Ashton W. Welch, an associate professor of history and longtime director of Creighton University's black-studies program, died unexpectedly in his sleep on August 14. He was 68; the cause of death was not specified.
Among the things left in his office were syllabus notes for the three courses he was going to teach this fall. "We all felt Ashton was the heart and soul of the department," said Elizabeth R. Elliot-Meisel, chair of history.
Mr. Welch began teaching at the Jesuit university in 1971 and led its black-studies program, an interdepartmental effort that he helped found in 1975, until his death.
"He was a passionate foe of injustice of all sorts," said Bette Novit Evans, a professor emeritus of political science at Creighton, "but it didn't give him a hard edge."
His passion and the careful measure of his words are revealed in a paper he wrote for the Spring/Summer 2008 issue of The Center for Research on African American Women Journal. In "Killing Brown Slowly: The Judicial Undermining of Brown v. Board of Education," Mr. Welch describes the "re-segregation decisions" made by the Supreme Court in the 1990s and analyzes how they reflect the philosophies of the presidents who shaped the court.
Born in Barbados, the second of six children, Mr. Welch was in high school when his family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y.
His love of history had already taken hold, and he went on to earn three degrees in the field: a bachelor's from Wilberforce University in 1968; a master's from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1971; and a doctorate from the University of Birmingham, in England, in 1979.
He wrote his dissertation on Christian missionaries in Ivory Coast. Throughout his career, his interests were wide-ranging, and he wrote of racial issues not just in French-colonial Africa but in South Africa, the American South, and Omaha, Neb., where Creighton is located.
Colleagues describe him as a serene man with an abundance of warmth who saw the potential in his students before they recognized it themselves.
He knew all his students' names, said Ms. Evans, even after more than 30 years—and often their parents' names, their hometowns, their interests, and their worries.
Many people at Creighton, students and colleagues alike, considered Mr. Welch a mentor, even beyond his department. Ngwarsungu Chiwengo, an English professor, says that Mr. Welch was one of the most important and encouraging people on the campus to her, and that he "cared tremendously" about seeing others succeed.
Among the many academic organizations Mr. Welch was active in was the National Association for Ethnic Studies, and he served as its vice president for the last decade of his life.
His leadership roles on the campus included the chairmanship of the history department, from 1985 to 1993.
When he was selected, Ms. Evans recalled, "I privately thought, I'm not sure Ashton should be chair because he's a gentle soul." But his peacemaking skills made him a strong leader, she said.
As the university shifted from being primarily a teaching institution to one with a greater research emphasis, some faculty members felt the strain, says Melissa C. Kean, president of Creighton's National Alumni Board. But Mr. Welch acted as a bridge between those long devoted to teaching and others more focused on research. "Nobody ever felt diminished in his presence," she said. "He just had a way of making you feel like you mattered."
That approach benefited his students as well as his colleagues.
Ms. Kean, now university historian at Rice University, said she came to Creighton as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, after the birth of two children in quick succession made her put aside practicing law. "I couldn't see the way forward," she said. But Mr. Welch's calm counseling took her in the right direction.
A few decades after he helped Ms. Kean, she said, he guided her daughter, Maggie Wissink, over a few bumps on her way to her Creighton degree.
Though his commitment to the university was clear, he liked meetings to wrap up early enough that he could come home for dinner, said his wife, Helen Wanken. The couple shared a devotion to their families and interests in reading, gardening, and organic foods.
Ms. Kean said that for many years, every time she visited Creighton, the first thing she would do was go to Mr. Welch's office to catch up. When she came, along with hundreds of others, to attend her mentor's memorial service on the campus, she wished she could run up to his office once more to seek his advice.