John F. (Johnny) Welsh Jr., native El Pasoan, veteran West Texas grocer and award-winning author, died Oct. 8, 2017. He was 87 years old.
Johnny was born in El Paso on Dec. 18, 1929 to John and Ernestyne Welsh. As a child, he grew up in the family grocery store at 2432 Copper St.
He graduated from Houston Elementary School one month after his 12th birthday; graduated from Austin High School where he edited the school newspaper for two years; attended Texas College of Mines for one year where he played on an outstanding Miner golf team; and attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
As a teenager, Johnny was one of El Paso’s best golfers. He competed in the Texas State Junior Tournament in San Antonio seven times, once beating famed PGA pro Don January when both lads were 14 years old. At age 16, Johnny was runner-up in the 1946 El Paso City Championship, and was medalist (lowest qualifier) in the 1947 City Championship. He won the prestigious El Paso County Club Southwestern Invitational Tournament in 1948, defeating Tony Zuloaga in the final match.
After 1½ years at the University of Missouri, Johnny co-published The Ascarate Texan, a weekly newspaper serving the El Paso Lower Valley. In 1949, Johnny became a reporter for the El Paso Herald-Post. After serving in the U.S. Army for two years during the Korean War, he returned to the Herald-Post and was assigned as County Courthouse-City Hall beat reporter. He also wrote a weekly sports column about El Paso amateur golf called “Pins and Needles.”
Through his regular badgering of school officials in his column, he brought about the establishment of golf as a competitive high school sport in El Paso.
In 1954, Johnny joined the family grocery business, which included El Paso’s first supermarket, located in the Van Horne Park Shopping Center on Airport Road. Welsh’s Supermarkets became the leading independent grocery company, popular citywide for its large variety of specialty foods from around the world.
In 1966, Johnny left retailing to pursue wholesaling for independent grocers, serving as advertising manager for United Grocers in Portland, Oregon; then assistant general manager of Associated Grocers of Alabama in Birmingham; and, later, assistant general manager of Affiliated Foods Inc. in Amarillo. In 1975, Johnny became division president in Nicholasville (Lexington), Kentucky, for Malone & Hyde Inc., then the nation’s third largest food wholesaler with ten distribution centers in the South and Southeast. Johnny served as president of the Kentucky Wholesale Grocers Association and director of the Kentucky Retail Grocers Association. Later, he served as division president for Malone & Hyde distribution centers in Miami, Florida, and Beaumont, Texas.
Johnny returned to the retail grocery field in 1983. He and wife, Mary, purchased the Village Supermarket in Alpine, Texas, renaming it Welsh’s Village. As the business grew, John and Mary built a new supermarket in nearby Marfa, purchased a market in Van Horn, opened a discount market in Presidio and purchased a store in Crane. He later changed the name to Pueblo Markets.
In 1991, the Small Business Administration named Johnny as the Small Business Person of the Year for the El Paso District, a prestigious award. By 1995, Johnny and Mary condensed their business to the Marfa and Van Horn stores and went into semi-retirement, turning over management to their son Joseph. They sold the family business in March 2015.
He was preceded in death by his parents, brother Dick, and stepson David Howard. Johnny is survived by his wife of 40-plus years, Mary; three sons: Joseph Welsh (Liliana) of El Paso, James (Jem) Welsh of El Paso, and Dr. John F. Welsh III (Wendy) of Kerrville, TX.; a daughter: Jacquelyn Nell Welsh of Las Vegas, NV.; nine grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren; and numerous nephews, nieces, and cousins.
Johnny was especially proud of his Irish heritage. His grandfather, Michael Francis Welsh, was born in Ireland in 1881, emigrated to the U.S. in 1888, lived in St. Louis and then Hannibal, MO., until 1923 when he became a tuberculosis patient at St. Joseph’s Sanatorium in El Paso where he died in 1924.
In 1988, Johnny and Mary tracked down and established a close relationship with family relatives in Ireland. Since then, they have traveled to Ireland many times, renting cottages and spending time with their many Irish cousins. In 1996-97, they stayed seven months, establishing themselves as “those Yanks” to their new friends in the family’s hometown of Clonmel in County Tipperary.
Earlier in 1991, under Ireland’s foreign births registration statute, Johnny was awarded Irish citizenship, allowing him dual American-Irish citizenship. Mary’s dual citizenship became effective in 1994. Johnny and Mary’s experiences in reuniting their American and Irish families, which had been separated because of emigration for over 100 years, are narrated in his award-winning memoir “Tipperary to Texas: An Irish Family Reunites After Four Generations.”
A second book, “My Life in the Waiting Rooms,” was published in 2016, recording his medical ailments when he suffered from cancer, its radiation and chemo treatments leading to facial nerve paralysis.
A memorial service was held 11 a.m. Oct. 13 at St. Clements’s Anglican Church conducted by Rev. Ron Thomson.
At a later date, an Irish memorial service will be held in Clonmel, County Tipperary, at Old Bridge as it passes over the River Suir in front of the 200-year-old family home, and will conclude nearby at Carey’s Pub. A Holy Mass will be held at St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland.