers-Briggs personality test, so initially the loss of privacy that resulted from serving in public office was one of the hardest adjustments for her to make.
“It was hard to be so exposed to the public. You do get a little more used to it and probably a little less concerned,” Welch said. “I sometimes will go to the grocery store with a sort of bad looking T-shirt on, which I would have never done 10 years ago.”
Welch said that over the years she has also grown far more comfortable with public speaking.
“The first time I had to give a big speech about Webster Groves I thought I was going to die,” Welch said. “Now, anytime I have to speak about something I have to think a lot about what I’m going to say…but I don’t have those horrible, horrible feelings anymore.”
Active community member Lee Falk witnessed Welch’s timidness first hand. A communications consultant by profession, Falk helped Welch with her political campaign for mayor.
“I work on issues as opposed to individual campaigns, but Gerry was an exception because I felt so strongly about her credibility and integrity and her ability to lead Webster Groves,” Falk said.
Falk said her friendship with Welch has continued to grow over the years and in that time she has seen Welch evolve in her role as mayor.
“I think she trusts her own ability and recognizes that the community trusts her ability and her instincts whether she’s dealing with an economic issue or a parks issue or a development issue,” Falk said. “She’s one person who has great continuity in Webster Groves throughout all of that.”
Moving to Webster Groves
Welch grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania where she received her bachelor’s degree in economics from Seton Hill University. She went on to get her master’s in economics at Marquette University (Wis.) where she met her husband, Patrick. The couple moved to Webster Groves in the 70s when Patrick Welch took a job at St. Louis University.
“There was something about the small town in a big city that was appealing back then in the 70s. Housing was really cheap. We bought a house and we had $60 to our name. It was falling apart, we were so stupid about it, we were really dumb,” Welch laughed. “We thought all we needed to do was buy some paint. Some real classic messes we got ourselves in.”
Welch eventually took a position at St. Louis Community College—Meramec. While there, she taught, worked in administration and staff development and served as a department chair. She said she applies skills she picked up when she worked at Meramec to her work as mayor.
“(I did) things that are so useful to me here as mayor. You wouldn’t believe how useful,” Welch said. “Being department chair, working with students, the schedule, you know, is a little slow in colleges and we’re slow in the city. There’s such a match between college life and local government life. It’s incredible.”
Welch greatly enjoys writing. During her time at Meramec, she co-wrote an economics textbook, “Economics Theory and Practice,” with her husband. At the time she had been teaching a one semester course in economics and complained of a lack of quality textbooks.
“The textbook representative said to me, ‘well then you ought to write one,’ and I said ‘well I think I will,’” Welch said.
“Economics Theory and Practice,” released its 10th edition in December. Welch laughed as she said there is another thing very few people know about her; she used to be a church organist.
“I’d get hired to play and sing (at) funerals, but no one ever hired me for a wedding. They must not have cared about the funerals. I could sing (at) those Latin funerals, but nobody wanted me at their wedding. I look back and I just have to laugh,” Welch said. “So now you know, now you have something secret.”
The perks of being mayor
Welch said she has gotten to do many things as mayor that she never thought she would.
“One of the things that I really enjoy is being with the kids,” Welch said. “I got invited to have yogurt with a Girl Scout troop. Now, that’s great fun.”
Falk praised Welch for her caring disposition and said the pleasure the mayor gets from being around the citizens of the community is evident in her daily actions.
“She would just as soon be at Bristol Elementary School shaking hands with the 5th graders as they graduate from grade school as she would chairing a municipal league meeting,” Falk said.
Another point of great interest to Welch has been her involvement in the Missouri Municipal League, an organization for the towns, cities, and municipalities of the entire state. Three years ago, Welch served as president of the league where she met people from all over Missouri.
“I feel now like I have colleagues in all the corners of the state,” Welch said.
Webster Groves growth
Webster Groves has undergone some significant changes during Welch’s time as mayor, including a change in appearance.
“When I became mayor in 1998, we had two pots of flowers in front of City Hall in two crumbled old pots, and the mums were planted by the kids next door to me, and I had to water them because we didn’t have anyone who would water flowers,” Welch said. “If you take a look at the community today, we’ve done a lot with our parks and green spaces and landscaping, and the look has just dramatically changed, and we all know now how something looks makes people feel differently.”
Welch said she is also proud that Webster Groves not only survived the economic recession of recent years but that it has managed to grow despite the circumstances.
Earlier this year, Webster Groves was recognized as Missouri’s Creative Community for 2013.
“The Creative Community Award is just fabulous because we’re also beginning to recognize that the arts are a huge part of our life as well as our economic base,” Welch said. “We have come through this recession preserving our reserves and actually adding to them and part of that is our city manager (Steven J. Wylie) who acts like every nickel comes out of his pocket, and he can’t stand to spend it, so he’s been wonderful.”
Additionally, Falk credits Webster Groves’ financial success to Welch’s wealth of economic knowledge and capacity to choose credible people to work beside her.
“You see a lot of communities of our size that have really struggled financially through the recession and this isn’t one of them,” Falk said. “That’s not just Gerry herself but her recognizing that ability in other people, so the paid staff is really sharp and reflects those values in our community.”
Falk helped Welch endorse her passion for collaboration as part of her initial campaign for mayor.
“(We promoted) her integrity and her background as an economist and her ability to work with all kinds of people on all sides of an issue,” Falk said. “She’s really good at bringing people together and helping facilitate working through issues. And actually that’s something I’ve learned from her — that you don’t reach resolution and compromise in any situation without having people sitting around the table talking in a certain way.”
Welch is concluding her fourth term as mayor. She laughed as she explained her conclusion that ‘to be mayor you have to be a little bit crazy.’
“You have to be crazy because life is a little bit unpredictable when you are in public office,” Welch said. “You know, one day you’re dealing with a possible development, a huge issue, a Webster Groves-Webster University issue, and then your next phone call is somebody’s dog is barking or trash didn’t get picked up, and so your mind gets kind of scattered.”
Welch has yet to decide whether she will run again.
“I think as long as you can see the rewards of your time and some positive things are happening, you see that you can actually play a role in making good things happen,” Welch said. “You want to be a part of that.”