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Sep 4, 2012 3:13 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Morris Welte To Turn 100 On September 11

Sep 4, 2012 4:34 PM

Lifting a self-portrait from an old photo album with delicate, black pages, Morris Welte gently smiles as he remembers himself as a fresh-faced radio operator at his first job aboard the

S.S. Creole

. Just 16 years old, he was one of two radiomen responsible for sending and receiving messages on the ocean liner, which was on its way to New Orleans from the Big Apple.

It was 1929, and Mr. Welte had been bitten by the travel bug. He would spend the next 83 years sailing and flying to new places. As he turns 100 on Tuesday, September 11, the Southampton resident said there’s no way he could forget all the memories he’s made across the globe.

“It’s a good life,” he said this week at his home on Willis Street. “Life is what you make it on the ship.”

Much like his take on life at sea, Mr. Welte has made much of his life despite what some might call a very humble beginning.

Born in 1912, the youngest of three boys, to Louis and Dora Welte, who had emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, Mr. Welte grew up in New York City. At age 3, however, his parents split up, and he and his brothers were sent to live with foster families. “I was kicked around from one family to another, trying to learn how to grow up and knowing very little,” he said.

At age 9, he landed at the Pleasantville Orphan Home upstate, where he said he had a great upbringing, learning “right from wrong” and how to be responsible.

When he aged out of the home at 16, Mr. Welte earned a scholarship to learn ship-to-shore communication and Morse code, an education which led him to his first job on the

S.S. Creole


Mr. Welte said he looked so young to the captain of the ship that he was asked to get a letter from his mother giving him permission to work. “He said, ‘Young man, how old are you anyway?’” Mr. Welte recalled. “I said, ‘I’m 16 and a half.’ I was shaking in my boots.”

Mr. Welte ended up getting a note from the orphan home but never showed it to anyone. “I was always ready to show the letter to the captain, but I handled the job so perfectly that there was no complaint,” he said.

For the next 10 years, Mr. Welte worked on various ships, including the maiden voyage of the

S.S. Washington

. During one of his trips to the Mediterranean on the

S.S. Exochorda

, he sent and received telegraphs for actor Gary Cooper.

And while many of his co-workers frequented bars upon arrival at various ports, Mr. Welte said he took to the streets.

“If you went to sea, you got to be a bum,” he said. “I would take a tour of the city life in another country. I stayed away from the bars. Life at sea was a clean life.”

During World War II, Mr. Welte jumped ship and worked as a radio operator on airplanes, but not for the Air Force. He worked for Pan American Airlines out of Florida, which contracted out its services to the government for the war effort. Mr. Welte’s job was to be the radio operator on board bombers that were being delivered to the Allies. He was charged with taking radio bearings to make sure the planes stayed on course.

“There was one radio operator for every five airplanes,” he said. His job was a difficult one, because the radio code was changed every hour, and the operators were responsible for remembering which code was in effect for which hour. Many times, the enemy taped broadcasts and replayed them at different hours of the day to try to cause the operators to make mistakes.

After the war ended in 1945, new technology brought new ways of communicating and the need for operators diminished.

Mr. Welte moved back to New York City and worked as a radio and television repairman for four years. During this time, the devoted Yankees fan’s dreams came true when he met Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at a men’s felt hat store on 50th Street and Fifth Avenue. “I went gaga,” he said. “I could kick myself for not having paper or a pencil for their autographs.”

In 1953, he moved to Southampton with his first wife, May, to work for the MacKay Radio Receiving Station, where radio operators kept track of corporate fleets of commercial ships and received transmissions from Europe. Mr. Welte worked in the ship-to-shore room, where he held and sent messages for commercial ships, until he retired 25 years later in the early 1980s.

Just before his retirement, his wife May died after a fight with intestinal cancer. Being used to married life, Mr. Welte said he was ready to marry again three years later when he met his second wife, Audrey, at a coffee hour at the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton. They’ve been married for 34 years.

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Happy early Birthday to you, Mr. Welte. I bet you've had a great life and it will continue...
By suzer67 (51), nanuet on Sep 7, 12 2:30 PM
1 member liked this comment
Happy Birthday Morris! The Weltes are a wonderful couple and we're so happy they are members of the First Presbyterian Church here in Southampton. God has certainly blessed you with a wonderful life.
By ShelleyB (28), East Hampton on Sep 7, 12 4:07 PM
1 member liked this comment
What a nice story. Happy 100th Birthday, Mr. Welte!
By Robert I Ross (250), Hampton Bays on Sep 8, 12 3:30 PM
1 member liked this comment
Happy Birthday Morrie. What a nice story. I wish you and Audrey the best. Joan
By joan s (53), hampton bays on Sep 9, 12 8:01 AM