Sixty years ago, today, on Jan. 9, 1961, Vincennes’ own Matthew Empson Welsh was inaugurated as the 41st governor of Indiana. Welsh was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1912, but had made Vincennes his home since 1926, moving to the city that year from Brownstown in Jackson County, Indiana, with his parents and siblings.
The Democrat Welsh won the office, defeating Republican Crawford F. Parker in the November 1960 election. Welsh received 1,072,717 votes to Parker’s 1,049,540, a slim victory margin of 23,177.
Welsh had already had a successful career both as an attorney and in Indiana politics. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1930 and attended law school, passing the bar in 1937. He was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1940 and reelected in 1942, later resigning to enter the Navy. He resumed his Vincennes law practice after the war. In 1950, President Truman appointed him U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, a position he resigned in 1952. Welsh won a seat in the Indiana State Senate in 1954, then in 1956 made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.
The 48-year-old Welsh was only the second Knox County man to be elected governor, the first being James D. “Blue Jeans” Williams, who won the office in 1876. Williams was from Harrison Township. Welsh would be the first governor who lived in Vincennes when he won the office. Neither man was a native of the county, Williams having been born in Pickaway County, Ohio.
Vincennes Mayor Holly Kilfoil declared Friday, Jan. 6, “Matt Welsh Day” in Vincennes. That evening a special reception was held for the governor-elect at Vincennes University’s Trailblazer Room in what was then the campus Student Union Building. Welsh was a long-time member of the VU Board of Trustees. The room was filled with flowers sent to honor him. Some 1,200 people turned out, some waiting up to an hour to go through the receiving line. That line trailed all the way out the door and down the walk. Many people brought their children to witness the history of the moment. The event, scheduled for two hours, lasted an hour longer, due to the large turnout.
Members of the Vincennes Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff’s Department were present to help direct traffic.
Welsh’s wife Virginia and his twin 18-year-old daughters, Janet and Kay, along with his mother, were present at the reception, as were VU and local political figures.
The reception was simply a prelude to the inauguration at the State House in Indianapolis on Monday. A large contingent from Knox County, some 300 total, went to witness the swearing in. Some went by car and others traveled in charter busses. Master of ceremonies was J. Manfred Core, of Sandborn, Welsh’s campaign manager and Democratic State Chairman.
Two Vincennes ministers took part in the ceremony. Rev. Newell Hall, pastor of the First Christian Church, gave the invocation and Rev. Earl Schmitt, of St. John’s Catholic Church had the benediction. The Lincoln High School Band was also present as the honor band.
The oath of office was administered by Curtis Shake, Welsh’s former law partner, one-time Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and the current president of the VU Board of Trustees. Welsh took the oath on his family’s Bible.
Welsh’s inaugural address was a short one. In it, he promised to bring to the office “the full measure of physical, mental and moral strength at my command.”
One of his first tasks as governor was to take on a budget crisis, putting forth several financial strategies. Some consider his most significant legacy to be his work on civil rights.
Welsh was forbidden by Indiana’s Constitution from running for a second term. At that time there was still a ban on consecutive terms, which would be changed by amendment in 1972. After leaving office, he practiced law in Indianapolis. In 1965 President Johnson appointed him part-time chairman of the U.S. Section of the International Joint Commission for the United States and Canada.
Welsh ran for governor again in 1972 but was defeated by Otis Bowen.
Matt Welsh died at Indianapolis at the age of 82 on May 28, 1995. He was interred in Vincennes’ Memorial Park Cemetery.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.