CHESTER, ILL. — Donald E. Welge, president of Gilster-Mary Lee Corp., a major private label foods manufacturer based in Chester, Ill., died at 84 April 16 at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis. The cause of death was COVID-19.

According to an article in the Benton News, numerous members of the Gilster-Mary Lee administrative staff in Chester have been sickened by COVID-19. Mr. Welge’s son Tom told the newspaper that he was infected too and has recovered while his brother Robert is still sick. He said other employees who tested positive have recovered or are recovering. As of April 19, 57 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Randolph County, Illinois, where Gilster-Mary Lee is located. Mr. Welge is the only county resident who has died as a result of the disease. 

A US Army veteran, Mr. Welge graduated in 1957 from Louisiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. He joined Gilster that year, when the company was a flour milling business — Gilster Milling Co. based in Steeleville, Ill. He was a great-nephew of the company’s founders, who had established the business in the 1890s.

Soon after he joined the company, Gilster moved its headquarters to Chester and entered the private label manufacturing business, producing bakery mixes, drink mixes and potato products.

The company was renamed Gilster-Mary Lee when Gilster Milling merged with Mary Lee Packaging, a competitor that had split off two years earlier from Gilster.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Gilster-Mary Lee expanded its private label business into numerous additional products, including macaroni and cheese in 1975 and ready-to-spread frosting in 1978. Products added in the 1980s included ready-to-eat cereal, microwave popcorn, dehydrated potatoes, cocoa/chocolate products and pasta.

Currently, Gilster-Mary Lee produces more than 8,000 stock-keeping-units of about 500 different private label brands together with the company’s own hospitality brand. The company employs about 3,000 at 14 different production facilities in four states.

In Chester, Mr. Welge was a member of the St. John Lutheran Church and was a member of the chamber of commerce in Chester and Steeleville, Ill., and Perryville, Mo. He was a director of the Buena Vista National Bank. Mr. Welge was inducted into the LSU alumni association Hall of Distinction in 2012.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Mary Alice Childers Welge; two sons, Robert and his wife Paige, and Thomas and his wife Tracey, all of Chester; a brother, Mike Welge and his wife Betty of Chester; a sister-in-law, Julia Saak of Chester; four grandchildren, Austin, Lauren, Jackson and William Welge; and numerous nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.

A service in Mr. Welge’s memory will be held at a later date at St. John Lutheran Church in Chester. A private graveside service will be held.

Memorials may be sent to St. John Lutheran Church, 302 W. Holmes St., Chester, Ill. 62233.