BILL WALSH: Former Franklin Hotel owner found that Deadwood keeps him young

2009-11-03T07:00:00Z BILL WALSH: Former Franklin Hotel owner found that Deadwood keeps him youngHeidi Bell Gease Journal staff Rapid City Journal
November 03, 2009 7:00 am  • 

If Bill Walsh's life story weren't real, you'd swear it was made up.

He has often said there were five "honorable professions" for Irish immigrants - policeman, politician, bartender, priest and attorney - and he's held three of them.

A Mitchell native, Walsh spent 11 years as a Catholic priest in eastern South Dakota before leaving the priesthood in the 1970s.

On Dec. 31, 1979, he married Jo Roebuck-Pearson. The Catholic bishop had asked that the wedding be small, and it was.

"But he didn't say anything about the reception, so we had about 500 people there," Walsh said with a big grin, recalling how guests danced until 5 a.m. at the Franklin Hotel.

Two months later, the couple bought into the 1903 landmark hotel. The next year, they opened Durty Nelly's, an Irish-style basement pub that was the first in the Black Hills to serve Guinness Irish Stout. Durty Nelly's often had live music, and it soon became a hangout for locals, from teachers and nurses to foresters and softball teams.

"You always had some group in there," Walsh said. "It was a great ecumenical gathering of Masons, Catholics and atheists, plus leftover hippies from the '70s."

Walsh, who along with his wife later became owner of the

hotel, was the perfect Deadwood host: friendly and welcoming to locals and tourists - many of whom would seek him out years later - and always up for a party.

He was a fixture at the Franklin, which was the site of numerous holiday parties, served as unofficial headquarters for Deadwood's St. Patrick's Day celebrations and hosted an annual jazz festival for a time.

"We have great, great celebrations in Deadwood," he said. "That's one thing that's kept us young."

Meanwhile, Walsh had struck up what became a longtime friendship with the Kennedy family, adding to his colorful image. A staunch Democrat, he met Bobby Kennedy Jr. while running Edward Kennedy's western South Dakota presidential campaign in 1980. Since then, he and the Franklin Hotel have played host to several members of the Kennedy clan.

In the late 1980s, with Deadwood in decline, Walsh joined with six other community leaders to form the Deadwood You Bet Committee and spearhead the drive to legalize gambling and "make Deadwood fun again." Walsh, with his trademark white cowboy hat and piercing blue eyes, became a spokesman for the committee and a tireless cheerleader for Deadwood.

Years later, in 2006, he received the Ben Black Elk Award from the South Dakota Office of Tourism for outstanding contributions to the state's travel industry.

But after 25 years in the hotel business, Walsh was ready to move on. In 2005, he and his wife sold the Franklin to the Silverado Gaming Establishment, which completely remodeled the hotel and closed Durty Nelly's.

Walsh still lives in Deadwood but now spends his time running Dakota Travel, an agency he started in 1983. He leads group tours around the world and specializes in Ireland (home of the original Durty Nelly's pub).

As of now, Walsh has no plans to go into law enforcement or law. But he is excited about what's next for Deadwood. And you can bet he'll be ready to celebrate any success.

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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