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The man who saved (and coined) Kootenaiana dies at 81

Ron Welwood was a noted local historian
Barb Hynek presents Ron Welwood with the BC Historical Federation’s Anne and Philip Yandle Award in 2012 for his article “Pat is Pat and That is That.” File photo

Ron Welwood, a noted local historian who was by turns head librarian at Notre Dame University, David Thompson University Centre, and Selkirk College, has died at 81.

In all of those roles, Welwood helped preserve a vast trove of Kootenaiana, a term he coined to describe artifacts and ephemera from this region.

“I have known a number of college librarians in my time in the academic world but Ron stands head and shoulder above them all,” says friend Brian Holmes.

“I saw him as very intelligent, methodical and even handed with encyclopaedic knowledge of source materials and great dedication to history – especially of the Kootenays. He seemed to know something about almost everything.”

Over the past 50 years, Welwood wrote on such topics as Nelson jeweller/optician J.O. Patenaude, William Baillie-Grohman’s Kootenay River diversion project, and prolific but controversial newspaper publisher Robert T. Lowery. His articles won several awards.

READ MORE: Nelson historian recognized for article

Welwood spent nearly 20 years on the city’s heritage advisory group, developed a series of historical walking and driving tours about Nelson and its cemetery, and often led tours himself.

For a decade he was on the BC Historical Federation council and was its president from 1997-99. He was later named an honorary life member. He and wife Frances (also a historian) were regulars at the federation’s annual conference and were instrumental in bringing the event to Nelson in 1997 and 2009.

He further served as volunteer archivist for the Roman Catholic Archives of Nelson.

Longtime family friend Bill McDonnell lauded Welwood for his “calmness and ease of character” as well as his generosity with other historians.

“[He was] highly knowledgeable, professional, a passionate researcher and writer of many articles, had a great voice and beard, and a willingness to share with newbies,” McDonnell said.

Ronald Joseph Adrian Welwood was born in Penticton on Feb. 14, 1940, and raised in Port Alberni.

He graduated from UBC and worked as the head of the newspaper section at the National Library of Canada until 1969 when he and Frances moved to Nelson, where he became librarian at Notre Dame.

He recalled that he took the job because it was a chance to return to B.C., and “the ultimate goal was to eventually move up the provincial academic library ladder.”

However, “within hours of completing the Ottawa-to-Nelson cross-Canada drive in a tiny Datsun, we crossed the Nelson bridge and never looked back. Out with lofty career aspirations!”

Their first child was born within weeks of their arrival and they eagerly embraced their adopted home. They began exploring and chronicling the area, snapping photos of now-lost sites such as the Busk mansion in Kokanee Creek Provincial Park.

At Notre Dame, Welwood started amassing thousands of photographs, books, and other items related to the region’s history. What he dubbed the Kootenaiana collection is now held by Touchstones Nelson and the Nelson Public Library.

“The materials preserved in the Kootenaiana collection are invaluable,” says local author/historian Eileen Delehanty Pearks.

“They contribute to a clear understanding of the local landscape and its history, across all eras. Without Ron’s commitment and foresight, it’s unclear what would have happened to these valuable materials. I’m so grateful for the work he did quietly, in the background.”

Following Notre Dame’s closure, Welwood remained in Nelson as librarian of David Thompson University Centre (DTUC). The provincial government’s announcement in 1984 that it would close the institution sparked a 90-day sit-in at the library to prevent its books from being removed.

Welwood and his staff continued to work alongside the protestors until the government agreed the books could stay. Eventually many volumes were dispersed to other institutions, although some are still in storage.

While Welwood supported the occupation, he was not among those clamouring to preserve the remaining collection, describing it as “a random selection of dated undergraduate books with very little use or no use to any serious academic researcher in today’s technical world.”

READ MORE: The 55,000 NUC library books have little value

After the end of DTUC, Welwood went to work at Selkirk College in Castlegar, retiring as head librarian in 2000. There he continued to add local history materials to the college’s Minto Room.

In 2010, Welwood and the late Don Lyon convened the Nelson History Interest Group, an informal club that met monthly in the courthouse to hear presentations on local topics.

Welwood was also active with the Learning in Retirement group and lent his bass voice to the Heritage Harmonies Barbershop Choir.

The City of Nelson presented the Welwoods with a special citation in 2019 recognizing their outstanding contributions to preserving and promoting the city’s cultural heritage.

Ron Welwood died on Nov. 21 following a battle with lung cancer. He initially recovered well from surgery, but his health declined in the last few months. His survivors include Frances, his wife of 55 years; sons Gregory and Ed; granddaughter Meela; brother Ken; and his 105-year-old mother Alice.

A funeral and celebration of life will be planned later. Welwood’s family asks that donations in his memory go to the Osprey Foundation or Touchstones Nelson.


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Ron Welwood is seen in a Nelson Daily News clipping of June 2, 1970.
Ron Welwood is seen in a Nelson Daily News clipping of June 22, 1978, when the David Thompson University Centre library became open to the public.
Ron Welwood is seen in a Chilliwack Progress clipping of June 29, 1966.
In 2019, the City of Nelson presented Ron and Frances Welwood with a special citation in recognition of their contribution to the city’s cultural heritage. Photo: Dorothy Fraser
Ron Welwood is seen at a Touchstones Nelson gala in 2017. Photo: Bill Metcalfe