Alice Mendenhall Welsh, a Chapel Hill activist and bon vivant, passed away on December 23, 2013 after a short illness and diminishing health over the last few years. Her husband, George, a UNC-CH psychology professor, preceded her in 1990. They were married in 1946 and shared a vibrant life together for 44 years, including many trips to Italy where they had made friends when George had a Fulbright.
Alice Welsh was born August 30, 1920 near New Castle, Indiana to Lola Alice Wood Mendenhall and Horace Warner Mendenhall. The family has proud Quaker roots in Guilford County, North Carolina. Alice received a B.A. from Ball State University and an M.A. from Louisiana State University. She did additional graduate work in speech at the University of Minnesota and in art history and foreign language at the University of California, Berkeley, and also worked for a period of time in Biloxi, Mississippi as a speech therapist before marrying George. The year of her marriage she published an article, Linguistic Problems of Deafened Veterans Returning to the Universities in The Quarterly Journal of Speech.
In 1953 she and George moved to Chapel Hill where she rapidly involved herself in scores of civic and University activities. Between 1962 and 1966 she was registrar and publicity writer for the Ackland Art Center. Soon thereafter she served on the Chapel Hill Appearance Commission and the Chapel Hill Planning Board. In 1970, she was appointed and subsequently was elected to the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen [now called Town Council], becoming the first woman ever to serve on the Board. As a member, she led initiatives to create or expand open space, parks, and recreation facilities as well as bicycle paths and greenways. Alice was instrumental in persuading property owners to voluntarily give the Town easements along Bolin Creek between Airport Road and Franklin Street which are now part of the Bolin Creek Greenway; and with others she successfully pursued obtaining land in the property now developed as Cedar Falls Park and for the Charles Jones Park, the Ephesus Road Park, and the Emily Braswell Perry Park. Programs in recycling and civil rights also drew her interest and leadership. In 1971, Alice almost single-handedly prevented the former North Carolina National Bank from erecting a five-story building on Franklin Street by walking in front of the proposed site with a helium balloon attached to a five-story high cord. It is believed that this was the first occasion in the country when this approach was used to bring attention to the height of a proposed building.
Though she retired from the Board in 1975, Alice continued to serve the community. She was a member of the North Carolina Energy Policy Council, the Board of Directors for the American Dance Festival, and the North Carolina Board of Ethics. In 1983, she was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Museum of Art and to the Board of Directors of the University Women's Club. In 1984 Alice served on the Growth Management Task Force appointed by the Chapel Hill Town Council.
After her tenure as Alderwoman, Alice continued to serve by appointment on local and state boards and commissions. Just a few of these activities include the Chapel Hill Concert Series, the North Carolina Symphony, the State Art Society, the Chapel Hill Preservation Society, the Conservation Council of North Carolina, Triangle Hospice, Common Cause, The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, the Save West House Coalition, and the Democratic Party. Alice was among the core group of people who founded the PlayMakers Ball, a Chapel Hill “institution” which in 2013 celebrated its twenty-fifth year. She also donated a small collection of 19th and 20th century prints and lithographs to Duke University’s Nasher Museum.
Alicelife-long student, gourmet cook, activist, traveler, art collector, and hostesswas honored by the Town of Chapel Hill in 1995 for her service to the community, especially the development of the greenway system and other parks and recreation properties, when the first phase of the Bolin Creek Greenway was dedicated to her. In 1997 the town erected a stone in her honor at the west end of the Bolin Creek Greenway near the Chapel Hill Police Station. In 2011 she was honored, once again, by being designated a Chapel Hill Treasure by the Chapel Hill Historical Society.
In 1992, after her husband’s death, Alice and George’s enduring engagement with Town and Gown led friends to establish in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences the Dr. George and Alice Welsh Term Professorship. The three-year professorship provides a salary stipend and a research fund for books, equipment, travel, research assistance, or other expenses.
In 2006, Alice established the Milly S. Barranger Distinguished Professorship in Dramatic Art in recognition of her fondness for her dear friend Milly Barranger, former dramatic art department chair and producing director of PlayMakers Repertory Theater. For many years, Alice lived within walking distance of PlayMakers and rarely missed a play. “I’ve always been interested in theater, even when I was very little,” Alice said at that time, “When you’re in Chapel Hill, you start to meet people interested in the arts.” Alice and George’s generosity also made possible the George and Alice Welsh Acting Studio in the Center for Dramatic Art.
Alice and George are remembered for their contributions to historic architecture in Chapel Hill: their 1955 house on Tenney Circle designed by Jim Webb and California Modernist architect Cliff May, their 1970 Modernist house on Friday Lane designed by Jon Condoret, and Alice’s sensitive expansion of the Woolen-Roberts-Welsh House (ca. 1935) on Hooper Lane. A quote from Alice in the August 1967 Chapel Hill Weekly still rings true today: “People enjoy moving through Chapel Hill and part of the reason is varietyopen green spaces, charming homes, winding streets and the campus which is the core of the town, linked of course to the business district. There are islands [that form] their own character, reflecting always the individuality of the dwellers. The mixture is satisfying…the serenity, the trees, shrubbery and grass produce the virtues of Chapel Hill. The community and campus need a variety of forms representing both present and past.”
Alice’s sweet smile will never be forgotten, nor will her spirited, and sometimes feisty, personality along with her drive to agitate and advocate for progress and change. Her friends remember fondly George’s attempts to calm Alice with a loud, “Oh Alice!” or “Shut up, Mort!” to which her response was invariably spirited and usually unprintable. She famously summed up the good times she and George shared with their many friends when she proudly if too humbly, declared, "We eat, we drink, we talk, that’s what we do!” Clearly, they all did much more, and they sure had fun doing it. It is fitting that Alice left this world at Christmas. Alice and George’s friends will always remember the annual Christmas dinner which gathered many of their circle in the warmth of the Welsh home.
Alice’s surviving friends are grateful to Alice’s caregivers at Durham’s Hillcrest Convalescent Center since 2011, to her doctors and nurses at Duke Medical Center for the superb care and attention they gave to her during her last two days, to Jane McNeer and Julia Nelson for their friendship and care early in Alice’s dementia, and to Stanley Finch and his partner Jeffery Beam for their friendship, guardianship, and constant care during the last years of her life.
A memorial service will be held at a later date this winter. Alice’s last gift to her beloved University is the creation of an endowment for an undergraduate scholarship at UNC. It is hoped that people wishing to honor her memory will contribute to the Alice and George Welsh Undergraduate Endowed Scholarship Fund in the Arts and Humanities when the Endowment becomes public.