Father Tom: Spiritually enlightened, athletically versatile

Courtney Klaus, Editor-In-Chief

You can find Father Tom Welk sitting on the top row of bleachers at any given home basketball game, loudly and proudly showing the Jet Pride he’s held close for nearly 50 years.

While many on campus may think of Welk as a former campus chaplain, some may not be familiar with his extensive history with Newman Athletics. During his time with Newman, Welk not only served as the head coach for Jets tennis and softball, but also was an instructor for swimming and snow skiing.

“At small schools, especially at that time, we wore many hats,” he said.

Welk has been a Jet since he was hired in 1970 as the director of religious activities. Before long, he said, people began to recognize his athletic prowess.

He fell into tennis, he said, once word had gotten around that he was playing the sport regularly and winning tournaments. When Welk said he would “consider” coaching tennis, the athletic director challenged him to a match.

“Poor guy,” Welk said, “I don’t want to sound bragging or arrogant, but I think I beat him six-love, six-love, and he said ‘Hey, I think you know how to play tennis.’”

Swimming, Welk said, was a similar situation, where he was recruited to teach because word got out that he was a water safety instructor.

Softball was another sport Welk started instructing, and the name of one of his player’s might ring a bell - he coached Maureen Rohleder, current Associate Director of Athletics.

Rohleder said she originally came to Newman on a volleyball scholarship but was under the impression Newman would be getting a softball team by her sophomore year. When that didn’t happen, she said, Welk stepped up to start a new club softball team.

“He’s very competitive, very easy to learn from, and he made it fun. We were a good team,” Rohleder said.

Welk said his coaching philosophy mainly focused on helping the students grow within themselves and build relationships.

“It really allowed me to be involved with students … I was going to be more concerned about the students than wins or losses,” he said.

Welk also participated in a number of intramural sports with the students, including flag football, basketball, and baseball. To this day, he said, he believes his flag football team, The Sweatsocks, was leagues above its competitor, The Byrds.

But how exactly did Welk get roped into instructing snow skiing at a school in southern Kansas?

As it turns out, it was actually his brainchild.

In the ‘70s, Welk said, Newman used to require one hour of physical education credit, which was why he created a popular snow skiing class for students looking to meet the requirement.

“We went out to Colorado for a week, and I could take 36, and that’s what I always got. Some faculty who wanted to ski would go along and chaperone,” he said.

Welk said his appreciation for sports, particularly outdoor winter weather sports, comes from his upbringing in North Dakota, where he said “had a pretty good reputation” for his ice hockey skills.

As a child, Welk said, he and his friends used every opportunity they had to play outside, even if it meant using cow patties for a home plate in a game of baseball. Welk said he’s glad he had those experiences growing up because he learned how sports and outdoor activities can help form connections with people.

“In addition to the socialization,” he said, “it was also a good outlet for keeping fit.”

Welk remains an avid proponent of Newman Athletics.

In 2009, he received the Thomasine Stoecklein Spirit Award for his longtime support of the Jets, and to this day he goes to as many games as he can, sometimes with his old rival from his intramural days, a player for The Byrds.

Welk said he still believes physical education is important, and, though he is no longer the campus chaplain for Newman or an athletic coach, he still has a strong passion for teaching and a love of the university.

PHOTO: FATHER TOM WELK (far right) was the head men's tennis coach and also helped instruct softball, swimming, and snow skiing. Courtesy photo, Newman Archives 1978.