Lawrence Welk Dies at 89; Welk's Death 'The Passing of an Era'

Gerboth, Betsy. "Lawrence Welk Dies at 89; Welk's Death 'The Passing of an Era'." Forum, 19 May 1992, sec. 1A.

Lawrence Welk was remembered Monday as a gentle, kind man, a fiercely loyal friend, a tough competitor on the golf course, a stubborn German and a man who ruled his employees with a will of iron.

Welk, the North Dakota farm boy who became the nation's beloved king of "champagne music," died Sunday at his California home surrounded by family members. His death, at 89, was attributed to pneumonia.

"It's really the passing of an era," former Sen. Mark Andrews, R-N.D., said Monday from his Washington, D.C., home. "The comfortable champagne music that Lawrence shared with the world came straight out of North Dakota's culture."

Andrews and his wife, Mary, appeared on Welk's popular television show several times in the early 1970s. "He was always a delightful host and cared so much about all of the guests, whether he knew them or not," Andrews said. "We had some delightful times with him. He still was the same friendly, very personable individual that he was when he started out. He just didn't change."

North Dakota Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl, who is the state's acting governor while Gov. George Sinner is in Taiwan, said Welk's heritage will linger for many years.

"Lawrence Welk brought joy to millions and millions of people," Omdahl said. "His wholesome music will continue to remind North Dakotans, former North Dakotans and people all over this country of the good old days.

"His music will live on for decades. He will not soon be forgotten."

Former North Dakota Gov. William Guy, who in 1961 named Welk as the first recipient of the state's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award, said the bandleader spent some time in the governor's mansion on his visits to the state.

"He was the most kind and considerate person I've ever known," said Guy, a Democrat. "Yet he was politically very, very conservative. We used to have some long discussions about politics - not rancorous arguments, just quiet, gentle discussions."

Guy recounted a story that Welk once told him: "He said when he formed his first orchestra outside North Dakota, in St. Paul, he was so shy and so embarrassed by his heavy German accent that he actually hired somebody to announce the musical numbers so he wouldn't have to talk," the ex-governor said. "But years later he realized that his German accent was really an advantage, in that it set him apart."

Welk also was an inveterate golfer who played whenever he had a chance, especially on his visits back to his home state.

Rollie Hogue Jr. of Fargo, who helped Welk schedule his time when he returned to North Dakota, also was a frequent golf opponent.

"Basically we just played golf together," Hogue said Monday. "He was quite remarkable as a golfer; he didn't start playing golf until he was in his late 60s. He had some great talent in the game."

But more than a great golfer, Hogue said, Welk was a great friend.

"I've always felt that you couldn't have a better friend," he said. "I know a lot of people thought he was a hard-headed businessman, which was true, but at the same time he was strictly loyal to his friends.

"I remember that some of the people in his organization were not talented in business, and Lawrence would go out of his way to help them. He carried the mortgages for many of his band members to get them started so they'd wind up with some assets in life."

Welk's particular genius was that he knew how to give his fans what they wanted, Hogue said.

"That's the way he always said to me," Hogue said. "He said,`I play what the people want to hear.' He'd always make comments about people who went off in left field, playing sophisticated music interpretations that nobody wanted to hear.

"That was one of the secrets of his success. He had a hands-on association with the bulk of his fans. He knew what they liked, and he gave it to them."

Rep. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he has fond memories of his parents watching Welk's television program every Saturday night and dancing to his music in their living room.

"He was a North Dakotan who always gave great credit to our state and never forgot where he came from," Dorgan said. "He was an extraordinary man; very down to earth, very humble. He had an engaging personality, but there was nothing fancy about him."

"He also had taste in music and knew how to offer a product that most American people wanted."

James Ployhar, a Forgoan who composes and arranges music for school bands and orchestras, once played in a touring band that was in direct competition with Welk's band in the late 1940s.

"We all traveled the Midwest in buses, and we played the same ballrooms," Ployhar said. "We thought we were as good and maybe better than his band, but that's pretty hard to say."

Welk's success came because he played what Americans wanted to hear, Ployhar said: "The people loved him, there's no doubt about it," he said. "He was one of the biggest success stories in music."

Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., also praised Welk's success.

"He will be remembered as one of the great originals of television entertainment, as well as an American success story," Burdick said.

Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Pioneer Heritage Inc. of Strasburg - Welk's hometown - said Monday that Welk's death likely won't change plans for dedication of the restored Welk homestead to June 7.

"I don't think so, because I don't think Lawrence Welk would expect us to change things," she said. "He was always happy and cheerful, always with a smile on his face.

"You could definitely sense the professionalism about him, but I guess he liked to just be a guy from Strasburg."

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

Lawrence Welk dances with his Champagne Lady, vocalist Norma Zimmer, in 1964.
Lawrence Welk never forgot his North Dakota roots.

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