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A Life: Gary Wells ‘had joy about him every day in the classroom’

  • Lebanon school board member Gary Wells, right, speaks at a meeting in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 23, 1991, as board chair James Goodrich listens. Wells, a longtime teacher at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, served on the Lebanon board for eight years. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Gary Wells is held by his father, Edwin, in a photograph with his brother Tim taken in the 1950s. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/26/2020 10:15:57 PM
Modified: 1/26/2020 10:15:41 PM

WEST LEBANON — One day at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, Gary Wells waited in silence for a student in extremis to wear herself out hurling f-bombs and insults at him.

At the end of the rant, the interim assistant principal talked the girl down softly, closing with a line that then-Principal Patrick Andrew remembers almost 20 years later.

“He said, ‘I am not fat,’ ” Andrew, now superintendent of schools in Moultonborough, N.H., said with a chuckle last week. “He wasn’t flustered by anything.”

Before the veteran educator and Upper Valley native died of Lewy body dementia on Sept. 21, 2019, at 66, Wells impressed colleagues and students alike with his unflappability, his humor and his bottomless well of knowledge of and love for social studies — and kids.

Among his legions of former students, 2000 Mascoma High graduate Liz Murray credits Wells with inspiring her own deep dive into the profession the last 15 years at Hanover High School.

“Mr. Wells was vibrant and had joy about him every day in the classroom,” Murray said last week. “After my freshman year in college as a history major, I walked over to the education department and enrolled as a dual major. From the first day of student teaching, I always asked myself what I learned from the class with Mr. Wells and how I could apply it to where I was teaching.”

Murray applied those lessons first to seventh- and eighth-graders on the Onondaga reservation near Syracuse, N.Y., asking herself, “ ‘Why would this history matter to them?’ This is what Mr. Wells challenged us to do in his room every day.”

During an interview shortly before his retirement in 2016, Wells told the Valley News that he started challenging himself in the late 1960s. During Gary’s freshman year at Hartford High School, his father, Edwin R. Wells Jr., gave him a book about a teacher at a school for impoverished students on a chain of islands off South Carolina.

“I read that book and — it sounds corny — I made my decision,” Wells recalled. “I changed my classes to take more competitive ones, and I ended up going to Dartmouth. I can’t say that’s the usual path for somebody from my background. That’s why I tell students all the time, ‘If you have a dream, try to make it happen.’ ”

With that Ivy League degree, Wells could have written his ticket to educational institutions around the world. Instead, he took to heart a lesson he’d gleaned from that book and made teaching kids in his native Upper Valley his life’s work — the first nine years at Orford Middle School, the subsequent 33 at Mascoma, while raising a son and a daughter with his wife Colleen along the way.

“You have to be part of the community to be really successful in teaching,” he said at the end of his career. “Everyone at Orford knew me, and after two or three years, they did at Mascoma, too.”

About 18 years into his tenure at Mascoma, Wells agreed to join the school’s administration, mostly as a favor to the new principal: Andrew.

“When I became principal (in 2001), I said to the administration, ‘Please: Can I have Gary Wells as my assistant principal?’ ” Andrew said. “I knew how respected he was, how good he was with the kids. When I was still the assistant principal, there was a student flunking most of his classes, and skipping all but Gary’s class. He said, ‘I always go to Mr. Wells’ class.’ ”

Small wonder, then, that after one year in the front office, Wells decided he was at his best with the students in front of a blackboard. Over the next 15, he served just one more stint in administration, again as a favor to Andrew, who was moving from the principal’s office to the Mascoma district superintendent’s office and whose successor, Jim Collins, needed a steady right hand.

“What I love is the classroom,” Wells said in 2016. “I was treated extremely well. I was accepted. The students I’ve had through the years have been a joy.”

Wells also understood the challenges of the profession enough to negotiate contracts for the Mascoma-district teachers’ union for a number of years. And for eight years in the 1990s, as a member of the Lebanon School Board. he brought a teacher’s perspective to the negotiating table in a way that impressed Lebanon Superintendent Michael Harris when Harris took charge of the district in 1999.

“I remember thinking when I came in that it was a bit strange for a teacher from another district to be the board chair,” Harris said. “Yet he had this rationality and ability to make decisions on their own merits. He was not just a teacher. He was a prominent one. He was able to hold different positions. Rather admirably, it seemed to me.”

While he was at it, Wells found and made time to evoke the admiration of son Gary Jr. and daughter Stefanie.

“He was at every softball, baseball and football game,” Stefanie Wells Vargas said last week. “He took us fishing all summer long. Whenever there was a school break of a long weekend or a vacation, it was constant Dad-and-kids time.”

And his devotion to his calling rubbed off.

“I teach 4- and 5-year-olds in pre-kindergarten, and I’m getting my master’s in child and family development,” said Vargas, a mother of three living in Kentucky. “I really want to help at-risk kids and families. My father always emphasized the importance of looking out for the people who can’t help themselves. He’s definitely been my inspiration. He’s always been my hero, who I measure myself up to all the time.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.




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