Born in Jamestown, Ind., on June 7, 1902, Herman B Wells was the only child of a banker, Joseph Granville Wells, and his wife, Anna Bernice Harting Wells, a former teacher. The family later moved to Lebanon, Indiana, where Wells was very active in high school, graduating in the top 10 percent of his class. After school and on Saturdays, he worked in his father's bank.
Wells attended the University of Illinois (1920-21), but transferred to IU after one year. In his memoir, Wells wrote of having to overcome his father's objections to the transfer and described what happened to him when he moved to Bloomington. "From the beginning I fell in love with Indiana University," Wells wrote. "It was a simple place in those days, with not yet three thousand students, but it had great charm and appeal for me." As an IU senior, Wells led his fraternity, Sigma Nu. His other campus activities included playing in the IU band and hanging out at the historic Book Nook on Indiana Avenue. Wells planned to follow in his father's footsteps in banking, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration in 1924. He then spent a year working as assistant cashier at a Lebanon, Ind., bank, which was followed by graduate study at the University of Wisconsin and IU. He completed a Master of Arts degree in economics at IU in 1927.
Afterwards, Wells accepted a position as field secretary with the Indiana Bankers Association, and he worked for the organization to strengthen and professionalize financial institutions during 1928-31, the early and turbulent years of the Great Depression. In 1930, Wells accepted an instructorship in economics at IU, and commuted from Bloomington to Indianapolis for a year while completing research for the association. From 1931 to 1933, he was secretary and research director of the Study Commission for Indiana Financial Institutions and played a major role in the rewriting of Indiana's state banking laws. Three years later, he accepted a post as assistant professor of economics at IU, but went on leave to work as supervisor of the state's Division of Banks and Trust Companies and the Division of Research and Statistics in the Department of Financial Institutions.
In 1935, Wells faced what ultimately was the crossroads decision of his life, whether to succeed William A. Rawles, who was retiring as dean of the IU School of Business (now the Kelley School of Business). Wells accepted and began a career in academic administration that spanned four decades. Two years later, during a midnight phone call, Wells was offered the job of acting IU president, after the retirement of William Lowe Bryan in 1937. Wells told judge Ora Wildermuth, then chairman of the IU board of trustees that he would agree to accept the post on one condition -- that he not be considered for the presidency. Nevertheless, Wells excelled in the role and agreed a year later to become IU's 12th president in its then 118-year history.
Under Wells' leadership, the size of IU's student body grew enormously, from about 11,000 in 1938 to more than 31,000 in 1962. Keeping his finger on the pulse of what was going on with students was a hallmark of his presidential style. He greeted students during frequent walks around campus and regularly conferred with student leaders. Among those Wells encouraged to join the IU faculty were Nobel Prize-winner Hermann J. Muller; another landmark geneticist, Tracy M. Sonneborn; and Dr. Harris B. Shumacker Jr., a pioneer in heart surgery. Under Wells, the university experienced its greatest growth and widened its scope to encompass the globe. At the end of World War II, he was appointed a special adviser on liberated areas for the U.S. Department of State and a minister of the Allied missions, observing the Greek elections. In 1957, he was chosen as a U.S. delegate to the 12th General Assembly of the United Nations. Wells' other international activities included advisory roles with UNESCO, as head of the U.S. delegation to Bangkok for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission on University Problems, and as a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in 1969. Wells' service to foreign governments earned him the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1960; the Thailand Government Award of Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant in 1962; and the Thailand Knight Commander (Second Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown in 1968.
Wells initially served as IU's acting president in 1937-38, as IU president between 1938 and 1962, and as interim president for three months in 1968. He remained a vital contributor as its chancellor for another 37 years, from 1962. As chancellor, Wells remained active on the campus where he resided and was much beloved, frequently attending university events. Wells was named by the Indiana Historical Society as one of 13 Hoosier "living legends," just one indication of the recognition he humbly received during his lifetime. Wells also was the recipient of twenty eight honorary degrees during his lifetime (Butler University (1939), Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (1939), Wabash College (1942), University of Wisconsin, Madison (1946), Earlham College (1948), DePauw University (1952), Miami University (1959), Trine University (1959), University of Louisville (1961), Anderson University (1962), Ball State University (1962), Franklin College (1962), Indiana University (1962), Ohio State University (1963), Washington University of St. Louis (1963), St. Joseph's College (1964), University of California Riverside (1964), University of Notre Dame (1964), Drury College (1968), Cleveland State University (1969), Columbia University (1969), University of Illinois, Chicago (1973), Srinakharinwirot University, Thailand (1975), Howard University (1976), University of South Carolina (1980), and Alcorn State University (1986)). Wells also received the B'nai B'rith Great American Traditions Award; the first Excellence in Education Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sons of the American Revolution; the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce; and six prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash designations from Hoosier governors. On Dec. 11, 1998, Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon honored Wells as a "Hoosier Millennium Treasure" during Indiana's 182nd birthday celebration.
Wells continued to work for the university in the capacity of mentor and advocate of its welfare for the remainder of his life. Reflecting on his career, he wrote in his memoir, "With full knowledge of the trauma, travail, blood, sweat and tears the office demands, I would eagerly undertake the glorious chore again. For me no other career could have been so satisfying. I have been lucky and happy in my life work."
Herman B Wells, an educational visionary who helped transform Indiana University into an internationally recognized center of research and scholarship and the only person in its 179-year history to lead it three times, died quietly at his home in Bloomington, March 18, 2000. He was 97.