Talking with Chuck Wells

This is the first of an ongoing series of interviews with members of our fellowship. Each month a new one will appear in the newsletter.  It’s an effort to help us to get to know one another better. Comments are welcome.  – Carol Imani

Chuck Wells portrait

As long as I’ve been coming to services at the fellowship, I’ve had an affection for Chuck Wells. At age ninety-three Chuck is our most senior member, but he also always has a knack for genuinely witty, laugh-out-loud comments, making it clear that nothing gets by Chuck and that he’s fun to be around.  So recently I sat down with him to learn about the rich life he’s had which, without doubt, has helped him to develop that special sense of humor.

Chuck wanted to know why I chose him my first subject for an interview, and said that he and Sally, his wife, concluded that, due to his age, there was “a sense of urgency” about talking with him, but he wanted me to know that it is “unfounded.”  I told him that reminded me of something Mark Twain had said, that “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” and of course Chuck was acquainted with that Twain quote.   He also said that he attributes his long life to three things: “Good genes, a love of work and activity, and a happy marriage.”

Chuck was born in 1925 (“that was five years after women got the vote and one year after Indians became citizens”) on “a farm which backed onto the Erie Canal near Rochester, New York, but when I was fourteen months old my family came west to the San Francisco Bay Area.  The day before my eighteenth birthday I enlisted in the Coast Guard, and became a sailor at sea with the North Atlantic Ice Patrol.” After that Chuck was at San Mateo Community College and then San Jose State, majoring in education, and minoring in sociology and speech therapy.  He also drove an ambulance in San Francisco, and student-taught in San Francisco’s Chinatown, with third and sixth graders, earning his B.A. from San Francisco State.

When he moved to Marin County he taught in three San Rafael schools where “release time for religious education was mandatory” and he recalls one young student, “acting as if the angels of fury were on his tail, telling me ‘I’ve got to go to cataclysm.’“ He also said that, “in order to enjoy the luxury of a public school salary, which back then, in the mid-50’s, was $4,800 a year,

I had to make ends meet by also teaching part time at another school.”  So, apparently, very little has changed since the 1950’s in terms of how underpaid teachers are.

A unique teaching experience came along when Chuck got a job with the Bayview Schools at San Quentin Prison in San Francisco. “That was a time” he says, “when we were trying to rehab people”. Chuck found that he liked working with adult prisoners.  He recalls one in particular, who was raised in a black Alabama orphanage and decided to start over. He started in the first grade, and worked his way through the grades, graduating as the school’s valedictorian.  In his speech he explained that inmates had the choice to be free in their minds while physically prisoners, and the guards were both physically and mentally prisoners while on duty because they had to be continually focused on the inmates.

Chuck was married at twenty-five in the San Jose Unitarian church. He and his wife Marie had two sons. In 1958 he was offered tenure at a school where he was teaching “but I turned it down because I wanted to move to San Jose because we’d met some good Unitarians from there at the Unitarian conference in Carmel.”  In San Jose he taught seventh grade, a class of “educable mentally retarded” students; however, “about half the students were Latino kids who had nothing wrong with them mentally.”  When he told the school counselor that he felt it was “a crime against those kids” to combine them with kids with mental disabilities and to not be taught separately the response was “I can put them in a class with forty-six other kids, but I figured you could do more with them.” So those students stayed in Chuck’s class. “They were a great bunch, and I hated to leave them at the end of the year.”

Around that time Chuck’s wife became the secretary at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, which trained future Unitarian ministers, so they moved to Berkeley, and Chuck experienced what he describes as “a mid-life crisis.”  After deliberating over the law, the ministry or continuing in education, a solution presented itself in the form of a masters program in adult education and human resource management at UC Berkeley, and “I took off like a rocket there”. That led, subsequently, to a job offer with the National Iranian Oil Company, in southern Iran, for the next three years.  His marriage ended after coming back to the States. He met Sally. They married and went off to Tripoli in Libya, working for Mobil Oil for 1 ½ years, and “we had a wonderful time in a beat up Land Rover exploring the desert and sea coast.”  That was followed by three years, again with Mobil Oil, in Sumatra, Indonesia, which was “also wonderful, though we were moist all the time, since we were only three degrees above the equator.”

Finally the world travelers decided it was time to return to the United States, specifically the American west, and “we bought an abandoned ranch outside of Chiloquin” and were there for thirty-five years.  Their most important adventure was creating the non-profit Chiloquin Visions in Progress and raising $1,750,000 to build what became a beautiful and much-needed community center, housing a branch of the Klamath County Library and the Two Rivers art gallery.

Five years ago when it became apparent that the ranch was requiring more time and attention than they wanted to give, they moved to Klamath Falls and turned their attention to all kinds of community efforts here, including involvement in the Unitarian Fellowship.  When asked about what he values the most in our fellowship Chuck says “That it grows deeper all the time.  It’s a refuge where you can refill your spiritual tank for the coming week. And there’s also just getting to know the UUers and experiencing their spiritual journeys, as well as the growth

of the board, its breadth and depth, in an effort to provide leadership consistent with our principles.”