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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
John Welch talks about driving his father's Oldsmobile when he was 13 or 14 to help him find the acreage of farm plots in Cache County during an interview in his home in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 30, 2018.

LOGAN — In what may well qualify as some sort of world record, John Welch will sit on the stage in a position of honor Saturday at Utah State University’s graduation exercises — 77 years since he found himself in the very same place.

Welch was valedictorian of the USU Class of 1941 and gave the commencement address. In 2018, he is one of four people the university has chosen to receive honorary doctorates.

What he’s been up to in the years in between is something the 6,531 members of the Class of '18 would be well-advised to pay attention to.

“It was Utah State,” says Welch in tribute, “that prepared me for everything that came next.”

First came a four-year stint in World War II, where Welch served as an officer thanks to his ROTC training at USU (he was on the Austrian border when the war ended, instructing soldiers in anti-aircraft artillery procedures).

That was followed by Harvard Law School, which he was accepted into after the war thanks to the GI Bill and his good grades at USU. (The former USU valedictorian picked Harvard after turning down a full ride offer from the law school at Cal-Berkeley).

And that was followed by moving to Los Angeles and finding work at Latham & Watkins, a small law firm that had seven lawyers in 1948 when Welch was hired fresh out of Harvard.

Today, Latham & Watkins has 2,600 lawyers in 14 countries, making it one of the six largest law firms in the world, with an annual revenue of more than $3 billion, which ranks as second highest.

It was the Aggie John Welch who set up the partnership plan that helped launch Latham & Watkins into the giant it is today. He left the firm in 1990, but only because the bylaws required partners to retire the year they turned 70.

The rule had been written years earlier — by Welch himself.

“By the time I got to that age I was sorry,” he says wryly.

But retirement only freed him up to do more. John volunteered for numerous pro bono work. He and his wife, Nita — who he met at USU — went on an LDS mission to Hawaii; they watched their posterity grow to an even 100, counting in-laws, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

And they gave back to numerous charities and good causes, including their alma mater, which today boasts no less than three endowment scholarships from the Welches.

Over the years, the USU bond has never wavered. Nita passed away this past February, at 95, six months after the Welches’ celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. To mark that milestone, hundreds of family members and friends came to a party organized by their children. John and Nita stood in the center of the crowd, thanked everyone for coming, and together sang the Utah State fight song.

“Do you know what would have happened if I’d just gone to (the now defunct) South Cache High School and gone back to the farm?” Welch asks. “I’ll tell you what. I’d still be a sharecropper.

“It was a college education that created the life that I’ve lived.”

• • •

That life did not start out as a cakewalk. John Welch was born in Idaho in 1920, named after his father, who was named after his father, who was named after his father. (John Welch IV would continue the tradition. His son is John, his grandson is John and his great-grandson is John. That’s seven straight John Welches and counting).

In 1931, when John was 11, the Welch family moved to the farm town of Mendon in Cache Valley, 10 miles west of Logan. The Great Depression was well underway. Six years later, it was still going strong when John, who had skipped a grade in public school, enrolled at Utah State just days after he turned 17. He worked the next four years straight to make enough money to pay his way through college.

From the age of 6, people had told him he should be a lawyer — “‘Cause of how I talked, or argued, or did something” — so that was always the plan. Since there was no pre-law curriculum at Utah State, Welch made up his own. He took chemistry but didn’t have to. He took psychology and didn’t have to take that either. His official major was political science, in the College of Commerce. He finished top in his class.

In the valedictory graduation speech he gave on May 31, 1941, he talked about the world war that seemed imminent and the importance of being prepared.

The four years of ROTC at Utah State made him a second lieutenant upon graduation. In August, when he turned 21, he began active duty. He was sent to Fort Stevens, an Army post at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, arriving there early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

Hours later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

He “guarded the Columbia River” for a year and a half — sans a 24-hour leave in the summer of 1942 when Nita drove up from Logan and they got married.

Yearning to do something more useful in the war effort, in 1943 Lt. Welch talked his way into a transfer to Europe as an anti-aircraft artillery instructor.

He returned to America in January 1946, just in time to enroll at Harvard Law. He showed up in his uniform because he didn’t own a suit. Two-and-a-half years later, having blasted straight through on a post-war accelerated program, he had his doctorate in law.

An Army pal had extolled the virtues of California so exuberantly and convincingly that John, Nita, their first child, Ann, and their cocker spaniel drove from Boston to Southern California in a Studebaker that barely made it. A Harvard professor who was a friend of the Watkins of Latham & Watkins recommended Welch apply there. For the next 42 years, that would be his home.

He was noted for his tirelessness. His office was on the 45th floor of a high-rise building Latham & Watkins took over in downtown Los Angeles. For “breaks” he’d walk all 45 flights (and then shower in the locker room he’d had the builders install). He played golf on Saturdays. He and his growing family (five kids, eventually) took regular backpacking trips to the High Sierras. He climbed to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States, five times. He went helicopter skiing in the Canadian Rockies 44 times (the last trip was when he was 80; he still skis the Utah resorts every winter just last month he posed at Alta for a picture with his son John, his grandson John and his great-grandson John).

A good life? You’ll get no argument from John Welch.

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To never forget where he came from, he’s hung onto a relic from his past: a long curved knife he once used to harvest sugar beets to help pay for his college tuition. All through the years, he’s put it where he could see it. It was in his room during his Utah State undergraduate days. It was there at Harvard. During the 42 years at Latham & Watkins, the knife had a prominent place in his office. Today, it sits atop a bookshelf in his condominium near Memory Grove in Salt Lake City.

“I always kept it as a reminder of why I went to school,” John Welch says. “Working those beets was tough. I didn’t want to do that ever again.”