ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Clarence Welch believed he had two callings, teaching and his ministry.
Somehow, he followed both for decades.
Rev. Welch taught science at what is now John Hopkins Middle School and Azalea Middle School for 29 years.
He also led Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ, where he grew up with a well-known family beside him in the pews.
He served as superintendent of a church district stretching from Bartow to Fort Myers, but barely mentioned it and asked friends to refer to him simply as "Elder."
Rev. Welch, who taught for 29 years in Pinellas County schools, died Feb. 9 of an apparent heart attack, his family said. He was 82.
"He was my mentor, my uncle, my pastor," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, the son of former St. Petersburg city council member David Welch, Rev. Welch's brother. "He was a giant but a very meek person. He was never about flashy cars or lavish clothes or a large house. He stands out for me as a spiritual father and a mentor to hundreds of children."
A few well-chosen words by Rev. Welch could ease a troubled mind and put everything in perspective.
Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter turned to her longtime pastor countless times, especially when her community activism aroused controversy.
"He said, 'Sister Tee, they hated Jesus, so you think you're above being hated? Look at what God has brought you through. If he brought you through all this, do you think he's going to leave you now?'" she remembered him telling her.
Other community leaders talk about that same knack for the well-chosen word. Rev. Welch was a board member of the Urban League and Suncoast Hospice, and was part of a core group steering Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students.
"He was the quiet one who sat at the table, not the vocal one," said Watson Haynes, the Urban League president. "He had a scientific approach to problem solving. There had to be some method to the madness. You couldn't just go out there and say, 'This is what we're going to do.' It was never done in such a way as to show he was the smartest person in the room, although we knew he was."
Clarence Welch was born in St. Petersburg. Marilyn Dorn grew up here, too. They met when he was in the ninth grade at Gibbs High and she was two years younger.
"I turned to his cousin and said, 'I'm going to marry your cousin,'" said Marilyn Welch, 79.
He walked her home to Jordan Park, carrying her seven books along with his.
He asked her mother if he could date her.
They married 59 years ago. Rev. Welch served with the Army in the Korean War and graduated from Florida A&M.
Rev. Welch taught at what was then Sixteenth Street Junior High. In the mid-1960s he took over as pastor of 14th Street Church of God in Christ — whose name he changed to Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ — while continuing to teach full time.
"It was time-consuming," said David Welch, 85, his brother, who sat on the City Council that displaced Prayer Tower and two other churches to make way for a domed stadium. "God had a mission for him to do in this community, and he was prone to do it. He couldn't help but do it."
Rev. Welch retired from Azalea Middle School in 1986 but stayed on at the church, adding tutoring and day care programs.
Every December, Rev. Welch participated in a multi-church effort to supply 400 families with toys and food. His work on the Suncoast Hospice board, where he served as vice chairman, led to a community center at 3050 First Ave. S. Rev. Welch had bigger dreams still, hoping to bring a residential hospice unit to St. Petersburg's south side.
In 2004, the St. Petersburg Bar Association presented Rev. Welch with its Liberty Bell Award, given to people whose service has strengthened "the American system of freedom under the law."
"His message was always very clear and direct," Ken Welch said, "and he lived what he preached about."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.