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State College Partnership Registry Helps Uphold Welch Legacy

on October 03, 2011 10:16 AM

With a quick remark, former State College Mayor Bill Welch launched the groundwork for the domestic-partnership registry that's taken shape in the borough this year.

In fact, it wasn't long before his death that Welch delivered the rhetorical spark, Borough Council member Peter Morris recalled Sunday.

He said it came in 2009, shortly after Harrisburg City Council created -- in December 2008 -- a partnership registry for unmarried couples there.

During an unbroadcast aside at a State College council meeting, Morris said, Welch mentioned the Harrisburg council's action.

"He was definitely in favor of it," Morris said. "He thought it was a great idea."

Morris said he can't remember whether Welch said specifically that State College ought to take a similar action.

Either way, the mayor's words were enough to engage Morris' activist mind.

"At first, I was assuming that he (Welch) would be around. He was certain to be reelected," Morris said. "It (the partnership registry) was something we could do in his next term," expected to commence in 2010.

"Unfortunately, there was no next term."

Welch died unexpectedly on Sept. 4, 2009, from medical complications after leg surgery. He was 67.


***

But Morris, known for bringing an ideological streak to council, wasn't about to let the partnership-registry idea fade.

He began researching it in 2010. He talked to people in town. He gathered some preliminary support.

At some point that year, he got the concept some initial discussion time on a council-meeting agenda. Momentum started to build more formally.

"I think probably if Bill had been around, it would have moved faster," Morris said. "He's the mayor."

The borough administration soon began conducting its own extensive research, delving into the nuances of partnership registries elsewhere and culling "the best of each," as Morris put it.

***

Other politically progressive reaches of Pennsylvania -- including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- have taken similar steps.

The principle is pretty straightforward. In the absence of more broad civil rights for unmarried couples in Pennsylvania, a partnership registry allows those couples to document the duration and legitimacy of their respective relationships.

Such documentation can be important when, for instance, they need to establish benefits eligibility with an employer. It also can be critical when a hospital needs proof of a relationship in dire medical circumstances.

And so, acting without dissent, State College Borough Council voted in August to establish a domestic-partnership registry in State College. It's open to all couples in the area -- not just those who live in the borough proper.

The registry formally opened Saturday, when the borough celebrated its creation in a public ceremony. Five local couples -- spanning at least a couple generations -- participated.

"All segments of the population should be recognized and have a part in the community -- not just tolerated, but have a real part in the community," Morris told me Sunday. "I think there are lots of groups who are insufficiently recognized -- the students, for example. ...

"The gay community is another (example) where they're there, but they aren't prominent in our civil life. As far as I know, there is no gay person on the council -- and never has been."

And since gay couples face discriminatory marriage laws -- set at the state level -- it's especially important that local communities their relationships, Morris said.

"Relationships are a fundamental part of everybody's life," he said. "Recognizing (gay relationships) is an important step in recognizing them as an integral part of the community. And I think that's the thing that sort of drives this for me."

***

Fortunately for everyone involved, no protesters showed up Saturday for the partnership-registry celebration.

That wasn't the case back in spring 2008, when Welch presided over a same-sex commitment ceremony at Penn State's HUB-Robeson Center. Anti-gay-right demonstrators gathered nearby.

Welch wasn't cowed.

"I'm in favor of love," he said unashamedly to WJAC TV at the time.

With that history as background, it was all the more meaningful Saturday that the partnership-registry event was the first gathering held on the newly dedicated Mayor Welch Plaza, as sitting Mayor Elizabeth Goreham said.

The plaza-dedication event preceded the registry gathering by about an hour. Several dozen people turned out in the rain for the service, which included the unveiling of a new plaque in Welch's honor. (An image of the plaque, at the front of the borough municipal building, 243 S. Allen St., is posted above.)

"Bill's commitment to State College was a commitment to the people of State College," longtime friend Bob Potter said at the dedication. "He understood that, ultimately, everything was about people -- about where we live, how we live, where we work, our fears, our hopes and who we live with.

"He listened and supported everything and anything he thought was for the best for the people of State College," Potter went on.

And nothing, he added, would've made Welch happier than the partnership registry.

"He supported the lifestyles of all people within the law -- and then he supported expanding the law to make sure all people are welcome here," Potter said.

"He always came down on the side of the people."

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