Philip Weltner – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

Philip Weltner was a lawyer and academic leader who spent nearly nine decades effecting social, judicial, and educational reform. A former president of Oglethorpe University and chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Weltner also helped found the Board of Regents.

Philip Robert Weltner was born on July 18, 1887 in New York to pharmacist Henry Meyer and Augusta Ruprecht, both emigrants of German origin. He was the youngest of three children. His father died when he was a small child, and Weltner later took the name of his mother’s second husband, Lutheran minister Charles E. Weltner. The family moved to Augusta in 1893.

Weltner graduated from the University of Georgia in 1907, returned to New York to study at Columbia University Law School, and passed the bar in 1910. Weltner then moved to Atlanta, where he headed the Prison Association of Georgia, a support organization for ex-convicts. The fledgling association’s second mission was to organize the recently established Fulton County Juvenile Court, established to deal with juvenile delinquents. Weltner was chosen as the juvenile system’s first Chief Probation Officer.

In 1912, Weltner became the subject of local and national interest when he joined a Campbell County chain gang under a false identity. Although he spent less than twenty-four hours in the company of inmates, Weltner left the experiment convinced that reform was needed. The following year he helped draft laws establishing a system of probation for adult offenders and a training school for convicted women. He was later appointed chief probation officer for Fulton County. In this role, Weltner helped shut down Atlanta’s “red light district” and helped rehabilitate women from brothels.

Weltner married Sally Cobb Hull in 1913. The couple had five children; their youngest, Charles, represented Georgia in the U.S. Congress and served as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. To support his growing family, Weltner accepted a position with noted criminal attorney John A. Boykin and taught at the Atlanta College of Law. Clients too destitute for Boykin were transferred to Weltner, who quickly gained a reputation for helping the poor and helpless.

Sally Hull Cobb
Image by AL Hull

In 1918, based on his social service and legal expertise, Weltner oversaw the new State Board of Welfare, which was later renamed the Department of Family and Children’s Services. During this time, his legal practice also grew, providing him with financial success that would allow him to continue (often voluntarily) participation in social causes.

Between 1929 and 1931, at the request of Ivan Allen Sr., Weltner helped draft a bill to establish a governing body to oversee all public colleges and universities in Georgia. Governor Richard B. Russell then appointed Weltner as the sole at-large member of the new board. Weltner then acted as the Council’s second Chancellor. In this role, he worked to standardize general education across all institutions, supported an expansion of vocational and agricultural education, and helped save the only state-sponsored medical school in Augusta.

Over the next decade, Weltner served as regional director of the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, executive director of the Atlanta Housing Authority, and general counsel and regional counsel for the Office of Price Administration, a federal department focused on overseeing wartime inflation.

In 1944, Judge Edgar Watkins, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Oglethorpe University, asked Weltner to assume the presidency of the college. When Weltner took over, Oglethorpe was bleeding money and was on the verge of closing. As president until 1953, Weltner saved the institution by reorganizing the academic program and establishing a general education program (the current core curriculum). He also raised the academic level of the institution by gaining regional accreditation in 1950. Upon retirement, Weltner was given land behind the Brookhaven campus by the board of trustees, where he and his wife would live for the remainder of their life. .

Philip Weltner Library
Image by Jack Kennard

After Oglethorpe, Weltner remained committed to public service, chairing a study commission for the Fulton County Board of Family and Children’s Services and writing the health code for the Georgia General Assembly. While consulting for Emory University School of Medicine, Weltner met Robert W. Woodruff, who commissioned him to oversee the establishment of an arts center in Atlanta, which opened in the name Memorial Arts Center (later Woodruff Arts Center) in 1968. During the 1960s Weltner also held leadership positions at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) and Morris Brown College and participated in the funeral procession of Martin Luther King Jr.

Weltner died in 1981 after a long illness and is buried in Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs alongside his wife, who died in 1957. Oglethorpe University Library is named in his honor.

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