Welsh paved way for future woman sheriffs
Bunny Welsh recalls challenges of being county’s first woman sheriff
This story is part of a series on women in the greater Philadelphia area who have broken the glass ceiling in their respective fields.
“I had to meet some challenges because I was the first woman, and there’s something about being the first anything. When you’re the first, you can’t make any mistakes,” Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh said of her first term in office. “As the first woman, I think it was incumbent upon me, and I always intended to, do a good job.”
She said this idea holds true not just for gender, but for all categories whenever an individual takes a new path or assumes a position, as the first one to represent their group.
Welsh has achieved many firsts throughout her career.
In 1999, Welsh was elected as the first woman sheriff in Chester County’s history, and she has upheld the duties of that office since January, 2000, when she was sworn in. She is currently one of two women sheriffs in Pennsylvania, and 38 in the nation.
The office of sheriff is not the only glass ceiling that Welsh has set her sights on breaking. In July, 2009, Welsh was sworn in as president of the Pennsylvania Sheriff’s Association, marking the first time in the association’s history that a woman was elected to the top leadership position. Welsh went on to be elected to the Board of Directors of the National Sheriff’s Association in January, 2011; she was elected sergeant at arms of the National Sheriff’s Association in July, 2015. Welsh said she may even be on track to be the first woman elected as president of the National Sheriff’s Association.
Welsh has received numerous awards and accolades during her time as sheriff. Her outstanding volunteer efforts in the community earned her the national “Eckerd 100 Women of 2000” award. In 2002, Welsh received the prestigious “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” award from the National Center for Women and Policing. Welsh was inducted into the International Police Association Hall of Fame in 2004, and she received the March of Dimes of Chester County Women of Achievement award that year.
Welsh was born in Altoona, Blair County, but she grew up in Delaware County, and graduated from Upper Darby High School. She said her family also has roots in Chester County.
Welsh has lived in Chester County for more than 30 years. She said she loves the quality of life and beautiful landscapes, as well as the education and career opportunities in the county. She has four children and nine grandchildren.
Welsh has a background in business, and she worked in the heavy and highway construction industry before being elected sheriff. She studied psychology at Wesley College in Delaware, business law at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and criminal justice at Temple University. She said she studied sporadically as she was raising her children. Welsh graduated from the National Sheriff’s Institute in Colorado in 2000.
She said she has always been interested in politics, and her father, John Welsh, really got her involved in politics when she was growing up. Before running for sheriff, Bunny Welsh served as a committeewoman for the local Republican Party, and then the state Republican Party.
Welsh said she decided to run for sheriff because she loves county government, and she was confident she would be able to do the job well, and she had also completed constable training, which is almost identical to the training a deputy sheriff receives. She said her experience with business and managing employees would be an asset in the sheriff’s office.
Welsh said she ran for sheriff in the Republican primary in 1999 against four candidates who were all honorable men, but she felt she was uniquely qualified for the position. She even gained the endorsement of the Chester County Republican Committee. Welsh won the primary and general election that year, and she is currently serving her fifth term; each term for sheriff lasts four years.
Welsh said she is honored that the citizens of this county have elected her to serve as their sheriff these past 16 years, and she is very proud of all the good work the men and women of the sheriff’s office accomplish on a daily basis. She said there are about 70 deputies in the sheriff’s office, and a total of about 90 personnel, including administrative staff.
Welsh said she wanted to make sure that she served the office and citizens well during her first term because as the first woman sheriff, she was basically leading the path for other women who may want to serve as a sheriff or elected official.
Welsh recalled that when she first mentioned her interest in running for sheriff to Alan Novak, who was the chair of the Chester County Republican Committee at the time, he advised her not to use her nickname during the election. However, Welsh said she wanted to be genuine, and she couldn’t change who she was, so she kept the nickname. She said her grandfather gave her the nickname “Bunny” when she was a little girl, and she has kept that name ever since.
Welsh said that a sheriff must answer to the people, as an elected official, rather than a governing body, so that allows her to be independent with the office. She said one of her favorite things about leading the sheriff’s office is doing community outreach with children and senior citizens.
She said the worst part of being sheriff is the constant worry of the deputies going home safe at night, especially in this day and age. “Anybody in uniform anymore is a target,” she said.
Welsh said when she has free time, she likes to play the keyboard, and she really enjoys spending time with her grandchildren.
Welsh is involved in several community organizations: she is a member of the Rotary Club of West Chester; vice president of the Chester County Hero Fund; and a board member of the Chester County Family Academy, Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, National Flag Foundation, and Chester County Industrial Development Authority. She also serves as a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Commission for Women.
Welsh said she likes to talk to all kinds of kids, and she tries to encourage young men and young women, but particularly young women that are interested in law enforcement or criminal justice to look at careers in law enforcement at every level, because there are so many agencies at the local, state and federal levels that could benefit from having more women on their teams.
“Hopefully I can be a role model to some of them, that they want to grow up and run for sheriff or be a police chief, or move to Secret Service or the FBI,” Welsh said.”
Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh
Carolyn “Bunny” Walsh
Sheriff Bunny Welsh, seated with her deputies who are sporting goatees, from left, Deputies Brad DeSando, Wayne Johnson, Robert Kearney, and David Reeves at the Chester County Sheriff Office in West Chester on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013.