Hope Happens Here: Jim Welch

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on October 22, 2020 # Hope Happens Here: 25 Stories

The Welches and Dana ReeveAfter Henry Stifel became paralyzed in a car accident when he was just 17, his family was embraced by the tightly knit community surrounding their Short Hills home.

It was 1982 and the outlook for life after a spinal cord injury was grim. But Henry’s parents, Hank and Charlotte, chose to believe in a better future and their friends were determined to help build one.

Jim Welch was among the first to reach out and offer support. One of Hank’s close friends, Jim was devastated by the accident, too. When the Stifels decided to launch a research-centric foundation challenging the notion that nothing could be done for spinal cord injuries, there was no doubt that Jim would be part of the effort.

And for the next three decades, he was.

What began as a gesture of friendship became a mission central to Jim’s life; from the earliest days of the Stifel Paralysis Research Foundation through its merger with the American Paralysis Association (APA) and evolution into the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, Jim worked tirelessly in pursuit of treatmentsand tangible gains for people living with paralysis.

As President and CEO of Nabisco— and son of the founder of the James O. Welch Company, the candy maker famous for its Junior Mints and Sugar Babies– Jim had cultivated relationships across New Jersey and beyond. He threw himself into fundraising for spinal cord injury research because he understood that science could not advance on determination alone: funding labs was critical to accelerating progress.

“He had such an amazing sense of outreach,” says Susan Howley, former executive vice president of research of the Reeve Foundation. “He always had the foundation’s future at the center of his decisions. He believed in the potential to change lives.”

As he built a network of dedicated donors, Jim also served as a steady hand and beloved board member, a stickler for detail who wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions, and whose booming voice was instantly recognizable.Jim and Arnie

In 2005, Jim’s son Leighton introduced him to Arnie Snider, founder of Deerfield Management Company. Recognizing Arnie’s innovative thinking on healthcare and the biopharmaceutical industry, Jim lobbied for Arnie’s appointment to the Reeve board.

Like Jim, Arnie became passionate about achieving true progress for people with spinal cord injuries and in dreaming up The Big Idea, Reeve’s groundbreaking epidural stimulation research trial, his impact on the foundation was enormous.

“Whenever Arnie gave research presentations at board meetings, Jim always turned, looked at me and said, ‘That's the best thing I ever did for this organization,’” says Reeve Foundation President and CEO Peter Wilderotter.

This was generous, and typical of Welch’s thinking that what mattered most was the collaboration that moved the mission forward.

Dana Reeve and the WelchesBut Jim did more than simply bring Arnie to the table —much more. He helped successfully steer the APA board toward joining forces with Christopher Reeve in 1999, understanding the work would be powerfully magnified with Christopher as its representative. He welcomed expanding the focus from cure to care, ushering in Dana Reeve’s Paralysis Resource Center, which has now served more than 103,000 individuals and families living with paralysis. And he helped the foundation mourn and navigate the deaths of both Christopher and Dana, ensuring that it remained strong enough to continue its critical work.

“Jim was pivotal in some very key moments for the foundation,” Wilderotter says. “He was an extraordinary character and leaves a profound legacy.”

Until his death in 2019 at the age of 88, Jim attended every board meeting, even if he had to phone in; his commitment never wavered.

“This was something that meant a lot to him right from the beginning,” Leighton Welch says. “He felt it was incredibly important to give back and he really lived that. He made this cause a priority.”