South Miami Vice Mayor Robert “Bicycle Bob” Welsh, a community advocate and “modern-day Johnny Appleseed,” died Tuesday at Baptist Health after battling skin cancer and related health problems. He was 67.
“He was larger than life,” his wife, Marilyn Magill told the Miami Herald Wednesday. “Bob did nothing small. Everything he did was huge.”
Welsh was born and raised around South Miami, and attended Coral Gables High School, where he swam on the school’s swim team. He paid his way through Florida International University by mowing lawns. He majored in political science, and learned Spanish while working construction jobs. Welsh went on to support himself by building houses on cheap, undeveloped parcels of land around South Miami. The rental properties supported his other interests, like planting trees.
He was first elected in 2012 to the commission, where he championed environmental issues, economic efficiency and thoughtful development in commercial areas. He most recently ran unopposed for his second four-year term in November 2020. There will be a special election in May to determine Walsh’s successor, according to South Miami Mayor Sally Philips.
His time in office wasn’t without the typical drama of South Florida local politics. Some politicians accused Welsh of racism when he handed out controversial fliers that played off an infamous broken promise made to freed slaves during the Reconstruction era. One city manager complained Welsh’s fliers interfered with his job, as they invited large groups of residents to speak publicly against city projects during meetings that were not set up for public comment.
Philips, who was both a friend and colleague to Welsh on the city commission, said he always “raised the rabble when necessary — and sometimes when it wasn’t.”
“But there was never anything ugly about what he did or what he wanted,” she said. “He acted on his values.”
The ‘town crier’
Welsh, known to many in South Miami as just “Bicycle Bob,” was seemingly everywhere.
On a given day on Sunset Drive or Southwest 72nd Street, he could be seen sitting on a stool, holding a campaign sign in support of a local candidate. At local events, he was often there to supply red folding chairs and smoked turkey, his specialty. If residents basked in the shade of an oak tree, it may very well be one of Welsh’s, which he grew on his farm in rural Hardee County and planted around South Miami.
“He was like Bottom the weaver in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” said Phillip Stoddard, a close friend of Welsh’s and the former mayor of South Miami. “He wanted to play every role.”
And of course, anyone who spent time in South Miami would inevitably see Welsh on his bicycle, which he rode through every street in the city — and sometimes, outside the city — handing out fliers printed margin to margin with his topics du jour. Because of the fliers, everyone knew where he stood on the major issues.
“His friends call him the town crier,” said Magill, who celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary with Welsh just 10 days ago. “He was always giving people a heads up about what was going on in South Miami.”
While holding public office was important to Welsh, he prided himself on his tree-planting effort, which populated the city with oak trees, Dade County Pines and even mango trees for those who requested them. The trees were free of charge to whoever wanted them. Magill estimates Welsh planted more than 2,000 trees around South Miami.
Philips, who met Welsh when she moved to a house one block away from him 20 years ago, once asked how she could repay him for the trees he planted in her yard. All he asked for was an eggplant lasagna.
In Facebook posts memorializing Welsh’s life, dozens of residents shared anecdotes of their “Bob trees” which have thrived in South Miami’s rocky soil due to Welsh’s tactful jack-hammering techniques.
A typical day for Welsh was spent planting five or six trees, usually delivered in his pick-up truck, which he used to haul a trailer full of saplings from his five-acre plot in Wauchula. He befriended the farmers in the rural Central Florida city, home to just 5,000 people. They traded mangoes for melons, and shared stories about their days. The plot was near the Center for Great Apes, an orangutan and chimpanzee sanctuary where the late pop star Michael Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles, now lives and where Magill, a passionate animal lover, worked as a volunteer.
Magill said that as she walks their dogs through their neighborhood, she can recognize trees he planted over the years, in public spaces and in the yards of friends and neighbors. She and Welsh met as neighbors, and maintained their two separate houses until he died. His house was “the garage,” full of tools available to borrow for anyone who asked, political posters, musical instruments and, of course, bicycles.
Magill said it is hard to imagine a South Miami without him.
“Everybody loved him,” Magill said. “He has an energy like you can’t believe.”
The city of South Miami will host a memorial at the park at 7435 SW 66th Ave. Wednesday, March 3 at 4 p.m.