New book on IU's greatest president 

James Capshew with a bust of Herman B Wells on the IU campus. - CHRIS MEYER
  • James Capshew with a bust of Herman B Wells on the IU campus.
  • Chris Meyer

Was Herman B Wells IU's greatest president? Every campus statue and shrine to the longtime head, who died in 2000 at age 97, seems to answer in the affirmative. But let's put the question to James Capshew, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University Bloomington and author of the new study, Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University.

"Absolutely," Capshew says. "He had a tremendous understanding of people; he was an interpersonal genius. He was able to empathize. He was very persuasive, but even if people disagreed with him, he had the unusual ability to deflect personal enmity. He could talk easily with anyone, from janitors to foreign ambassadors. He believed in the social utility of education, that people should be allowed to study everything and anything."

Under Wells's guidance, Indiana University went from a sleepy backwater school to a world-class institution. As aging professors retired he replaced them with young and dynamic researchers. He established new and impressive schools of music and fine arts as well as the first department of folklore in the nation. He supported Alfred Kinsey's study of human sexuality. Wells also brought in international students, thereby strengthening IU's links with the rest of the world, and increased the physical size of the campus more than tenfold.

"Most people peak in their powers in their 30s or 40s," Capshew observes. "Wells had a 40- or 50-year-long peak. He was indefatigable! He became president when he was 35, the youngest college president in America at that date. He was still going strong in his mid-70s. He didn't begin to slow down until he was in his 80s. He was still with it until a few months before he died at 97."

Capshew recalled a night at the Brown County Playhouse when an announcement was made that Wells was in the house. Wells stood, a light shone upon him, and the audience erupted into a spontaneous wave of applause that lasted the better part of five minutes.

"It was totally unrehearsed and genuine," Capshew said admiringly. "That's when I realized that he really had something. He was 75 at the time."

Capshew's new book explores the nature of that special something. The child of a small-town banker, Wells came from a family of depressives, and his grandmother and father both committed suicide. As a result he became extremely sensitive to the emotions of others. A small, rotund boy, he compensated by going out of his way to become well-liked by everyone. At the age of fifteen he suffered mumps followed by orchitis, a painful infection of the testes. For the rest of his life, Wells never entered into a romantic or sexual relationship.

"Instead, he became a friend to everybody," Capshew explained. "He learned that lesson early on. He didn't really fit a mold, so he created a different way to be in the world. He was very much a public man, and didn't like to be alone. He was always traveling, always on the move. I think it was part of what he did to avoid depression. He was very good at making friends, and he had a couple of confidants, but he didn't let many people become intimate friends."

Although Wells constantly traveled, his heart remained in Bloomington. The university was his lifelong love, and into it he poured every bit of his abilities and efforts. He dedicated his long life to bettering IU.

"He understood that he belonged to the university; it didn't belong to him," Capshew pointed out. "He became part of the genius loci, the guiding spirit of the place — and his spirit is still here."

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