The Hero Had Two Faces

For fifteen years Tim Kingsbury lived an exemplary life as a Galveston civic leader. No one suspected that he was really a fugitive from Ohio who was thought to have killed himself—until his wife tracked him down.

There is something special about places at the end of the line. People who come to such places have two choices. One is to turn around and go back; the other is to stay and take what comes along. In time, such a place accumulates a disproportionate number of loners, drifters, seekers, romantics, and fugitives from normal, boring, regulated life. Their philosophy generally includes a desire to be left alone and a willingness to leave others alone. Therefore, the community tends to be more tolerant and relaxed than most.
—Joseph J. Thorndike, The Coast

THE PLACE AT THE END OF THE LINE for Patrick Hennessy Welsh was a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico. He was not a loner, not at all, but he was definitely a seeker and a fugitive when he arrived in Galveston sometime in the spring of 1983. The son of a prominent radiologist in Lancaster, Ohio, he was searching for a new life and a new identity, and he was fleeing from something far worse than a normal, boring, regulated life—the shame of a conviction and a probated sentence three years earlier for embezzling $27,000 from Ohio State University. Pat Welsh had come to the right place. Battered by storms and by fate for most of this century, Galveston was enjoying a long-awaited renaissance. A newcomer to town didn’t stand out the way he would have a few years earlier. The Strand historic district was thriving, Houstonians were sprucing up old Victorians, and an upstart tabloid called In-Between was writing about the Moodys, the new arts scene, the gossip, and all the other things that never appeared in the Galveston Daily News. The crowd of artists, writers, and town characters who gathered every afternoon to drink beer outdoors in front of the Old Strand Emporium called Galveston “the cul-de-sac of Interstate 45,” and they referred to themselves as IBC, an acronym for Islander by Choice—as contrasted with BOI, or Born on the Island, Galveston’s invisible passport to acceptance and privilege. If you are BOI, you can get medicine without a prescription or cash a check from an out-of-town bank with no questions asked or get a crucial document from the courthouse after working hours. I know, because I am BOI, and I have done all of the above, even though I return only for a few weekends a year. If you are not BOI, no one in Galveston cares what you were before you came there, which was just perfect for Pat Welsh. Or, as he started to call himself soon after he arrived, Tim Kingsbury.

For the next fifteen years, until late January of this year, Pat Welsh lived the dream of everyone who has made the big mistake or the wrong choice: What if I just chucked it in and started over? He made a name for himself—in every sense of the phrase—in Galveston. Tim Kingsbury became the town’s indispensable citizen, a volunteer for every good cause, a friend and confidant of its leading citizens. He went from writing press releases for the Galveston Historical Foundation to being elected its president, from freelancing occasionally for InBetween to playing tennis regularly with the publisher of the Daily News. Organizations from the Boy Scouts to the Women’s Crisis Center sought him out to sit on their boards. He managed the campaign of a successful mayoral candidate; he became the general manager of the town’s only radio station; for a time he was even the local restaurant reviewer for Texas Monthly. The goings-on-about-town columnist for the Daily News invariably referred to him as “the amazing Tim Kingsbury,” and it was hard to know which was more amazing—his compilation of good deeds or that in Galveston an outsider had become an insider.

But the story of Tim Kingsbury was to get even more amazing. On January 30, while he was working on a car in his driveway, two sheriff’s deputies walked up and announced that they had a warrant from Ohio for the arrest of Patrick Hennessy Welsh. In the days that followed, the mask was stripped from Tim Kingsbury to reveal the past that he had labored so long to conceal. The privileged childhood. The failed ambition to follow his father into medicine. The embezzlement. The wife and two young sons he left behind. The two suicide letters he mailed to his wife after he vanished one winter night. Her struggle to overcome the financial and emotional ruin he left behind. The declaration that he was legally dead, which allowed her to qualify for life insurance and social security death benefits. The revelation that his secret identity, along with forged documents, had been discovered by Galveston law enforcement officials in 1996. Their decision to let him quietly plead guilty, accept probation, and go on being Tim Kingsbury. The discovery by Elizabeth Welsh that her husband was still alive and how she tracked him down at last. The human drama of the tale made it national news and drew the attention CBS48 Hours, which is filming a documentary that will appear later this year.

Today Patrick Welsh sits in an Ohio jail cell, awaiting trial on felony charges of abandoning his family and inducing the payment of fraudulent death benefits. Back in Galveston, though, his alter ego, Tim Kingsbury, continues to fascinate and absorb a community—not the charming, historic Galveston that the tourists see, but the eccentric town of which I am so fond, known only to people who have lived there a very long time. For Galveston has been conned again, done wrong by one of its leading citizens, which is an old, old story on the Island. Part of Galveston lore is the belief that the Island’s ruling families—the Moodys, the Kempners, and the Sealys—long ago stifled rather than stimulated the town’s economy; another prominent clan, the Maceos, convinced Galveston that its only salvation lay in promoting and protecting illegal but wide-open gambling and prostitution. In the eighties a sure-enough con man

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