BY MELODY WORRELL
After making history as Copiah County’s first elected black supervisor since Reconstruction and taking office in a time when the county was wracked with scandal, Manuel Welch has quietly and faithfully served the public for the past 22 years as District 4 supervisor. But he’s decided it’s time to retire.
Welch decided four years ago that this term would be his last. He did not seek re-election this year and will retire at the end of December. Welch’s district spans the western part of the county north of Highway 28, covering Crystal Springs, Carpenter, Dentville and surrounding areas.
“I have enjoyed my 22 years of service with the county,” said Welch. “I feel like the Lord was behind putting me in office, and the Lord spoke to me four years ago when I decided to retire. I look forward to a happy retirement, many more happy days to live and to travel.”
The county had just gone through redistricting when Welch first took office. He first sought office in 1983 but lost by 19 votes. He filed a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act, which set in motion the court proceedings that eventually resulted in his predecessor leaving office under allegations of vote fraud. Welch was finally sworn in on November 19, 1985, after a special election.
Circuit Clerk Edna Stevens, who was first sworn in on the same day, recalled that Welch gave a personal interview with TV news personality Maggie Wade that day. “He made history for Copiah County,” Stevens said. “He has been an excellent supervisor and a very good friend.”
Attorney James D. Shannon added that the story of Welch’s election and what he went through to reach office made the Clarion-Ledger’s list of top ten news stories that year, as well as USA Today. Shannon, who along with attorney Carroll Rhodes represented Welch in the litigation that followed his first run for office, became attorney for the board of supervisors in 1994.
“I have never met a more honest and dedicated public servant,” said Shannon. “Manuel has always had the interests of Copiah County at heart. I hate to see him go.”
The mid-80’s were a controversial time for Copiah County, with one supervisor dismissed from office for vote fraud and some others soon to follow in the scandal that resulted from the FBI sting operation known as “Operation Pretense.” But when asked to look back over his years in office, Welch doesn’t mention any of that. He served on the Mississippi Association of Supervisors board, and was elected to represent seven counties on the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District legislative committee, an honor he is proud of.
Since Welch has been on the board of supervisors there has been a lot of growth in the county, Shannon pointed out. New county facilities have been constructed or renovated, including the multipurpose building at Gallman, the Justice Court and Chancery Court buildings, and an extensive courthouse renovation is about to begin. Two bridges over the Pearl River have been replaced as well at Rockport and Gatesville. The county welcomed new industry Discount Auto Parts during Welch’s tenure, which spurred further development of the county industrial park. Calling Panther Lake was constructed and opened to the public, a significant attraction for the county – and also the cause of many jokes aimed at Welch across the board table by the other supervisors, as he is well known to be an avid fisherman.
Welch can take personal credit for making one recommendation to the board of supervisors that has impacted Copiah County greatly: in the past the position of county prosecutor was a board appointment, but several years ago Welch recommended that the board make it an elected position. County prosecutor is now on the ballot along with other county officials.
The other members of the board of supervisors had only good things to say about Welch – along with a lot of teasing about how Welch will often be found at the lake fishing now that he will be free of responsibilities at the courthouse. Welch has served longer than anyone else currently on the board, and he’s often fondly referred to as “Grandpa” by the other supervisors.
“It has really been an honor and a pleasure working with Mr. Welch,” said Terry Channell, District 2 supervisor, whose seat at the board table is beside Welch’s. “He is a good, fair, honest man, and he’s got the county at heart. He’s a good guy to work with and sit beside.”
Supervisor of District 5 Jimmy Phillips represents the rest of the Crystal Springs area not included in Welch’s district, so he and Welch have worked together closely over the past two terms as the county’s two “northern” supervisors.
“I thank him for taking me under his wing eight years ago when I was a new supervisor,” said Phillips. “When I started I didn’t know anything. Mr. Welch was a big help to me and showed me the ropes.”
Board president Perry Hood, supervisor of District 3, said: “It’s been an honor for me to serve with Mr. Welch these last 12 years. He’s been an inspiration to me and he truly cares about and loves our county. He has been an asset and he will be missed. I wish him the best in his retirement.”
When the new term begins in January, Kenneth Ray Powell will take over as District 4 supervisor. Welch will be missed, but “There’s a good man succeeding him,” pointed out Shannon.
Powell says he has also been inspired by Welch, who has been connected to his family for years. “He’s my idol,” said Powell, adding that his own father is deceased, but he looks up to Welch like a father. He intends to follow Welch’s example when he takes office. “I’ve got big shoes to fill, but with the grace of God I’ll do my best to be honest and fair and do what’s in the best interest of the county,” said Powell.
Welch intends to do a lot of traveling and volunteer work for the city and the county after his retirement from the board.
“I’m sure the Crystal Springs Chamber of Commerce will keep me going,” he said.
Welch will be honored with a retirement reception following the swearing in ceremony on Friday, December 28. The swearing in will begin at 9 a.m. in the Circuit Courtroom on the second floor of the Copiah County Courthouse. Welch’s retirement reception will follow downstairs in the board of supervisors meeting room.