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Bloomington Herald-Times

June 18, 2012

Herman B Wells goes digital
By Dawn Hewitt
June 17, 2012

A new website honoring Herman B Wells features a timeline of his achievements, past, present and future, leaving room for noting his continuing influence well beyond the year 2500.

This year marks 50 years since Wells stepped down as president of Indiana University. It also marks the Indiana University Press publication of his biography, "Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University," by James H. Capshew, who serves on the faculty of IU's department of history and philosophy of science. As an undergraduate, Capshew was Wells' housemate, personal assistant and friend.

Capshew reflected on Wells Saturday during the Cream & Crimson Alumni weekend.

"Herman B Wells built an institution, and, in the process, became one himself," Capshew said. He said he researched Wells' life and wrote the book to understand that connection.

When Wells arrived at IU as an undergraduate in 1921, 2,700 students were enrolled, and the campus was just a few buildings -- the Old Crescent -- surrounding Dunn Woods. A 1922 aerial photo in Capshew's book shows acres of forest and farmland east of those buildings.

As an undergrad, Wells connected with the university, including the intellectual challenges, the physical beauty of the campus and the fun involved in student life, Capshew said.

A fifth-generation Hoosier, Wells had a deep affection for both the people of Indiana and the local landscape, Capshew said, calling Wells a "tree hugger" long before that term was coined.

The main theme of Wells' autobiography, "Being Lucky: Reminiscences and Reflections," originally published in 1980 and republished earlier this year by IU Press, is the development of Wells' sense of place that is Indiana University, Capshew said.

In 1938, at only 36 years old, Wells was named acting president of the university and permanent president the following year.

A 1949 photo of campus Capshew displayed shows the IU Auditorium, Woodburn Hall, and a much larger campus to accommodate more than 10,000 students. During Wells' tenure as president, IU expanded from 137 to 1,800 contiguous acres, Capshew said, noting that today, there is still room for the campus to grow.

Wells was committed to campus expansion, Capshew said, and to making IU "a place where people can come and study anything they want."

In a video interview, Wells expressed the importance of a strong faculty, their intellectual freedom, and loving and supporting them.

"How many university presidents would say 'You have to love your faculty,'?" Caphew mused.

Another legacy of Wells' presidency was the international relationships he forged that continue today.

Capshew said he was present several times when Wells met with the Dalai Lama. "Both had an aura about them," he said.

Wells treated heads of state and food service workers with equal respect, Capshew said.

Despite his indelible mark on the university, Wells was modest about his contributions, and credited the IU community for his accomplishments.

And that's part of Wells' legacy, too, Capshew said to the gathered alumni.

"We are part of an ongoing, historical community that will go beyond our lifetimes, with Herman B Wells as a model."

Wells, who died in 2000, would have celebrated his 110th birthday on June 7. He has a Facebook page now, too:


Wells online and in print

An interactive timeline featuring videos, articles, photos and even a song about Herman B Wells is at

Find Herman B Wells on Facebook at

"Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University," by James H. Capshew, published by Indiana University Press in 2012, is available in hardcover or ebook at bookstores.