Lewis Wells: A Wesley LegacyJun 19th, 2011 | By admin | Category: Tribute
BY ELISE KNABLE ’09 AND AMANDA DOWNES ’06
FROM 1947 TO 1982 the halls of Wesley Junior College were graced by a man named Lewis Wells. More than just a professor of English and dramatic arts, Wells was a legend. He left an indelible mark on Wesley College history, molding countless students as he sought to spread a love of the arts, literature, religion and life to all he encountered. The Wells Theatre on campus is a lasting memorial and reminder of his influence. Close to 30 years after his retirement and since his passing in 1994, Wells has remained a name that creates a bond between a generation of young men and women who studied at Wesley. Alumni spanning five decades reminisce about the inspirational professor whom they will never forget, remembering him as a person who significantly shaped their life and the lives of many others at the institution and beyond.
After receiving his bachelor’s from Clarion State Teachers College, a master’s from University of Pittsburgh, and completing graduate study at Duke, University of New Hampshire and University of Maine, Wells began his career at Wesley in 1946. Teaching English, public speaking and drama, as well as advising the extracurricular drama program known as Wesley Players, his ability to connect with students immediately took hold.
“He would always reach out to people and bring the spirit out in us; his enthusiasm was contagious,” said Gloria James ’73. Whether it was in the classroom, at theater practice or during infamous dinners hosted at his home, Wells was equipping his students with valuable lessons and skills that would enhance their future lives. James vividly recalls him helping students learn to execute lines correctly in order to get a message across to the audience. She attributes her success as a creative radio announcer to his message about the delivery of the words and how that delivery would impact others.
Affectionately known as Uncle Lewi, Wells had a special knack for bringing out the best in his students, academically and emotionally. “Mr. Wells had a gift for finding ‘strays’ and helping them find purpose. He literally changed my life,” said Ed Doherty ’76. When Doherty took English 101 with Wells, he was expecting to sit back and be miserable for the semester while hopefully pulling a passing grade. There was much more in store for him, however, thanks to Uncle Lewi’s immeasurable influence.
Doherty was a freshman in need of direction and “a serious attitude adjustment,” according to his self-description. “One day Mr. Wells asked me to stay after class and he said, ‘Follow me.’ He led me across the hall to the Little Theatre without any additional comment. Silently, we toured the run-down and cluttered facility. He finally asked me, ‘What do you see?’ I said, ‘A mess.’ That day, I began a major cleanout of old sets, props and costumes in the basement. I replaced lighting, cleaned dressing rooms and made general repairs. It took me weeks, and any free time I had, but I finally cleaned and uncluttered the Little Theatre.” Unbeknownst to Wells, his comment that he “needed someone to show it [the theatre] some love” and the experience that ensued re-ignited Doherty’s interest in theater from high school. And more importantly, it was an eye-opening and maturing moment for the young man. “That began a renaissance for the Little Theatre and a new beginning for me,” he said.
“I think some students who went to Wesley needed to be encouraged…he [Wells] toned me down. I certainly was not wild, but I didn’t lack self-confidence,” Ralph “Arky” Owen ’51 explained. Owen remembers how Wells’ nurturing but firm nature helped many students to mature and reach their full potential. “He was unquestionably the most liked professor in the school.”
Former students frequently remark on Wells’ unique ability to keep their interest in any subject matter, even in an 8 a.m. class. More than just teaching the course material, he took a sincere interest in the personal development of his students. For Walt Reimann ’50, enrolling in Wells’ public speaking class helped him to overcome a stuttering problem. “My ability to communicate smoothly was interrupted with pauses. It was by chance that I got there,” he explained. The caring professor worked with him on his speech, instilling in him the self-assurance that he could conquer his challenge. “I was able to gain a lot of confidence for myself and express myself in my environment. As a result I went on to Gettysburg College, got an engineering degree at University of Hartford and a master’s in business at Drexel. I’m not sure if I would have gone on for more schooling and work if I hadn’t worked with him…I wish there were more teachers like him.”
Wells profoundly influenced the culture at Wesley Junior College as well as the individual lives of countless students whose creativity, confidence and love of the arts blossomed under his tutelage. Many alumni cite Uncle Lewi as their inspiration for getting involved with the arts. For some young men and women, their path to Wesley and into one of Wells’ classes provided a fateful first encounter with the theater. Bill Baxter ’68 recalls how Wells helped him to see that participating in an extra-curricular activity like drama “can be educational, fun and enhance the rest of the college experience.” He added, “I remember him always sitting partway back in the audience chairs, barking directions to the stage as if he was actually angry or disappointed; finding later that he was having the time of his life. And you know what, so were we.”
Even for those who already had an interest in the arts, the opportunity to study under Wells propelled them in their journey of artistic expression and self-discovery. “Some of my fondest memories include Mr. Wells, the theater and the Wesley Players,” expressed Jane (Alderfer) Rahn ’65. She describes one significant moment as “walking into his classroom and having him hold up the palm of his hand and say ‘All the world’s a stage.’ That stuck.”
Throughout his time on campus, interest in the Wesley Players soared like it never had before. Hundreds of students found their niche at Wesley by becoming a Wesley Player and working with the talented Uncle Lewi. “He changed my life,” said Chris (Reich) Fleming ’62. “I had always wanted to be an actress, but at my high school they would never cast me in a role. I auditioned for him and he cast me right away.” She recalls how he demonstrated sincere interest in his students’ wellbeing, always listening and being there for them. “If you got taken under his wing, you just felt so cared for and safe.”
Another Wesley Player, Lynn Schmid Knable ’67, explained, “Uncle Lewi was our ‘Mr. Chips.’ His dedication to his beloved students was unexcelled. He helped us to believe in ourselves because he first believed in us. That’s something I think each of us whose life he touched took away with us and hopefully carry across all that we do…his integrity and service. His expectations were high, but he somehow made it fun to reach the bar he raised.”
Pam Webster-Ward ’73, who had artistic talents in dance as opposed to drama, also attests to Wells’ sense of inclusiveness among the Wesley community. Remembering how he invited her to work on choreography for one of his productions which required dancing, she said of Wells, “I think one of his most important assets was the willingness to include everyone who wanted to be involved, and an unerring instinct to figure out where people’s gifts and talents would fit in with what he was doing.” She also recalls that he wouldn’t let her get down when she sprained her ankle during one of the performances and felt that she ruined the show. Instead he had said to her, “Don’t take yourself too seriously my dear, but always take your work seriously.” Webster-Ward expressed, “I never forgot that and realized that the saying could be applied to many, many areas of life, not just theater. He was a lovely, lovely man.”
Under Wells’ direction, the artistic scene on campus, and the Wesley Players in particular, reached new heights. Wells’ reputation for theatrical productions drew in audience members from the tri-state area and attracted the attention of theater critics from nearby cities. At the same time, Wells helped establish a reputable presence for Wesley Junior College among peers in the artistic and the academic world. Former colleague and current Professor of Art Lon Fluman explained, “Part of the reason I was brought to Wesley College was because of Professor Wells. Professor Wells and Professor Hughes were two of the people who made Wesley College the number one two-year college in the U.S.”
Wells became a trusted advisor and mentor to many Wesley students over the years. He was the type of professor who not only wanted his students to learn, but had a genuine interest in seeing them succeed in every aspect of life. Al Stallone ’53 had his first meeting with Uncle Lewi at his high school’s college night. Although Stallone originally planned on going to a different college, unforeseen obstacles prevented him from taking that path and Wells opened another door for him at Wesley, where he could work his way through school with a job serving tables in the dining hall.
Years later, Wells was instrumental in another pivotal moment in his life. After graduating and finally deciding what he wanted to do in his future, Stallone was interviewed by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Having maintained a close relationship with his former professor, he listed him as a reference. “Uncle Lewi got a letter in Delaware asking whether or not he would recommend me. When I got to the meeting for the interview, who was sitting there but Uncle Lewi. He came personally. He sat in the first row at the courtroom when I was sworn in as a judge 15 years later,” Stallone said. “That was Uncle Lewi.”
Stallone was one of many individuals who witnessed firsthand Wells’ incredible influence at both the College and the Wesley United Methodist Church (UMC) in Dover. Clearly demonstrating his faith and devotion, Wells served as a lay preacher, a Christian education teacher and a choir member in the local church. As a playwright, he also created many religious and historical productions, even after his retirement. These included “The Valiant Men Walk Unafraid,” which depicts the founding of Barratt’s Chapel in Frederica, Del., “The Road Taken,” a play commissioned by the Peninsula Annual Conference for the Methodist bicentennial celebration, “We Are One,” which was presented in 1965 and highlighted the merging of the Delaware and Peninsula conferences, and “Unto This Generation” for Wesley UMC’s 200th anniversary. Religion was yet another sphere where Wells’ teachings and beliefs made a strong impression on his students. Stallone pointed out that Uncle Lewi taught a lot of people who went on to pursue careers in the Methodist ministry, and as one former student who strongly considered that path, he can personally attest to his professor’s influence.
Opportunities to interact with beloved Uncle Lewi were not just limited to the classroom, church or stage. He often invited students to his house for Sunday dinner, and many graduates still have fond memories of these special gatherings. “His Christmas get-togethers and spring galas in the parlor of his Governor’s Avenue home were renowned. We mingled with the faculty. We were gathered as his family. Indeed, his door was always open to any student who needed a wise, kind friend,” Knable explained.
Undoubtedly, Wells made a lasting impression on the Wesley College family as a whole. Among his contributions to the institution, he authored plays for both the 75th and 100th anniversary of Wesley College. Upon retiring in 1982, he received the Wesley Award for service to humanity. He continued his play writing and work with the Methodist church that he had begun when first arriving at the College.
At his retirement dinner, Wells said farewell to over 200 alumni and friends who attended the event in his honor. In an article written about the event by Owen, it is noted that “the theme for the evening was ‘One Little Candle’ which was a symbolic representation of the confidence instilled in so many of his students by the honored guest.”
In 1986 the Lewis Wells Endowed Scholarship Fund was established as a means for students to continue their education at Wesley. Based on contributions from friends and alumni of the College, the scholarship stands as a tribute to the legacy of Wells and all that he gave to his students and the greater community.
To further honor his dedicated service, the Wesley College Alumni Association inducted him into the Alumni Hall of Fame as an honorary member on May 2, 1987. At the ceremony, Wells was presented with an “Oscar” inscribed with a tribute to his work at the College. Holding true to the memories of many, he then “conducted class for some of his former students in Wells Theatre after the induction ceremonies,” said Knable. On April 27, 1976 the Little Theatre in Slaybaugh Hall was renamed and dedicated in his honor.
Although Wells has passed on from this world, his ideals of education, faith and passion for the arts are carried on through the former students whose lives have been enriched by his lessons and guidance. Numerous alumni have followed his examples by pursuing work in the arts, education or in the church. And regardless of their individual paths, graduates of Wesley Junior College who had the privilege to know and form a bond with the professor have one thing in common: they attribute a part of who they are today and what they have achieved to Uncle Lewi.
As so many alumni have shared, Wells wanted more for his students than just an education. He wanted them to feel inspired by life, believe in themselves and most of all, find the humanity that drives us to become what we dream to be. Some alumni like to believe that he still sits in the balcony of Wells Theatre waiting for the next play to begin. And while it is arguable that the arts at Wesley have never been the same since Wells’ era, his spirit is a lasting inspiration on campus and among all whose lives he touched. For beloved professor Lewis Wells and all who continue to live their lives with him in mind, “The play’s the thing.”