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’97 Grad Rusty Welch Delivers Keynote Address
Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., hosted its 27th Discovery Day on April 19, 2023, a day featuring student research presentations, a keynote speaker, and other activities around the Atchison campus. This year’s 61 presentations included a play, vocal and instrumental musical performances, a wide variety of academic projects, and a keynote address from Rusty Welch, a 1997 biology graduate working in coastal conservation and wildlife management along the Louisiana Gulf coast.
Crowded venues were the norm as students, faculty and staff of the college filled classrooms and auditoriums to hear students present their independent research on subjects outside the regular curriculum. Projects included developing software for the James Webb Space Telescope, research on pineapple pizza, an app to access the Internet without a data plan, a study of the performative language used by Stephen King in his books, methods to harvest solar energy, and much more. The day even included a Robot Battle Competition, featuring small, hand-sized robots with names like Mouse Trap, Wally, and Dinosaur. A small robot named Magnus, built by freshmen Kalen Wojtkun and Daniel Yanez, won the competition.
Welch was born and raised in the town of Oak Grove in the bayou country of Southwest Louisiana. He attended Benedictine College on a football scholarship and graduated in 1997 with a degree in Biology. He has worked in the conservation industry since graduating from Benedictine College and currently serves as the Biologist Consultant for the Drainage Board Committee in Cameron Parish in Louisiana. He runs the family-owned business Cajun Ben’s Gator Products, which specializes in alligator products that are handmade and locally sourced from the Louisiana Bayou.
His keynote presentation, “Just Listen,” focused on all the things he had been able to do by listening to those around him and taking advantage of the opportunities presented. One of the keys was listening to a Benedictine senior who told him to work through his homesickness and not go back to Louisiana.
“Just listen. That’s been my life,” he said. “You listen. You hear the opportunity. You take it.”
He told the crowd about coming to Benedictine College and, because he listened to that senior and stayed in Atchison, being able to go to Sweden, Germany and France as part of the football team, which played European teams as exhibitions. He talked about a young Cajun boy walking above an ancient Viking ship, exploring a medieval castle, and climbing the Eiffel Tower and how he never imagined he would do those things.
“None of this would have happened if I had left and gone back to Louisiana,” Welch said.
Once back in Louisiana after graduation, he was looking to support his young family with a good job. He had a great offer with a large salary and benefits, but his father, Ben, convinced him to go into business with him. In the early 2000s, North American Alligators were on the endangered species list and were at risk of dying out entirely. Welch and his father started an alligator farm, going into the swamp and harvesting alligator eggs. He said alligators lay a lot of eggs, but only 1 out of 60 or 70 make it to adulthood. They get killed by fire ants, eaten by snakes, or crushed by large male alligators. Once the eggs are harvested and cared for by an alligator farmer, nearly 100% of the eggs hatch and are then raised to 4 feet. This project has rebuilt the alligator population and helped remove them from the endangered species list.
“That’s why we have alligators today,” he said.
Through the alligator farm and the retail business built from it, Cajun Ben’s Gator Products, Welch has met many celebrities, including country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church. Again, he noted that he would not have met any of those people and had any of the experiences with them if he had not listened to his father and gone into business with him.
“It’s amazing what you get to do, what opportunities come up, when you stop and start listening to what’s going on around you,” he said. “It doesn’t happen if you don’t listen. And it doesn’t happen if you just sit there and do nothing. Things do not happen if you sit there and do nothing.”
Welch said he was astounded by all the things he had experienced through his time at Benedictine to his time running a business in the Louisiana bayou.
“It’s amazing what has happened to me so far in my first 49 years,” he said. “And I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 30.”
Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is proud to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report as well as one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.