Hundreds pay tribute to Sheriff at surprise gala
● By Steven Hoffman
Hundreds of people in Chester County know how to keep a secret, an ability put on display at the Mendenhall Inn on Nov. 14.
For weeks, organizers of a surprise retirement gala for Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Bunny Welsh had worried that one of the many people who knew about the event might inadvertently slip up and say something to arouse her suspicions. The proof that no one did occurred when Welsh walked in the main ballroom, where 300 guests awaited her entrance.
“I’m never going to believe any of you again,” said Welsh, momentarily covering her eyes and shaking her head in amazement. Clearly, she wasn’t there to address a political gathering -- the ruse used to lure her to the Mendenhall. “I can’t believe you pulled this off.”
The capacity crowd represented a cross-section of Welsh’s diverse career. Lawmakers, lawyers, jurists, entrepreneurs, employees, elected officials, relatives, Rotarians, local celebrities, friends and family members were among those in attendance.
Welsh’s own career began as the head of a construction company and was followed with a 20-year stint as Chester County’s Sheriff, the first woman to hold that post. During her tenure as sheriff, Welsh logged numerous, notable “firsts.” She began by becoming the first woman to be elected president of a graduating class at the National Sheriffs Institute at the Department of Corrections in Colorado. In July 2009, Sheriff Welsh was sworn in as president of the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association. This was the first time in the 88-year history of the association that a woman had been elected to the top leadership position.
In January 2011, Welsh, a proud mother of four and grandmother of nine, was elected to the Board of the National Sheriffs Association. It oversees more than 3,000 sheriffs across the nation; about 40 are female. She currently serves on the NSA’s executive committee as first vice president, the first woman to hold that post.
Welsh’s leadership has led to numerous awards and recognitions, both for her and the office. In 2008 and 2011, the CCSO was selected as the top sheriff’s office in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for Crime Prevention and Community Outreach. In 2018, Welsh received the Senator Robert J. Thompson Public Service Award for her many achievements. In 2019, she became the first sheriff to win the 44th Annual Thomas J. McGinley Award, an honor previously bestowed to deputies for outstanding service.
Those accolades for Welsh continued at the dinner, which was emceed by former NBC 10 broadcaster Bill Baldini, and deejayed by South Coatesville Police Chief Kevin Pierce. Welsh received recognition from multiple sources. Plaques came from the state Senate, the state House, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 11, the Deputy Sheriffs Association, the Magisterial District Judges, the Middle Atlantic-Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network. She even received a congratulatory letter from the White House.
But perhaps the most heartwarming presentation came from someone who wasn’t listed on the program. John Sooy, the sheriff’s 15-year-old grandson, asked if he could have the mic. He then proceeded to speak eloquently about how proud he is of his grandmother and how much he loves her. He was a tough act to follow, but Welsh is also skilled at impromptu remarks.
She said she still hadn’t recovered from the sabotage used to guarantee her presence and wondered aloud whether she could ever trust people again. Welsh said she’s often asked about the best and worst parts of her job, and the answer comes easily.
“The best part is the community that I’m able to reach out to and work with; I really enjoy that community policing, community sheriffing. The worst part is you worry every day about the men and women under your command,” she said, recalling instances when her deputies were exposed to a well-armed sniper and a knife-wielding assailant.
Other than the military, law enforcement represents the only profession where “you can take a life, you can save a life or you can give a life” in the course of daily duties, Welsh noted. “That is pretty profound,” she added.
In closing, Welsh said, “I’m really overwhelmed. This is so very special to me after all these years … I’m truly blessed.”