Indiana University Bloomington

His energy and commitment

George Van Arsdale

When I arrived in Bloomington in 1961 to attend graduate school, Herman Wells had just about completed his work as president of Indiana University. The reverent regard in which he was held tended to be a matter of indifference if not disdain among callow, cynical and self-regarding youngsters like me and my peers of that day. During the 40 intervening years, I do not believe that I was ever formally introduced to Mr. Wells although I believe I did once introduce myself long after his hearing had become unreliable. Therefore, I am sure he never knew my name.

But over the past quarter century, he did come to recognize my face from our many passing encounters on campus at musical, theatrical and other sorts of events, not to mention the one more intimate venue where we regularly encountered each other during all these years. Thousands of others can attest that he always greeted those familiar faces as if he knew them and made himself available for whatever exchanges folks thus met were comfortable initiating. Thus, we thousands came to feel that we knew Herman B Wells and he knew us.

Yet over these four decades, Herman and I did regularly meet in a more intimate venue for we shared a pair of barbers these many years. The first was Ed, who practiced his art with shears not electric clippers, in a small shop off the alley on Indiana Avenue at the rear of the old Varsity Drugstore, more recently the White Rabbit and now Starbucks. His patrons found him a reticent yet interesting fellow usually found reading the bookshelves in the Booknook or the IU Bookstore when not at his barber chair, but he was a well-read autodidact and part-time Harrodsburg farmer. Like Herman, I arranged to see Ed by appointment, one of the few Bloomington barbers doing so, probably to please his many faculty and administrator customers in Bryan Hall across the street. The later 1960s and 1970s were hard times for barbers and many retired the business, Ed eventually among them.

Our second barber, John Plew, was the son of Aude Plew who barbered into his 90s in the little shop on West 11th Street just beyond the Indiana Railroad Company overpass. John's brother Ted is there now and John works on Wednesday mornings by appointment only. Back in 1960 or so, President Wells recruited John — as John will tell you — to staff the barber shop in the IMU because John was willing to cut the hair of African-Americans when virtually no other Bloomington barbers would on the absurd grounds that they lacked the skill.

Given the location of the Plews' shop, many from Bloomington's distinguished African-American community had long had their hair cut by one or another of the Plews. John retired from the IMU about 18 years ago and I had to scrounge around for a number of years. But I learned, as Herman and many older IU luminaries knew all along, that John still maintained a limited practice in retirement at his father's and brother's shop. So I returned. Herman came every two weeks, I less frequently, but our appointments often overlapped, and I always enjoyed telling folks that I went to Chancellor Wells' barber and perhaps something Herman had said during a recent encounter.

I was there the morning Herman Wells paid his last visit to John Plew's barber chair. Thereafter, John continued to cut Mr. Wells' hair at his home regularly, but Herman could come to the shop no more. He always took the first of the shop's two chairs since it was nearer the door and made easier his movement with a walker to his car which his assistants always pulled up over the curb to facilitate Mr. Wells' progress from barber chair, through door to front seat of his sedan.

A frightening thing happened that morning as Mr. Wells was being assisted out the door. His walker stuck on the threshold of the door and Mr. Wells began to fall forward and sideways out the door of the Plews' barber shop. Three of us rushed to the doorway but neither the assistant outside nor anyone behind in the shop could prevent Mr. Wells from slowing, gracefully slipping to the ground somewhat like a very heavy sack of flour. He rolled gently onto his back and seemed a bit alarmed but not hurt, although he resisted an effort to assist him up by taking his arm. His assistant and another stronger man finally righted him and assisted him into his car. As he was driven away, all of us present knew he would never be able to return to the little barber shop. John Plew always kept his inquiring patrons informed about Herman in the years following.

I probably saw Mr. Wells more frequently, if less memorably, in the 10 or so years since this incident than during the previous 30 — at the MAC, Auer Hall, funerals, and elsewhere. His energy and commitment to the arts were legend: he would often appear at recitals, as he had at barber shops, where one would least expect to see him.


From Remembering Herman B Wells, 1901-2000: www.heraldtimesonline.com, March 22, 2000

Thanks to the Bloomington Herald-Times for allowing Digital Wells to publish these excerpts from their archive.