BOSTON (State House News Service) – Former Senate Clerk William Welch, who spent nearly half a century in various roles at the State House under nine Senate presidents, died unexpectedly on Saturday two weeks before his 73rd birthday.

A Harvard football season ticket-holder, Welch had just watched the Crimson play Holy Cross at Harvard Stadium. He was traveling back to his car on the Red Line when he stricken, according to an obituary.

“My thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones following his unexpected death,” Senate President Karen Spilka wrote Monday in a message to Senate and House members and their staffs.

“Billy provided a lifetime of service to the Senate, always with his trademark beaming smile and kindness. During his time here, he helped generations of Senators, staff and members of the press and public navigate the legislative process,” Spilka wrote. “He treated us all as equals, was always willing to lend a hand, and always had a smile and a good word for everyone. He exemplified the best of what the Senate could and should be.”

Visiting hours are scheduled for Wednesday morning from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at Edwards Memorial Funeral Home (44 Congress St., Milford), followed by an 11 a.m. Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church (7 East Main St., Milford).

A graduate of St. Joseph’s University and New England School of Law, Welch started out as a Senate office page in 1970 and came on board fulltime in 1973 as a clerical assistant in the clerk’s office. He served as calendar clerk from 1980 to 1998, then as assistant clerk until 2003 when he took charge of the office following Clerk Patrick Scanlan’s retirement.

Building insiders were popping into the Senate clerk’s office Monday afternoon to offer condolences — Ben Flucas of Legislative Information Services, legislative aide Mark Sternman, and Secretary of State William Galvin, to name a few.

Galvin, whose office is next door to the clerk’s, said he was “stunned” to learn the news this morning and recalled how Welch had again become a regular presence in the building in recent months. He called Welch’s passing “a loss to this institution.”

“He was always a great guy, and very professional. Always proper and correct,” Galvin said. ” … He would be respectful of the Senate’s prerogative, so he would never say, ‘Well, this is what we’re going to do,’ or, ‘This is what they’re going to do.’ … You’d have to sort of read between the lines as to, OK, what didn’t he say, and what did he say.”

Minority Leader Bruce Tarr remembered Welch as a “consummate professional who cared deeply about the Senate as an institution, its members, and the integrity of its operations.”

“Bill not only cared about the Senate’s official business, he also cared deeply about its members as people, and his relationships with the members were meaningful and enduring, and all of us will long cherish having had him in our lives,” Tarr wrote to the News Service.

House Clerk Steven James was already working in the House clerk’s office when Welch was starting out on the Senate side. In the 1970s, they had parallel jobs handling bill histories for their respective chambers, and James recalled updating bill actions on an early computer terminal connected to a mainframe.

Coordinating their work in those days before email, it meant multiple phone conversations each day between James and Welch, who in the following decades would both rise to top clerkships.

“He was a very brilliant man, and he worked hard,” James said. “… We had several things in common. Besides working in the Legislature, we both loved college hockey and I would see him occasionally at college hockey games, especially Northeastern.”

James added that while he is a “big fan” of hockey, Welch was “an enormous fan.”

Often clad in a team cap or jersey, Welch possessed an encyclopedic knowledge, played men’s league hockey until around a decade ago, and seldom missed a Frozen Four championship. Welch had already told his successor, Clerk Michael Hurley, that he wouldn’t be helping out in the office early next April — he’d bought tickets to the Frozen Four in Tampa.

“He would’ve been a great hockey scout, I think,” Hurley said. “… During all the drafts, I used to say, ‘Billy, who do we have for prospects?’ And he’s like, ‘The kid McAvoy. Charlie McAvoy.’ … He knew. Like, he followed his whole hockey career.”

Described as someone who liked to pitch in and help however he could, Welch got involved with American Legion Baseball and the Post 59 team in Milford, initially assisting with parliamentary matters that arose in the league.

“Then he would actually do some of the announcing,” Hurley said. “And he also cooked at some of the cookouts there during the season. He’d do anything — he’d love it — like cook, flip burgers. And he’d say, ‘I’m announcing tonight.'”

He retired from the Senate at the close of 2018 after a year that saw the upper chamber rocked by scandal, unprecedented situations, and leadership changes. Through it all, the clerk seemed to be the one constant on the rostrum.

Just months after he left the State House, he started pitching in again in 2019.

Hurley had phoned Welch to check in on how his retirement was going, and Welch’s wife, Maureen, picked up.

“It had maybe been nine months or so after he’d been gone,” Hurley recalled. “I called and I said, ‘How’s he doing?’ So she says, ‘You know that chair that you guys gave him when he left? Well, he’s starting to grow roots in it.'”

Hurley conceived of a part-time return that involved Welch proofing the Senate Journals. (He made so much headway in the last couple years that three new sets of Journals are headed for the printers.) Welch’s new desk was tucked into an alcove just outside Hurley’s door, and the new clerk said he valued being able to “bounce things off of” Welch as different situations arose.

The clerk’s office is the repository for the branch’s institutional memory — the clerks and their staff outlast a lot of lawmakers — and the clerk becomes a sort of legislative historian. Welch’s deep respect for the institution he served was apparent as he told those old tales to younger people navigating the legislative process.

Faces of past clerks adorn the walls of the third-floor office where they once worked — greats like Clerk Edward O’Neill and master parliamentarian Norman Pidgeon, whose portrait hangs over the desk where Welch last sat. The current staff members prevailed upon Welch recently to give them a picture of himself that could be added to the collection, and he brought in a photo last month.

First Assistant Clerk Stacey LeMay had just gotten it framed over the weekend. No grand unveiling was in the works — Welch wasn’t that kind of guy — but the staff planned to quietly hang it on the wall. The idea was that when he came into work one day, he would get a nice surprise out of seeing himself up there.

Staff had already ordered a plaque with his name and years of service to affix to the frame.

“Can you imagine? … Stacey drove in with it today. Just, it’s one of those things. You just never know,” Hurley said.

Hurley remembered Welch as “very even-keeled” — someone who was “big on neutrality, treating everybody with respect.”

He also recalled 25 years of Memorial Day weekends spent together working on the Senate budget, and the things they’d joke about, like how Welch preferred to spend those weekends walking around without shoes.

“He was just a genuinely good person,” Hurley said.

“The main thing I tried to do was to maintain the reputation of the office,” Welch told the News Service shortly before his 2018 retirement. “It’s always had a good one and I didn’t want to do anything to downgrade that. I hope I have succeeded in that.”

The news was so sudden, with word still spreading and funeral arrangements not yet complete, that there was no mention of Welch’s passing during the brief Senate session Monday morning.

Clerk Hurley, First Assistant Clerk LeMay, and Second Assistant Clerk Crighton walked down the corridor together in a straight line around 11 a.m. and into the chamber, reported to their stations, and when the gavel banged they commenced working just as Welch had shown them to do.