Council chair Philip B. Wels: 60-year history of service to UB


News Services Director

THE LIVES OF the University at Buffalo and Philip B. Wels, M.D., have been so closely entwined for more than 60 years that it's difficult to think of the life of the university without Wels, or of that of the surgeon without his alma mater.

As the university celebrates its sesquicentennial, the chair of the UB Council is serving as honorary chair of the 18-month observance, attending every meeting of the planning committee, reminding the planners that the 150th birthday should be celebrated with a "big bang."

Wels has lent more than his name and support to UB's sesquicentennial.

Among the memorabilia to be displayed for the next six months in the "UB Remembers" sesquicentennial exhibit is Phil Wels' blue letterman's sweater with its prominent white block-B with three stripes-one each for the two years he was captain of UB's fencing team and one for representing the U.S. on the 1936 Olympic fencing squad.

"I was up in my attic rummaging through some boxes one day," he recalls. "I pulled something out of one of them and on the bottom of the carton I saw my block-B sweater. I was able to get into it, but I had to have my wife help me get out of it."

Word of his discovery spread on campus-and to the ears of university archivist Shonnie Finnegan-after Wels wore the sweater to a UB Bulls football game. It will come as no surprise to those who know the two that Finnegan asked Wels to donate his sweater to the University Archives, and that the varsity sweater of the man who never says "no" to UB, is now part of the exhibit.

"Phil loves UB," notes President William R. Greiner. "He always has. We hope he always will. He's really part of the heart of the place." Greiner adds: "We couldn't ask for a better friend and leader than Phil Wels.

"He is an immensely dedicated, deeply committed Council chair. He takes the role very seriously and brings to it a genuine passion for the university and its people. He is also one of our most loyal and distinguished medical alumni. And he is one of my most valued mentors and friends."

Born in New York City, educated in Brooklyn, Phil Wels first set foot on UB soil in the early 1930s. Wels' immersion in the life of the campus dates back to his undergraduate days. He was vice president of the student union and president of the Bisonhead Men's Honorary Society. He was founder of the UB fencing team, a member of the squad for two years and later its coach from 1938-40. His accomplishments in the sport earned him inclusion in the inaugural group of former UB athletes and coaches inducted into the UB Athletic Hall of Fame in 1965.

Wels earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1937 and a master's degree in parasitology and his medical degree from UB's medical school in 1939 and 1941, respectively.

He looks back to his days as a medical student as the most significant in his development as a doctor and educator.

"When I first started medical school, the teachers were very involved in many aspects of my life," he recalls. "Those people were immensely interested in my well-being as a person. The importance of that in my life cannot be stressed enough."

Wels completed his medical studies and internship shortly before the United States entered World War II and then served with distinction for nearly four years in the Pacific Theater as a member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

When he returned to Buffalo to serve his residency in surgery, UB was observing its centennial. While there were celebrations and parties, he recalls, "It was just post-war; there was a lot of solemnity." Wels completed his residency in surgery at the old Meyer Memorial Hospital in 1948. Two years later, he was appointed to UB's medical faculty.

A board-certified surgeon and clinical professor of surgery, Wels has held several administrative positions in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, including assistant dean. A founding member of the school's continuing medical-education committee, he chaired the medical school's admissions committee from 1965-70, and serves as a member of the dean's advisory council. In 1984, he received the William Halstead Award as outstanding teacher in surgery.

Wels twice served as chair of the Department of Surgery at Millard Fillmore Hospital. He chaired the hospital's research committee, and was a member of its executive, special projects and long-range planning committees.

Wels has been affiliated with the University at Buffalo Foundation since 1972. He is a trustee and serves on its executive committee.

He was named to the UB Council, the university's local governing group, in 1980. He was named vice chair in 1991 and head of the council a year later. As chair, Wels says he attempts to carry on the tradition that helped shape his own young life, that of being a mentor to today's students.

"I get many requests from undergraduate and graduate students, wanting to talk to me about getting into various schools and about their future lives," he notes.

He tells the story of encountering a recent UB biology graduate who was waitressing at a local restaurant and being moved by her terror at not knowing what to do with her professional life after four years at the university. "I know many young people in the sciences who go through four years at the university and don't know what they want. So I decided to try and help them."

Wels said that after much deliberation and some consultation with President Greiner, he decided to teach an undergraduate course through Millard Fillmore College on careers in the health-related professions. His goal is to offer students a sense of reassurance and guidance.

"The course will be rather basic and I'll bring in quite a few people who work in the health-related professions," he explains. "That should help ground the course in the real world. Being a mentor to students is important work for any faculty member."

UB has recognized Wels with a Distinguished Alumni Award, the Dean's Award in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the Chancellor Capen Award. In 1993, he was recipient of the Medical Alumni Association Achievement Award for conspicuous and outstanding career achievement.

In his tradition of never saying "no" to his alma mater, Wels recently assumed chair manship of the Family Phase of the UB Fund's Annual Appeal, "Take Stock in Our Future."

He sees it as yet another opportunity to repay UB. The appeal, which runs through April, offers those whose professional lives revolve around UB an opportunity to give something back, according to Wels.

"It's important that we, as the UB community, try to help our institution," he explains. "The allocation of state money has eroded to such an extent that it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to offset the shortfall. It's like the old (John F.) Kennedy quote, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.' I feel obligated to help this university.

"I've been around for a long time," Wels adds. "This university has been good to me since the days when I was an undergraduate. The training I received, from teachers who were truly interested in my well-being, was outstanding. They gave my life opportunity and focus." He credits UB with giving his life a professional richness that would have been unachievable in a private practice alone.

"I was fortunate to be able to combine a private practice with being a full time academician. My life has been the better for it."

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