Sorrento — Joe Ben Welch’s office is a little messy these days.
Welch, the founding chancellor of the 15-year-old River Parishes Community College, is preparing to vacate that office at the end of the month when his retirement becomes official.
One thing not packed up is an easel and architectural drawing of the college’s new campus, which is under construction in Gonzales.
Welch said he didn’t want to retire until construction on the new campus was underway in Gonzales’ Edenborne development.
“I wanted to see it come out of the ground,” he said. “And now it is.”
Welch, the first employee of the college in 1998, has seen the college grow from the early days when classes were held in the Sorrento fire station and at a Catholic church hall.
His first job as chancellor was to explain to area residents the purpose of a community college.
“People had no idea of the concept or mission of a community college,” he said.
Welch spoke to anyone who would listen, traveling throughout the region attending civic and public meetings. He logged more than 8,000 miles in his white Chevy truck that first year, spreading the word about the college.
The college draws students from Livingston, Ascension, Assumption, Iberville, St. James, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes.
It took time, but eventually residents understood and accepted the concept, and support and students started to roll in, he said.
Welch said the college’s small class sizes, easily transferred credits and qualified staff drew students of all ages who were interested in either earning associate degrees or transferring to a four-year college.
It wasn’t Welch’s first round founding a college. He was the founding chancellor for a two-year branch campus of Lamar University in Texas.
Welch, who grew up in Zachary, worked at Lamar University for 20 years and was president of Middle Georgia College for nine years. He has seen RPCC grow from 106 students that first semester to an enrollment approaching 4,000 this fall semester.
In 2010, RPCC was named the fastest-growing community college of its size in the nation by Community College Week, he said.
RPCC’s 2013 graduating class of 206 students was larger than the college’s first student body, he said. The RPCC class of 2013 was the largest graduating class in RPCC history.
As chancellor, Welch oversaw RPCC’s 2010 merger with the Louisiana Technical College-Ascension Campus, as well as the purchase of the site for the future home of RPCC.
Vice Chancellor Bill Martin credits much of the college’s success to Welch’s experience and leadership.
“He had a great understanding of best practices in community college education and was an inspiring leader,” Martin said. “He worked hard to recruit good talent to the college and then empowered those employees to implement best practices at the college.
His personal touch created great trust with faculty, staff, legislators and community leaders.”
RPCC Foundation Board President Ryland Percy also praised Welch for his commitment and community involvement.
“Dr. Welch has had a long and illustrious career and we have been very fortunate to have had him come to this area to serve as the founding chancellor of River Parishes Community College,” Percy said. “His vision, leadership and hard work have been a primary reason RPCC has become the institution it is today.”
Percy said Welch’s accomplishments will have a lasting effect on the college and community for many years.
Tailoring classes to fit the growing needs of the local economy was a longtime goal of Welch.
He said college staffers meet with local business and industry leaders to gauge the future workforce needs.
Many of those needs will be met in classes that will be held at the college’s technology center, which will be built on the new campus as part of a phase II construction project.
“The campus will be able to continue to meet the needs of students and the community,” he said.
Welch has been a member of several civic organizations, allowing him and students to take part in community projects.
Ready for retirement
Welch said that he’s been taking notes in recent months on how to retire.
He plans to do a little fishing and hunting.
“And I’m going to try and get back into my golf game,” he said.
There hasn’t been much time for golf in recent years, he said.
He doesn’t plan to leave his Gonzales home any time soon, he said.
Trips to see the grandchildren are in the works and he’s got a bucket list ready to go.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” he said, adding that he will miss the daily interaction with the students and staff.
While the construction of the new campus won’t be complete before his last day on the job, Welch said he will return to cut the ribbon on the new building next year.