* Editor’s Note: This story on Center Ranch & Dr. Finis Welch ran in the Dec. 1, 2011, issue of Quarter Horse News. Welch passed away on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. His obituary can be found by clicking here.
A man makes his own way, at least if you buy into the idea of opportunism, the concept of free enterprise, the theory of capitalism. No excuses. As Milton Friedman once said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Dr. Finis Welch is one man who’s made his own way.
He was the last of 13 children born to a man who worked in the Texas oilfields. No one told Welch he couldn’t make it big. And if they had, he wouldn’t have believed them anyway.
Today, Welch is one of the world’s foremost economists. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and taught there as a young man. He studied under Milton Friedman and has been a mentor to young and brilliant students – some of whom are today’s leading economists – for both academics and policy. Welch founded a software company and owns Welch Consulting, a business with offices in Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and College Station, Texas. He is Professor Emeritus of Economics at UCLA, and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Economics at Texas A&M. His resumé lists hundreds of articles published in professional journals and books.
He’s past vice president of the American Economic Association and past vice president and president of the Society of Labor Economists. Welch is a member of the National Academy of Education, National Academy of Social Insurance and is a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, American Economic Association and the Society of Labor Economists, along with having served on government regulatory bodies and testified before the U.S. Congress. He is a recipient of the Jacob Mincer Career Achievement Award from the Society of Labor Economists.
And still, Welch’s most important moment happens over and over again, every Friday evening.
That’s when he shuts down the computer, hangs up the phone and leaves his credentials. It’s when he gets into his Ford truck and heads north, up the freeway and down a gravel road. Sixty miles north at his ranch, Welch finds real meaning in the peacefulness of country life, cut- ting horses, cattle and memories he intends to honor.
The Early Years
“We lived in an oilfield in one of the shotgun houses. Just outside Olney, Texas, there’s an oilfield called the Swastika oil field.
Ask Welch, 72, where he was born and that’s the answer you get. At the time, in the 1940s, there was a sizable German population in Texas and that’s where the oilfield moniker originates. In fact, Welch remembers a fellow Future Farmers of America (FFA) officer who was German and spoke in broken English, and had an ag teacher who lectured in German.
Welch’s dad, Edgar, however, was Irish and his mom, Addie (maiden name Houston), was part Cherokee.
“She said that she was a descendant of Sam Houston,” Welch explained about his mother. “I never believed her, but the day we buried her, we were digging through her old papers and we found one of these classic old-time pictures of a new baby, and on the back of it said W.E. Houston, 1863, Bryan, Texas. That was my grandpa.”
The family moved when Welch was 4 from Olney to south Houston, Edgar having been transferred by his company during World War II. Welch’s dad had 10 children from a first marriage, and three, two girls and a boy, in his second marriage. Welch, who was born when Edgar was 54, was the youngest of them all – the last one.
“Why do you think my name is Finis?” he added with a wry smile.
Even now, the son’s respect for his father is evident.
“He was huge and had a low, low voice. He wasn’t very tall, but he had arms like tree trunks. During the Depression, he worked as a blacksmith, and they said he sawed off a 12-pound sledge and he used it as a hammer. I’ve got huge hands, but he had the biggest hands I’ve ever seen.”
His dad taught big lessons. As a teenager, Welch was a busy member of the 4-H and FFA chapters in Pasadena, Texas. The family did not own land, so he kept his animals at various loca- tions where he went before and after school to do the feeding and exercising of his projects. He had sheep, turkeys, fryer chickens and capons – of all which he showed to Championship titles at local and statewide livestock shows. When Welch was a senior in high school, he had a steer project.
“I could drop his halter and walk around and brush him and he’d never take a step. He was dog-gentle. I spent hours and hours working with him. He would stand perfectly still for 10 minutes and never move his front leg 6 inches.”
At the Pasadena Livestock Show in 1956, Welch knew he had the competition wrapped up, as usual. There was another steer standing in line ahead of his, but it was low in the shoulders, and Welch was confident the judge would put things right. But he didn’t, and Welch was not accustomed to losing.
“My dad was standing there and he had ribbons [won with the other project animals] all up and down his arms, up and down his legs. He was just smiling, happy,” Welch remembered. “I came out from showing, the steer throwing a fit, and Dad said, ‘I’m glad.’ ”
Astonished, Welch belted back, “What?!”
“My dad said, ‘That other guy, he doesn’t have anything.’ ”
No matter who has what, who is smartest, most clever or best suited – sometimes life isn’t fair.
Welch and his dad used to talk about buying land and raising cattle, hogs and other livestock.
When he was 18, Welch was at the top of his game. He was state vice president of the FFA, had been student body president of his high school, was a top contender in collegiate-level livestock judging and was studying to be an engineer (although his mom, who was a school- teacher, always hoped he’d be a minister).
“I thought I was going to rule the world,” Welch recalled about his outlook at the time. “There was no shortage of self-confidence, I’ll tell you that.”
In the fall of 1956, just before first-semester final exams started, everything changed.
Welch was 18, and in one week’s time, his father died from natural causes and he was in a serious car crash. He was with the Texas State FFA president and together they were going to Houston to appear on a television farm program. At about 5:30 in the morning, they were traveling along a farm road on the outskirts of the city. It was foggy and pitch-black. Welch was driving and around a corner and boom! His car crashed into a broken-down truck in the middle of the road. The truck had lost its transmission, and the driver had left on foot to find a wrecker.
“I was thrown out of the car and I bent too far forward, so there was a compression fracture,” Welch said, explaining what happened. He was left paralyzed from the waist down. His friend was also thrown from the car but suffered nothing more serious than a muddy FFA jacket.
“I hated him. God, I hated him,” Welch admitted, recalling about how he dealt with the news when he woke up in the hospital. “They had told me I would never walk, and I had to listen to him running around the hospital worrying about how his jacket could be cleaned. My jacket just had two arms, the rest of it was gone. We got to be friends later on, but I was mad at him for a long time.”
In those days, there were few if any accommodations for handicapped people. Determined to not be in a wheelchair, Welch used crutches and braces. It helped when his mom found a specialist who designed more comfortable equip- ment for Welch to use along with incorporating aggressive therapy. Welch lifted weights, main- tained good physical shape and kept trying. Eventually, he was able to traverse miles at a time plus go up and down stairs, thus avoiding a wheelchair for more than three decades.
Within two years after the accident, Welch was back in school. He switched majors from engineering to ag economics. For money, he was raising and selling hogs, along with tutoring fellow college students in math. For a young man whose social life had been busy before, the new routine was anything but smooth. Transitioning from mobility to handicapped was painful – physically and mentally.
“You want to die,” Welch said about how he sometimes felt. “It would be five years before I would go to a movie. I was ashamed. I felt like a freak. I went to college because I had to, but otherwise, I stayed out of sight.”
One thing about it, Welch was smart. His interest in math and agriculture evolved into an absolute passion for economics. He thought ag economics made sense, and so he enrolled in the business school. Welch also had support from his family along with a group of businessmen and teachers who made it their mission to help. These men – two who were supposed to appear with Welch and his fellow FFA officer on that television show in Houston, plus the business school department head – met with Welch every semester. They asked about his plans, offered encouragement and tried to make sure their young charge stayed on track.
When he got ready to graduate from college in 1961, Welch had the highest grades of his class – except for those straight F’s earned in the first semester (Welch never had a chance to take his finals). Once the dean of the business school heard the circumstances, however, those early grades disappeared from the transcript.
The young man who grew up in a shotgun house in the Texas oilfield, the one who over- came tremendous loss at an early age – this is the same one who confidently applied to the University of Chicago.
“It was really funny because they wanted me to go to law school and offered to loan me the money to go to law school,” Welch said, remembering what that group of three men thought about his decision to pursue economics at the University of Chicago. “They said all economists were communists and that I would be a communist.”
A few years later, Welch would send each of those men an autographed copy of Milton Friedman’s freshly written book Capitalism and Freedom.
“I put a note on the inside saying, ‘This is the kind of communism they teach at the University of Chicago.’ I never got a response, so my guess is they never opened it they were so convinced that he was a communist.”
Truthfully, Welch had no idea of what was in store. He was convinced he’d get the same edu- cation, no matter the school. He just happened to get accepted into University of Chicago.
“At Houston, they gave me an office with grad- uate students because I had so much trouble getting around. So the guy I shared the office with, I promised him that when I got to Chicago I would write and tell him there was no difference between Houston and Chicago.
“That’s one letter that never got written.”
Welch was accepted into the UOC Economics Department and he headed northward with a plan to succeed. The standout student from Houston was tossed in with the rest of the standout students in the department, each with the same plans for success. Of course, all the rest was not very many. Standards at the University of Chicago were and continue to be among the most rigorous in the world, and there’s no patience for less than outstanding.
“We used to say they have an ‘open front door and an open behind door’ policy,” Welch said with a laugh. “They literally flunked out half the people the first year. The old joke was, ‘Don’t bother to get to know the person beside you because one of you won’t be there next year.’ Well, it ended up to be true.”
It was difficult, even for a fellow who graduated top of his class at the University of Houston. Welch recalls the core test that all economics students were required to take at the end of their freshman year. His study group had 12, all friends, and just four made it to the sophomore year.
What a time to be at UOC, a time when American society was transforming, when Keynesian theory was mature enough to be analyzed but young enough to still deserve a chance. Professors were brilliant and common- sensical, analytical and imaginative – all at once. Welch was cognizant that he couldn’t sit around and wait for life to happen to him – there wasn’t time for that.
He went into UOC fully confident that one day he’d be presenting his dissertation before a panel.
“I had been at Chicago just for a few weeks and there was this guy, an Israeli, who had invited me to dinner, and he was ranting and raving because he had given his presentation and Gregg [Lewis] had nailed him. Gregg was famous for going into a guy’s final defense and pointing out the fundamental mistakes.
“So toward the end of my first year, I went to Gregg and said, ‘I want you on my dissertation committee.’ He said, ‘Well, what are you going to work on?’ I told him I had no idea and he asked why I wanted him. I said, ‘Because you have a reputation for shooting everyone down and I don’t want to be surprised.’ He started laughing and we just became great friends.”
Welch went to Chicago looking forward to taking a price theory class from George Stigler, who at the time had just authored the definitive textbook on price theory – one Welch had already read. (Stigler would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1982). Instead, Welch was walled into taking price theory from someone else.
“He walked into the classroom and he was bald on top, but he had sort of shaggy beard and desperately needed a haircut on the sides,” Welch said, recalling his first impression of the professor. “He had a yellow shirt on that had been white at some time. He had a double- breasted jacket that did not match his trousers. His shoes looked like he’d been kicking cans, and he had little tiny feet, like a kid.
“He walked up to the room and said, ‘Today I’m going to talk to you about the meaning of economics.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, right, you’re going to talk to me?’ I mean everybody in this room was a top student and we all got economics.”
Milton Friedman continued his lecture.
“About 20 minutes in, I was just sitting there with my mouth hanging. If he had said, ‘I want you to get up and go jump out that window,’ I would have been the first one out. He was just fascinating. He was so clear-minded and so tough. He was unbelievable.”
Friedman, who won the 1976 Nobel Prize for reality he’d always imagined. He observed and participated as professors challenged students, and the best and brightest students challenged back. He gained experience that he’d one day apply to his own doctoral students, such as Kevin Murphy, whom Welch taught at UCLA. Murphy, who is considered by many to be the best and smartest economist of his generation, now has a joint appointment as a professor in the Department of Economics and Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
While in his last year as a student at Chicago, Welch was asked to join the Department of Economics faculty.
According to Welch, the University of Chicago’s economics department likes the mix, prefers to bring in fresh ideas, new concepts and differ- ent viewpoints from the outside. Therefore, his contract was for just three years. After that, this bright young man would surely head to the Ivy League or the equivalent.
Instead, he headed back to Texas, to Southern Methodist University. That’s where his family housed on one graduate campus.
In 1973, Welch and his family, which included a son, Sam, and two daughters, Marcia and Melissa, moved to California. Welch worked dual jobs, both as a researcher and program director at RAND and a doctoral professor of economics at UCLA. He loved California, with its mild cli- mate and aggressive academic community, and thought it would be home permanently.
He discovered otherwise.
Welch had a sister in Texas who was aging and not doing well. In order to have a place to stay near her, in 1987 he purchased 130 acres near Centerville. Sam was not nearly as passionate about school as his dad had been, so after high school graduation, he asked if he could take a year off, move to the ranch and build fence.
“This kid grew up on the beaches in Southern California and had never worked, so I thought it’d be great,” Welch said. “Well, by the fall, he’d had all the fence building he wanted.”
Sam’s Plan B was to start school at Texas A&M University in College Station, about an hour south of the ranch. That way, he could go to school but still enjoy his newfound passion of horseback riding. Problem was, he missed the school’s application deadline. Sam figured his dad had some sway, so he called and asked for help. Welch knew the chair of the Economics Department – deal was, they’d take Sam’s application if Welch would agree to teach one day a week at Texas A&M’s business school.
On Monday, Welch worked in his Los Angeles office. He taught all day at UCLA on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, he’d work in the office in the morning and then catch an afternoon flight to Houston. Welch kept a truck at the airport, so he’d drive up to College Station that night and teach at Texas A&M all day on Thursday and part of Friday.
“Sam got out of class at noon and we’d head to the ranch. It was great because I got to see him every week. Sunday at noon, I headed back to the airport.”
Within a year, Welch took a leave from UCLA and moved to College Station. Incidentally, University of Chicago tried three times to get Welch to re-join the faculty in the Department of Economics, but at last it was clear he planned stay the course in Texas.
Today, Welch is still in Texas, as are his two daughters. He recalls those early times with Sam.
“Oh, we got along good,” Welch said with a smile. “Now, he wasn’t that good of a student – he seemed to think he could learn economics through osmosis. I would try to teach him some stuff, but he liked ranching.”
Apparently, so did his father.
Sam was interested in roping, and he also purchased a beginner-level cutting horse from Ronnie Nettles, a cutting trainer who lives between College Station and Centerville. Welch said he paid all his kids the same allowance, but that Sam didn’t spend a dime so he could afford to cut.
“Sam bought the horse on layaway,” Welch explained. “He would send Ronnie a payment every month, and Ronnie would let him ride it for a couple of hours every week.”
Just when it looked as though father and son had found the ideal family business arrange- ment, Sam was killed in an auto accident, his vehicle struck by a truck whose driver had fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Somewhere between grief, anger and just plain giving up, Welch found inspiration in the continuation of Sam’s dream. The ranch transformed into Center Ranch, and Welch embarked on a mission of developing the land, building the cattle herd and improving the horses. It’s a process that’s been gradual over two decades.
Lighter moments are woven in among the tragedy, the challenge, the recollections. Take for instance the first time Welch went to an auction to buy cattle in the 1990s. He was supposed to go with an ag teacher he’d had in high school, but that man ended up not being able to attend. Welch went alone.
“I hadn’t seen a cow for 35 years and they didn’t look like I remembered,” he said with a laugh. Far as he knew, the short, fat Hereford was still the ideal.
As fate would have it, a man was there with a table set up, selling copies of a book he’d just written. He was the auctioneer who sold all the 4-H and FFA livestock when Welch was a kid. The book featured photos of the Texas State Champion steers from the previous 43 years. Welch thumbed through the book and realized the short, fat Hereford was a thing of the past.
“I thought, well, I’m an economist, so I’ll try this another way. So, I started watching people and noticed some of the guys were studying very carefully and taking notes. I picked three guys to watch. They must’ve thought I was the buyer from hell because if they started bidding strong on a cow, I bought her.”
Welch was perfectly satisfied with ranching when his arrangement was interrupted by an exciting evening in Fort Worth in December 1999. His veterinarian had a horse in training with Bill Freeman. Welch and his ranch manager, Jay Dickson, went up to that year’s National Cutting Horse Association Futurity to watch that cutting horse compete in the Open semifinals.
The horse may have lost a cow, but Welch gained a brand-new passion. His friend went home and Welch stayed on for the sale, where he purchased a Playgun stallion and a High Brow Hickory mare to use on the ranch. On Sunday evening, he watched as Shania Cee and Shannon Hall won the Futurity.
Ronnie Rice lived not far from Centerville at the time, and Welch got to know the trainer and his family. He was hooked to the sport for good when at the 2001 NCHA Futurity Ronnie Rice finished first on San Tule Freckles and his son, Tag, finished second on Mr Beamon.
“It was just amazing,” Welch said about that particular finals. “I was hooked and completely hoarse by the time the thing was over. I had screamed my head off.”
Welch followed cutting, but from a distance. That changed a couple of years later when Welch’s veterinarian called from an auction, talking about a nice High Brow Cat filly coming into the ring. Sight unseen, Welch purchased the young horse.
“We were looking for a trainer, and we took her over to Gerald [Alexander] and just lucked into one of the best guys in the world,” Welch said about what happened next. Alexander liked the filly and suggested Welch send her to Ronnie Rice. That filly turned out to be CR Cats Meow (High Brow Cat x Smart Little Sandy x Smart Little Lena), the horse Rice showed to Reserve in the Derby Open at the 2004 Breeder’s Invitational. CR Cats Meow now has one money- earning offspring, Dual Rey mare CR Little Cat ($21,888).
“A Winning Team Every Time”
Center Ranch is no longer a ranch. Instead, it’s a multifaceted, 9,000-acre operation where top-shelf Quarter Horses are bred, raised and trained; hay is grown and sold; and a state- of-the-art equine reproduction center operates in conjunction with a full-service large animal veterinary clinic along with a complete labora- tory. Ronnie Rice, a two-time NCHA Futurity Champion with $4.4 million in cutting earnings, operates his training business at Center Ranch.
The Center Ranch’s motto is: “A winning team every time.”
At this year’s NCHA Futurity, there’s one heck of a Center Ranch team. It includes four horses entered in the Open division: CR Dees Boon Meow (Peptoboonsmal x Dees Cats Meow x High Brow Cat), a mare shown by Tag Rice; Jewel Bars Cat (High Brow Cat x Sprats Dualin Jewel x Lenas Jewel Bars), a gelding ridden by Ronnie Rice; and two with Boyd Rice, mare CR Sun Reys (Dual Rey x Play Peek A Boon x Freckles Playboy, and mare CR Smart Brow April (High Brow Cat x Smart April x Smart Peppy Doc). Center Ranch is the breeder of CR Smart Brow April and CR Dees Boon Meow.
The Equi-Stat owner report for Center Ranch shows there are 24 horses that have won right at $315,000. Topping this list is stallion Smart Royal Rey (Dual Rey x Peek A Boon x Smart Little Lena), a who has $82,165 in earnings that started with a tie for seventh with Tag Rice at the 2005 NCHA Futurity.
Of course, the Equi-Stat owner report does not paint the whole picture, as several Center Ranch horses were acquired while still competing, thus having earned money while belonging to other owners. One example is Woody Be Tuff (Nitas Wood x Tuffs Junie x Tuff Lena), a 2001 stallion with $351,063 in earnings won in the Open by Austin Shepard and Don Crumpler, and in the Non-Pro by Lana Jill Peacock. Center Ranch purchased Woody Be Tuff in January 2008, and he’s the star centerpiece of the ranch’s breeding program.
Another example is Peppy Plays For Cash (Playgun x Peppys Dreamgirl x Peppy San Badger), a stallion Center Ranch bought in September 2006. At the 2002 NCHA Futurity, this horse finished third in the Non-Pro with Lewie Wood and eighth in the Open with Kobie Wood. A little over seven years later, Steve Oehlhof showed Peppy Plays For Cash in the 2009 NCHA World Finals and finished 10th in that competition. Said and done, this stallion has $304,713 in lifetime cutting earnings.
Horses bred by Center Ranch started building a record in 2008 and have since put close to $200,000 on the books. The program, however, is now getting major momentum – Welch is buying fewer horses while breeding, training, showing and selling more. He’s built the business and is now producing the product. In addition to a strong band of broodmares, Center Ranch stands five stallions: Woody Be Tuff, Smart Royal Rey and Peppy Plays For Cash, in addition to Looking Marvelous (Peppy San Badger x Pobre Marvilla x El Pobre) a sire of accomplished rope horses; and Little Peppys Ultimo (Peppy San Badger x Miss Royal Boon x Boon Bar), a former MillionHeir stallion who has $578,770 in offspring earnings.
Building from scratch, insisting on excel- lence and staying the course to success, that’s the way Finis Welch has conducted his entire life. The horse business is free enterprise of a different stripe than the one where Welch started. Yes, it’s based on the same principles of supply and demand, but for Welch, Center Ranch is about coming full circle, of coming home. It’s the real-life summation of one man’s experiences.