In Memoriam: Marya Welch (1916-2012)

Dr. Marya Welch continued to serve as an ambassador for UC Davis athletics long after her 1987 retirement.
(Mark Honbo, Athletics Communications)

June 29, 2012

DAVIS, Calif. - Marya Welch, whose association with the University of California, Davis, spanned 46 years as a professor and dean, a leader in women's sports, and a supporter of the arts and Aggie athletics, died June 24 after a short illness. She was 95.

She came to the university in 1947 to establish the women's athletics program, and she did so with no precedents to guide her and with scarce resources to work with. She established competitive teams in volleyball, archery, tennis, basketball, swimming, track and field, and softball -- coached them all and taught equestrian skills, too.

She had already become an Aggie for life, when, in 1991, the university inducted her into Cal Aggie Athletics Hall of Fame. Eight years later she served as grand marshal of the Picnic Day Parade.

Upon her hiring, she became the ninth female faculty member on the Davis campus, which at the time had an enrollment of 1,200, including about 100 women.

She organized all of the classes in her home department -- physical education -- and taught many of them herself. She founded intramural and extramural sports programs for women, and she established the Women's Athletic Association.

She was a member of several Division of Girls and Women's Sports committees, and was a founding member of both the Extramural League of Northern California and the Western Society of Women in Physical Education.

When she wasn't coaching, she was officiating -- or, in classes that she established, teaching others how to be officials.

She retired in 1987, having established herself as a national leader in the development of women's athletics. In 2005, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators.

Welch had previous experience in sports organization, during World War II. She was the 57th woman to join the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a branch of the Navy), and, while stationed in Waikiki, Hawaii, and at Smith College in Massachusetts, she managed large-scale recreation programs for soldiers on leave or in transit.

Welch, who had been a WAVES officer, continued in the military as a member of the Navy Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant commander. She stayed active in veterans affairs for the rest of her life, in part by working with agencies that provide veterans services. She was recently recognized for her service by the Department of Defense at a ceremony at the Women's War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

After the war, her arrival in Davis coincided with the beginning stages of the old University Farm's transition from strictly agricultural to general campus. In addition to her work on the athletics side, she served as the dean of women and founded the UC Davis chapter of the Prytenean Society, an honor society for women -- a chapter that still exists today.

She was born Sept. 25, 1916, and raised in Guthrie, Okla., a quiet prairie town. At an early age, she learned to ride a horse, hunt with a rifle and drive a car. She left home at 15 to attend William Woods University, in Fulton, Mo., where she earned an Associate of Arts degree.

Marya Welch earned her bachelor's degree from Oklahoma before adding a master's degree from UC Berkeley and a doctorate from Columbia. She was the first female faculty member in UC Davis' physical education department.

She followed that up with a Bachelor of Science in physical education from the University of Oklahoma in 1937, a master's degree at UC Berkeley in 1949, and, in 1952, a doctorate in education from Columbia University. She received a Fulbright Fellowship in 1960.

She and her travel companion, Clairelee Leiser Bulkley traveled around the world, to places like Europe, Egypt, Asia and South America, and to places considered less safe: Afghanistan, Beirut, Pakistan, India and parts of Saudi Arabia. As a scuba diver, she enjoyed the Red Sea, Mexico and Hawaii.

Her philanthropy extended to women's athletics and the campus tennis complex that bears her name; the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra (she attended every concert and was a founding member of the Symphony Endowment); and the campaign that led to the construction of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

Besides the Marya Welch Tennis Center, the campus also has Marya Welch Court, comprising four apartment buildings at Colleges of La Rue.

Those that knew Marya will always remember her for her kindness, loyalty and standing up for what she believed. She had a warm sense of humor, a quick smile and a generous heart.

Survivors include one brother, many nieces and nephews, her special friend, Clairelee Leiser Bulkley, and her cat Tai.

Services will be held on Tuesday, July 3 at 11 a.m. at St. James Catholic Church in Davis with a reception immediately following in the social hall. A celebration of her life will take place on the UC Davis campus in the fall.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Marya Welch Tennis Center Fund through the UC Davis Athletics Development, 264 Hickey Gym, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616.