Indiana University Bloomington

Wells at 85 - April 10, 1988

By Richard Gilbert, April 10, 1988

This article made available through the support of the Bloomington Herald-Times.

Legendary former president remains a living symbol of IU (Cutline) Info: Almost from the time he began his association with IU as an undergraduate, Herman B Wells' long life has been devoted to the university. Fifty years ago, he became IU's president, having been a professor and dean. The secret of his phenomenal success and popularity as a leader may lie in his most elusive quality - charisma.

``This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. - George Bernard Shaw Man and Superman Late afternoon sunlight slanted into the room where Herman B Wells worked, writing a letter to one of Indiana University's major donors. ``We're the same vintage,'' remarked IU's chancellor and former president.

Almost as old as this century, Wells remains a force at the university he has given his long life to. He seems to attend every campus athletic and cultural event - speeches, symphonies, plays, openings of museum exhibits, football games - and many Board of Trustee functions.

Recently Wells headed the search for a new president of the IU Foundation, the university's fund-raising agency. In May he will be the commencement speaker for more than 6,000 IU graduates. Professors and administrators still make pilgrimages to his office to seek his advice.

In his autobiography, Being Lucky , he wrote that traditions grow up in part around physical symbols. Wells has become Indiana's living symbol of IU and an icon for those within the university.

The seemingly unstoppable Wells has been slowed physically. He walks with effort, willing his feet into a shuffle, because of arthritis in his knees. Conversations with him can be difficult if he isn't wearing his hearing aid.

But at age 85, his mind remains nimble, perceptive, his blue eyes alert. He is a distinguished man, with an appearance suggestive of a cheerful Winston Churchill. His figure, always roly-poly, has become rotund; his thick hair, once dark, and his little, trimmed moustache have turned snow white.

Fifty years ago, on March 22, 1938, Wells was named IU's president, after having served as acting president for nine months. He was 35 years old, a fifth-generation Hoosier from a small country village, Jamestown, halfway between Indianapolis and Crawfordsville.

In the 25 years of the Wells era there was at IU an ``explosive intellectual renaissance,'' as he termed it in Being Lucky without taking credit for it. But most people do credit Wells with IU's evolution during that expansive time from a decent state university to a very good one without equal in some areas.

Admirers point to IU's famous School of Music and to the unique Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction as two examples of what the university achieved with Wells' support. He earned the respect of educators around the world when he stood up to prolonged public and political pressure over the sex research of Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s.

He always has said the quality of the faculty is the most important factor in a university's success. Many people believe that his greatest legacy at IU is the faculty who came to Bloomington because of him.

Paradoxically, his most important first action regarding faculty - in the first two weeks after being appointed acting president - was to get rid of some faculty. He interviewed every professor who was 70 or older and gently persuaded most of them to retire.

The effort to clear the way for a new generation of scholars took ``as much tact as possible, and as much kindness and compassion as we could summon,'' he wrote, ``since some of the men who had spent their lives building the university felt they should be allowed to continue indefinitely.''

Next, he embarked on an exhaustive national search for promising scholars, traveling 33,414 miles in his first year by train, car and airplane to convince them IU was the place to be. ``Sometimes we had persuasion as our only weapon because our resources frequently were not competitive,'' he said in Being Lucky.

Robert Byrnes, Distinguished Professor of history, recalled how he took a $2,000 pay cut to come to IU after spending an hour with Wells. ``The persuasion was this vision of a place on the way up,'' Byrnes said. ``He had this extraordinary capacity to create excitement.''

Wells' shrewd hirings, dating from 1937, are credited with laying the foundation for research excellence at IU. His investment in top professors continued to bring IU benefits long after he had left the presidency, although in recent years that generation of scholars has been thinned by deaths and retirements.

Asked his management philosophy, Wells answered simply. ``Get the best people you can and get out of their way and let them perform. Help them if you can, love them, support them, admire them.''

People don't just praise Herman Wells. They gush. Parents introduce their children to him, so that one day they can say they met the great man. Veteran administrators get their pictures taken with him.

``Herman Wells was one of the greater presidents in American higher education history,'' said James Fisher, a Virginia-based university consultant and author of Power of the Presidency.

``I admire him as much as any figure in higher education,'' Fisher said. ``The man has to rank along with half a dozen others as the most distinguished.''

How did Wells succeed as he did in a position as volatile as a university presidency? His first two successors had comparatively short and troubled tenures, and the next man, John Ryan, served almost 17 years but was dogged by faculty criticism and bitterness.

``President Wells still is an unmatched leader who put IU in its golden era,'' Distinguished Professor of Music Janos Starker once remarked. ``After Wells it's not the easiest thing to take over an institution, and that's why there were a number of years of ups and downs.

``In comparison to Wells it's like following Churchill. We all pray every day he stays alive for a long, long time, because he is the maximum vision of what a leader should be.''

No one on campus speaks ill of him. Members of warring factions say how he would have handled a particular situation and resolved it to their advantage. If he made enemies, he buried them long ago.

``I think they (admirers) kind of look at Herman as a father figure. And Herman projects a warm personality,'' said Edgar Williams, IU vice president for finance. ``The interesting thing about Herman is no matter how high or low you are, he knows you. Herman is friends with the janitors.''

But Williams contends that the university was a much simpler institution in Wells' time, and that he ran it ``out of his hip pocket'' with a few advisers. He doesn't think Wells would have fared any better in popularity than his successors did in the troubled 1960s and 1970s.

And he sees a side of Wells many people overlook - the determined, decisive administrator who could have his way without stepping on toes. ``Don't underestimate that little fat man,'' Williams said. ``He's adept at getting things done.''

But it is difficult to pin down the reasons for Wells' success - the precise nature of the personal qualities that enabled him to ``get things done'' and also to inspire adulation.

Wells himself is the last person to ask. He doesn't enjoy talking about himself, partly because he believes he's unjustly credited with the accomplishments of colleagues who gave their lives to IU.

Wells said his actions have been ``romanticized,'' that IU's successes under his leadership were not easy and that universities always face the problems of under-financing, administrative structure and attracting top faculty.

``This is an old university and it's a very distinguished university,'' he said. ``It had very many areas of really great distinction when I became president.''

After more questions about his success, he added, ``There's no secret of success except hard work, and I've never known a president who didn't work hard.''

But some people work hard and fail. ``You have to be lucky,'' he laughed, giving his favorite reason for his success. ``It always takes a little luck to be successful at anything, whether it's the corporate world, or the academic world or the literary world.''

Questioned persistently, he finally said, ``Maybe if I had any special thing, and I'm not sure that's different from any other president, I never had - nor do I now have - any small ambitions for Indiana University.

``And as far as I'm concerned, it's entirely possible for us to be as good as the best, or better. I share with the present president no inferiority complex about Indiana University. But I learned from my predecessor that you can't achieve distinction in any area unless you're willing to take the first step.''

When the trustees elected him, Wells said he would spend no more than 25 years as president. Many had doubts that he could fill the shoes of his predecessor, William Lowe Bryan, a legendary leader who was as reserved as Wells is outgoing.

Bryan, however, gave Wells his unqualified blessing. And Wells, who revered Bryan, neverthless knew that many people thought Bryan's tenure of 35 years in office was too long.

``When you're in a position like the presidency you run out of vigor and you run out of new ideas, and the institution deserves fresh leadership from time to time,'' said Wells, when asked about his vow.

``If you stay too long, everyone makes mistakes and certain colleagues become upset because you don't agree with them, so it's better to leave. I kept reminding myself the time to go was when things were going well.''

But his decision to keep his promise and leave office at the peak of his popularity stunned trustees. Wells wrote in Being Lucky that he was a little frightened by the uncritical faith they placed in him, burdening him with ``an awesome responsibility'' to make sure his actions were wise.

According to Dorothy Collins, Wells' assistant for years, many qualities combined to account for his magical influence with people and his impact on IU.

From boyhood, Wells was in love with art and culture and used to travel to Indianapolis alone by train to see operas and plays, she said, recalling that as president he expressed a desire to bring ``drama and culture to every corner of Indiana.''

Wells had an ability ``to concentrate totally'' on someone he was talking to, she said. ``He's sincerely interested in that person - I don't think Chancellor Wells has an insincere relationship.''

While his devotion to the university was and is total - ``he didn't have time for marriage'' - Collins said any person who was troubled in any way found Wells' door open. She added with a laugh, ``Physiologically and otherwise, he has a huge heart. You'll never hear Dr. Wells criticize people.

``He has a strict code for himself, but he never holds it out for others. I've seen people who were born losers go into his office to complain and come out smiling. I've asked him what he said to them, and he'd say, `I don't know.' ''

She said it's difficult to ``get at what makes Dr. Wells tick,'' because he's not self-analytical. ``He doesn't look back as to whether he did right or wrong,'' she said. ``I think that's extremely unusual. The minute something is over - whether it went well or didn't go well - he is looking forward to the next thing.''

Some 47 years ago, Peter Fraenkel met Herman Wells in La Paz, Bolivia. Fraenkel was 17, a youth of German descent attending a Methodist-run high school and dreaming of going to college in the United States.

Wells, with a few years as IU president under his belt, was on his first trip abroad - touring South America in 1941 as a member of a delegation learning about an area that suddenly was a key supplier of raw materials for war-torn nations.

The distinguished visitors needed tour guides, and Fraenkel volunteered. He was assigned to help a loquacious U.S. senator, who at first impressed him greatly, and a quiet man ``with very kind eyes.''

Gradually, he lost respect for the politician and began to gravitate to the kindly man - Herman Wells. ``I was absolutely fascinated by his style, his facial expressions and his perceptiveness,'' Fraenkel recalled.

Wells gave Fraenkel his card when they parted. Eventually, he helped arrange for a scholarship to bring him to IU. After graduating, Fraenkel went on to Harvard to study applied mathematics.

But in 1947, when Wells took a leave from the IU presidency to oversee establishment of an education system in devastated Berlin, Fraenkel agreed to leave graduate school and serve as his aide. Later, he was Wells' assistant in the presidency for 15 years.

Fraenkel believes Wells' power derives ultimately from the elusive quality of charisma, an extraordinary personal magnetism that attracts people and can move them deeply.

``Herman Wells has charisma,'' he said. ``I have known two people well who genuinely had charisma. One is Herman Wells. The second is Ted Hesburgh (the recently retired Notre Dame president).''

He identified Wells' special quality in Berlin, where they often attended a grand opera house in the Soviet sector. High-ranking Soviet officials, making a show of supporting culture in their area, always surrounded them.

One night, Fraenkel went by himself, and at intermission a Russian approached him and said, ``My wife and I have observed you and this fat gentleman. He seems to be an extraordinary person. Who is he?''

Fraenkel asked him why he wanted to know, and the man said, ``We have observed this man, and he seems so interesting and so kind, and he pays such attention.''

Later, Fraenkel saw Wells' magic affect professors and staff in Bloomington. ``He did not apply the powers of his mind and of his heart only to people who were important, but to everybody,'' Fraenkel said.

And, above all, to the university. ``Once he was president, he was totally focused on one thing, the progress of Indiana University,'' Fraenkel said. ``Indiana University is his one and only love affair. Indiana University is his mistress, his wife, his children. Indiana University is his life.''

A cousin, 80-year-old Claude Rich, former head of the IU Alumni Association, spent several Hoosier boyhood afternoons each year with Wells as they grew up about 40 miles apart. ``In 1921, when he came down here, he was as dedicated to Indiana University in his college days as he was when he was president and since,'' Rich said.

Wells wrote, ``From the very beginning I fell in love with Indiana University . . . The student body was a mixture of youngsters just out of high school and veterans returning from World War I, and yet they had enough in common to be congenial.

``The whole air of the place was friendly and relaxed, and for some reason that I cannot explain it nurtured individuality and creativity.''

Wells majored in business at IU and also earned a master's degree in economics. After a stint as a doctoral student in economics at the University of Wisconsin, he worked for the State of Indiana, studying Indiana's country bank failures and how to prevent them. Later Wells became an IU economics professor and dean of the School of Business Adminstration.

Many have said IU was served well by the contacts he made in state government and in Hoosier banking - he visited more than 1,000 banks and helped rewrite Indiana's banking laws. Although young, he was known around the state.

His autobiography and his oldest friends suggest that his power - his genius with people, his competence and early accomplishment - also draws on deep Hoosier roots and American history.

``It's hard to say what made him the kind of person and president he was,'' said Rich. ``I've always said you've got to go back to his beginnings.''

He grew up ``in the best of all possible times and under the best of all possible circumstances,'' Wells wrote in Being Lucky.

``With no shadow of a major war, past or on the horizon, and with opportunities all around, the new century began in an atmosphere of calm, stability and confidence.''

He was the only child of a pair of schoolteachers (his father later became a banker). Wells' reverence for them is profound. They were ``ambitious, wise, encouraging and loving.'' They also gave him his distinctive middle name, B.

After his father's death, his mother moved to Bloomington to be with him and ``began to discharge the role of official hostess'' for IU, Wells wrote. ``This role was entirely foreign to her background and experience but she moved into it with vigor and enthusiasm.''

In writing about his career, it is clear that Wells - although somewhat mystified himself by his confidence - was the master of his destiny. ``Early in my career, in some mysterious fashion, I seemed to have a total vision of what I hoped the university could become in my time,'' he said in Being Lucky .

``With this to guide me, all my activities were undertaken with the thought and expectation that they would be of benefit to the institution as it moved toward what I believed to be its manifest goals.''

Wells lives in a house across from IU's Main Library. His domain is filled with books, sculpture, paintings and antiques. He is a lifelong collector. When he runs out of room for his possessions, he gives them to IU. All his finer acquisitions have been made with the idea of giving them to the university one day.

When Wells left the presidency, he picked 103-year-old Owen Hall for his office. He wanted to be able to look out on IU's original quadrangle. ``The oldest building on campus I thought should have one of the oldest people around in it,'' Wells chuckled.

Seated behind an 18th century English desk he bought in London, with the bookcases behind him filled all the way to a 14-foot ceiling with the working library of William Lowe Bryan, he said, ``The university has been extraordinarily kind to me to let me work all these years, and that's the most wonderful thing they could do for me. I keep very busy.''

Piled around Wells were books and magazines laid up for reading: a biography of Sidney Hook, the diary of Theopolis Wiley, Foreign Affairs and Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.

A Buddhist priest's begging bowl shared space on his desk near a Hoosier school bell that was used by his father in the late 1890s. ``The true symbols of my profession,'' Wells said. ``The other symbol of my profession is the globe,'' he added, pointing, ``because that is our parish.''

The world has showered him with laurels, which he wears lightly, having found - he once said at a tribute dinner attended by 400 people - that he cannot shrug them off because people won't let him. Even in the vast and frigid darkness of outer space, there's a planet named for him.

``Almost single-handedly,'' Herman Wells ``changed Indiana University from a good university to a great university,'' says the citation from the International Astronomical Union, granting the name ``Wells'' 15 years ago for a small planet discovered by IU astronomers.

The late Eli Lilly, himself a legend for the pharmaceutical company that bears his name and for his philanthropy, wrote Wells a poem of congratulations in a shaky hand. Lilly summed up the honor, the life simply, ``He now orbits with the gods.''

Copyright: 1988