Elizabeth Welty recently received two prestigious civic awards: A Spokane Arts Award and a YWCA Women of Achievement Award. Not bad for the same month. Which leads to the question: Who, exactly, is Elizabeth Welty?
She’s a retired Spokane doctor, age 93, and a supporter of the arts, but if you want more information, don’t ask her.
“I’m not that interesting,” said Welty, when first contacted for this story. “There’s nothing to say.”
She later relented, as you will see below. But first we asked some third parties to give some insight into Welty.
“Everyone who knows her, wishes they could be just like her when they are 90-plus years old,” said Brenda Nienhouse, the executive director of the Spokane Symphony. “She is such an inspiration. She has embraced everything with gusto. She never stops learning and never stops sharing.”
“Lib Welty? She’s serious and light at the same time,” said Verne Windham of Spokane Public Radio and also the music director of the Spokane Youth Symphony. “She’s absolutely an old-school person, but she has a sense of humor and a sense of perspective.”
Her recent awards have come from her generous support of many arts organizations: The Spokane Symphony, the Spokane Youth Symphony, Spokane Opera, Spokane Public Radio, the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Connoisseur Concerts, Allegro and the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, to name just a few.
But whatever you do, don’t call her a philanthropist.
“Because I’m not,” said Welty.
She later allowed that she is merely an arts supporter and appreciative audience member.
“That’s my role, to applaud them,” said Welty. “I can applaud them, and I think my giving is a way of applauding them.”
Eventually Welty agreed to tell us about her life, as long as we left out all “hyperbole” and never gave the impression she was tooting her own horn.
She was born Elizabeth McNaughton Main in 1915 in Pennsylvania and grew up in Swarthmore, Pa., a town not far from Philadelphia dominated by Swarthmore College. Her father owned an accounting firm and her mother was a teacher. Swarthmore is known as a Quaker town and both of her parents became Quakers.
“My mother had a well-ordered home – no sweets before meals, no pop and, of course, no alcohol,” said Welty.
By the time Welty was in high school, she knew she wanted to be doctor.
“Decisions, you know, are made of a mosaic,” said Welty. “A little influence here, a little influence there and suddenly you wake up, and there it is. And you feel good about it. And certain.”
Her mother found the perfect college for her: Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in Massachusetts.
“She found that Holyoke had a good reputation for getting grads into medical school,” said Welty. “Their science department has been very strong ever since it was started in 1837. It really was a forerunner.”
She graduated in 1937 and was accepted into Cornell Medical School. She graduated from medical school in 1941 and began an internship at a big New York City hospital.
“It was a tremendous experience and I loved it, because I had total authority,” said Welty. “The attending physicians weren’t really too interested in it. It was old people, and they were all dying. There were wards of 50 beds at least. I did have some supervision, but it was lighthanded.”
Her brother was killed in combat during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, so she went to Philadelphia to be close to her parents. She finished her residency at the University of Pennsylvania.
There she met Robert Welty, the son of well-known Spokane doctor Emil Welty. Bob was finishing up his surgical residency. They were married in October 1948. In January 1949, they loaded up their cars and headed for a new life in Bob’s hometown.
“It was a late, dark Saturday night and it was a little oppressive,” said Welty. “It had been a very snowy winter. I was excited, of course, and I was anxious to come with my new husband and anxious to get going. Very anxious to get going.”
They each opened up their own practices in the Paulsen Building, Bob as a surgeon, Elizabeth as an internist.
“I was very fortunate because there were seven or eight women practicing here and they were very good to me,” said Welty.
And then, to hear Welty tell it, they did nothing but practice medicine for 36 years, until they retired in 1985.
“We just did our work,” she said.
They did not get deeply involved with arts, simply because didn’t have enough time.
“Bob and I were interested in classical music and as soon as we could afford it, we had season tickets for the symphony. We would go as much as we could – even though we fell asleep.”
She did not become deeply involved with the arts until after 1985, when she and Bob retired. Then, in 1989, Bob died.
“That was sort of a low point,” she said. “His care had been exhausting; his loss was very traumatic and disruptive. We had very little outside life. And more than half of it was gone.”
So she began looking around for ways to give back to Spokane, a place that “had been so good to us.” She got on to the Visiting Nurses Association board, the Spokane Symphony board and the Spokane Public Radio board. One thing led to another, and soon she was involved in many organizations.
She disclaims any real expertise in music or art.
“I don’t play an instrument and I don’t paint,” said Welty. “A real knowledgeable person, I am not. So you see, I am always an observer, always in the audience.”
Not always just an observer. Once, during her retirement, she threw caution to the wind and went paragliding in the skies above Aspen.
“I floated around the wind like a bird,” she said. “It was wonderful. The high point of my retirement.”
She has also thrown herself into some big and complex causes.
“She was very active in the Fox fundraising campaign, and she thought of her work as trying to set an example for others,” said Nienhouse.
Welty provided a gift that established the Welty Family Learning Center, a high-tech outreach program at the Fox that provides, among other things, Internet master classes for students in far-flung locations.
She savors the thank-you notes she gets from students in the Spokane Youth Symphony, who get tuition assistance from her gifts.
“This wonderful opportunity would not be possible for my family were it not for your willing financial support,” wrote one music student. “I come to look forward to every Monday night practice.”
And that’s why Elizabeth Welty does what she does.
“You say (to yourself), ‘Well, maybe that means something to somebody,’ ” she said. “Because a hunk of money in the bank doesn’t mean a darn thing to me. Not a thing.”