Family and friends describe Willard F. “Bill” Wellman as a consummate storyteller with a sharp wit who spent his long life working to improve Northwest Indiana.

Wellman, 97, died June 2 just about two weeks shy of his 98th birthday.

Speros Batistatos, former long-time president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, described Wellman as a father-figure and mentor.

“The one thing about Bill Wellman is I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love him. He had a way of immediately putting you at ease and finding some area of common ground,” he said.

“He was a storyteller. His razor-sharp wit. Some of the times I laughed the hardest was the result of Bill Wellman,” Batistatos said.

Wellman found marriages in marketing and ideas not a lot of people have the skill set to do, he said. He worked quietly behind the scenes to move the Region forward. Wellman was instrumental in putting together the deal with White Lodgings’ Bruce White for the land where the Indiana Welcome Center was built in Hammond. He was on the SSCVA’s board at the time and together they worked with a coalition of a dozen local banks to get the bonding for the project. The exhibit hall at the visitors’ center was dedicated to Wellman.

“I just think he was a visionary and a storyteller; and you see his stories all over Northwest Indiana,” Batistatos said.

Wellman was a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps during WWII. He was 17 when he joined and he fought in the Pacific Campaign from 1943-1945. He developed respect for the patriotic song “Taps” during his time on burial duty aboard a hospital ship

His service instilled in Wellman a commit to helping his fellow veterans. Later in life, he created TAPS (Time-line Audio Player System) of America, which is used by VFW and American Legion posts, cemeteries and government buildings among other places to play “Taps” daily at nightfall as well as other songs.

After returning home, Wellman attended Valparaiso University and Indiana University where he lettered in baseball, a lifelong love, according to his family. He married his first wife, Joanne Elizabeth Larsh in 1948 and the couple had three children.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said he had known Wellman since he was a child, when his own father and uncle played baseball with him.

“I was a batboy for their ball team,” Soliday said. As a young adult, he owned a small charter business where he flew Wellman and his partner to Oshkosh, Wisconsin so they could borrow money for their first hotel.

“He had a very good life. He was sharp. Bill always had a story. He was a walking historian, a great guy to know. He was a guy who really cared about the region and was deeply involved,” Soliday said.

Soliday and Wellman were neighbors until Wellman moved closer to downtown Valparaiso so he could walk to the places he enjoyed.

“He wanted to make it to 100. I will tell you he lived his 98 years as well as anyone could have,” Soliday said.

Wellman had a great sense of humor and a quiet approach.

“Great things get done quietly. Bill was the model of that,” Soliday said. “He could very subtly set the tone in a room. He seemed to have a sixth sense for what the right thing to do was and he knew how to communicate to get things done.”

Wellman early on was a restauranteur. According to the family members, he opened Wellman’s in 1958 and the family added a Holiday Inn in 1968. In 1967, he opened the Bridge VU Dinner Theater which hosted VU production and drama students along with big name acts including Phyllis Diller, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys and Duke Ellington. In 1974, he opened The Court restaurant in Valparaiso across from the Porter County Courthouse.

Soliday said Wellman knew more people in entertainment than even imaginable and was responsible for bringing top quality entertainment like pianist Junior Waters to city through his restaurants.

“(Waters) was a great entertainer. You just didn’t find that in a place like Valparaiso in those days that far from the big city,” Soliday said.

“He lived life to the fullest. He got a lot of mileage out of the time he had on this planet. We’ll miss him, Soliday said.

Soon after opening The Court, Wellman met Dean White, owner of Whiteco Industries, and they formed a collaboration to increase tourism in Northwest Indiana. In 1976, he helped design and open the Holiday Star Theater in Merrillville. He managed the theater until 1980 when he became VP of Communications for Whiteco Industries. He continued in that role until he retired at the age of 91.

Bruce White, founder and chairman of White Lodging, described Wellman as a man of great character and an important part if his life.

“He was a man that you could trust from the moment you met him; a quality that he and my father held deeply,” White said.

Wellman was a bright light in so many lives and was an optimistic champion for what was possible in Northwest Indiana, he continued.

“While he will be terribly missed, his legacy and impact are forever,” White said.

Bill Hanna, executive director of the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, called Wellman an “American original like his life-long friend, Dean White.”

Both men, he said, made it there mission to build up Northwest Indiana and to inspire others to do the same. Wellman was optimistic, determined, creative and always willing to lead. The duo made a tremendous team, he said.

“Bill has left his mark in the area and, although he will be missed, he will not be forgotten by his friends and family here at the Foundation,” Hanna said.

Wellman was very committed to promoting his home state. He was the chairman of the Indiana Restaurant Association and the Northwest Indiana Forum. He served on the Valparaiso School Board for eight years and was on the board of directors for the South Shore Convention Visitors Authority, where he served through 2021. In 2007, he was named a Sagamore of the Wabash and in 2017 he received an Honorary Doctor of Commercial Service from Valparaiso University. He donated his time to community endeavors such as Trade Winds and Opportunity Enterprises.

Wellman remained creative and innovative his entire life. At the age of 82, encouraged by his wife Liz, he authored a book entitled “It’s Made to Sell, Not to Drink.” The title was based on advice given to him by his father.

After his wife Liz died, Wellman, at 90, married his second wife Roberta Norwich.

Wellman donated his body to the Indiana University Northwest School of Medicine Anatomical Education Program, and there will be a celebration of life at a later date. In lieu of flowers, his family asked to consider making a donation to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

Carrie Napoleon is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.



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