Alex of Yore: Bob Welsh – One of the Originals

In the photograph of the original staff of Alexander Road High School, is the visage of the lanky teacher of Geography, Bob Welsh in the front row. Bob never demanded respect from his pupils but rather he earned it. In many ways Bob was a more progressive teacher and the antithesis of certain senior teachers at the time. By evoking an interest in the subject, pupils responded in a like manner enabling Bob to teach with a light touch seldom if ever submitted the pupils to tirades of screaming.   

That is my enduring memory of Bob Welsh, a kind and gentle man, never given to histrionics.

Main picture: Alex staff members in 1956 [front row 2nd from left]

When Bob Welsh was born on the 23rd December 1930 at Flagstaff in the Transkei, one has to wonder where and how he was actually born. Even today some 90 odd years later, there are scant medical facilities in areas as remote as this. His mother was a primary school teacher at the local primary school whereas his father worked as an agricultural advisor in the Department of Native Affairs rising to Chief Agricultural Officer in Umtata shortly before his retirement.

With a dearth of good schools, Bob was enrolled in the Grey High School in Port Elizabeth as a boarder where he matriculated in 1947. After completing his secondary education in Port Elizabeth, Bob enrolled at the Natal University in Pietermaritzburg where he obtained a B.A., B. ED, majoring in Geography.

Appointment as a teacher at Alex

With his degree under his belt, in January 1956 Bob joined the nascent school on the hill in Newton Park, eponymously called Alexander Road where he taught history and geography. With a shortage of classrooms, shops in 7th Avenue were hired to cater for the overflow. As it was impossible to move pupils between class as was the norm, the pupils remained permanently in their classes and the teachers moved. This greatly inconvenienced the teachers as they were compelled to drive constantly between the school in Alexander Road and the shops in 7th Avenue. Schedules were constantly adjusted to reduce the amount of travelling between locations. Nevertheless, these were trying times for all concerned.

New challenges and later life

In 1975 Bob was appointed as Principal of the Chinese High School.

In 1968, Bob was awarded a Travelling Fellowship from the Council for English Education to teach in England where he taught at the Chiswick Grammar School in London for six months.

At the age of 60 in 1991, Bob took retirement. As a suitable replacement could not be found, Bob was requested extend his employment by six months.

Bob did not relinquish all his connections to geography as he joined the University of Port Elizabeth as a part-time lecturer in the Methods of Geography.

A Measure of the Man

Bob displayed an intense interest in his pupils, also having an astonishing memory of all of them. Years after they had left school, if he happened to meet one of them, he would enquire after their career and even proceeded to check up on their classmates. Remarkably, he could even remember where they sat in class.

Fay, his wife, probably even found him exasperating when they were at Alex’s staff parties. Bob was a very energetic dancer who would always join in the fun. Being from a ballroom dancing tradition, she was not as exuberant and uninhibited but would rather marvel at his antics.        

Bob was a sports addict and watched all manner of sports but they one which he personally coached and played was tennis. When competing against other schools, the family’s station wagon served as the team’s transport. Fortunately, it was John Summerton who would volunteer to “sit” in the back.

Bob tried his hand at other sports such as rugby and cricket and once played hockey with Jannie Fourie in memory of previous pupils. The Alex tennis courts were built during his tenure and he was responsible for the hedge being planted around them. What was the reason one may ask? Well it was prosaic. In those early days, these bushes served as a barrier against the wind on the dusty hill-top. Now we know.

Naturally schooling also has its fair share of hilarious moments. Fay Welsh recalls an occasion when in the middle of a lesson, one of the girls shrieked loudly that she had a rain spider on her. Lessons are aborted and all eyes were on the victim. Having watched his son nonchalantly letting spiders climb over him, Bob stepped in as a knight in shiny armour to rescue the distraught pupil from her tormentor. As Bob picked it up, the spider bit him. Without displaying the anguish and terror that embroiled him, he flicked the spider off him and out of the window. The bite did however result in a nasty welt on his arm.  

Later life

Comments by Robert Welsh, Bob’s son: I don’t really have any anecdotes to add, but as someone who was a teacher for 40 years, I think I am well qualified to comment on my father’s incredible level of commitment to his career and his knowledge of his pupils, both of which always impressed me enormously. Similarly, he was always prepared to give unhesitatingly of his time in helping me or my friends in any of our ventures. He helped me for hours building a yacht and countless canoes as well as droving thousands of kilometres to swimming galas and canoe races while I was a schoolboy. Soon after he retired, a partner and I started a business building canoes and surf skis, and there too he gave hours of his time, unpaid, keeping our books, helping in the office and driving all over Port Elizabeth collecting materials.

After suffering from heart problems, Bob passed away on Sunday 6th January 2008.

Tributes by former pupils

Trevor Hastie: I was a huge fan of Bob Welsh, and he was certainly my best ever school teacher. He taught us concepts, and encouraged us to think. In 2005 I visited him and his wife in PE on a return visit to SA, after not seeing him for a very long time. Jannie was visiting as well, and we had a very nice tea session. Bob was still a keen tennis player at 75 years.

Harry Pike: It is great to see that my youthful perceptions of Mr. Welsh’s many attributes are so fittingly reflected by the many accolades accorded him. As mentioned in an earlier note, he certainly left a strong and most positive impression on me.

Anileen Gray [nee Begbie]. I was very fond of Mr. Welsh as well. Every time I visited PE I vowed to visit him, but never could pluck up the courage. Eventually on one trip back home something drove me to contact him. Sadly Mrs Welsh informed me that Mr. Welsh was in hospital after a bad fall in the garden that damaged his kidneys. She very much wanted me to visit when he got out of hospital. I am forever thankful that I did that as he passed away shortly after my visit. We had a wonderful afternoon chatting about school and sharing memories. I loved Mr. Welsh and he was a true role model for me in my teaching career. In fact I created a book prize in his honor in my last school. 

Anne Botha [nee Fick]:

 As for our popular and much-loved Bob Welsh,  I have often referred to him as an example of great teaching and “teacherhood”. The first lesson I recall that made a lasting impression on me was one day in std 6 or 7 he read an historical account and then read about the same event from a different book and perspective.  Anyone else remember that? It was my first recognition  of how important context and perspective and experience is in interpreting events . Does anyone else remember lessons on the Coriolis effect …not sure why that is memorable? And he had such a sense of fun. When the first hockey team played against the staff, he stopped a committed attack by Carol Addison by picking her up, tucking her under his arm and dribbling the ball through.. … Anileen that is such a thoughtful tribute to have a prize in his honour…did his family know?

Phillip Williams: So true Trevor & my favourite too. Bob always made Geography interesting, often with the slides that he took of his travels, especially around the USA. 

Sharon Rhode [Edelson]: Bobby Welsh was also a firm favourite of mine and left an indelible impression on me. His teaching methods surpassed those of any of other teachers, he had a way of commanding respect without really trying and I remembered everything he told us in class so well that studying for exams became virtually unnecessary. 


Special thanks to:

Fay Welsh – Bob’s wife

Robert Welsh – Bob’s son

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