Ted Welch, the preeminent fund-raiser in Tennessee Republican politics for four decades, whose unmatched ability to turn phone calls into big bucks for governors, senators and U.S. presidents made him a giant in the GOP, died on Saturday.
He was 80.
Welch died around 6:30 a.m. at Vanderbilt Medical Center Hospital in Nashville, his wife Colleen Conway-Welch said, due to complications from a December fall.
A one-time door-to-door Bible salesman and longtime Nashville real estate investor, Welch became the political money man of the South through his help of Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Gov. Mitt Romney and others.
His career began in 1970 during Winfield Dunn's successful run for governor. It spanned to modern campaigns of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam. In between, he worked with senators Howard Baker, Bill Brock, Bill Frist and Fred Thompson, Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Republicans at the state level, such as House Speaker Beth Harwell, and even Nashville mayors.
He's perhaps most linked, though, to the campaigns of his friend Lamar Alexander, teaming with him during his first failed run for governor in 1974 before he won four years later during his famed "Walk Across Tennessee" sporting his trademark plaid shirt.
Welch helped with Alexander's re-election, subsequent runs for U.S. Senate and his failed run at U.S. president in a crowded field of GOP candidates in 1996.
"Ted Welch raised millions to support candidates for public office, symphonies and other charitable causes and, in my experience, never asked for one thing for himself in return," Alexander said in a statement. "He was tireless. As a volunteer, he traveled with me to 250 presidential campaign fundraising events during one year.
"The most feared seven words among those who knew him were, 'Ted Welch is holding on line one.' Honey and I will miss him greatly and extend our sympathies to Colleen and to his family."
Doctors diagnosed Welch with Alzheimer's disease in 2012. And when it came time for Alexander to reignite his run for a third term in the U.S. Senate, Welch wasn't able to make the phone calls and host fundraisers like he did in the past. He was instead named honorary finance chairman, and in April 2013 was honored during an Alexander fund-raising event called "A Salute to Ted."
In real estate, Welch was instrumental in the redevelopment of downtown Nashville, including the 1987 construction of the Nashville Convention Center. His office was atop the adjacent Renaissance Hotel.
The son of teachers at a one-room schoolhouse, Welch grew up on a farm near tiny Parsons, Tenn., in Decatur County. He attended the University of Tennessee at Martin on a football scholarship, and Indiana University for graduate school.
In his 20s, he worked as a salesman at the Southwestern Publishing House (today called Southwestern Advantage), where he sold Bibles on doorsteps all over the country. He outshined his peers, worked his way up the ladder and became the company's executive vice president.
His entry into politics came with Dunn's 1970 election, in which Republicans captured the governor's office for the first time in 50 years. He became Dunn's commissioner of Finance and Administration, but after one term he returned to campaigns.
He quickly found his favorite sport:
"Instead of playing golf, I raise money," he told The New York Times in 1995.
Welch lived in Belle Meade with his wife, the longtime dean of Vanderbilt University's School of Nursing and a powerhouse in her own field, who retired last spring after 29 years in that role.