James Wells: A True "Book Man" and Newberry Associate

James Wells (right), with Stanley Morison, c. 1960.
James Wells (right), with Stanley Morison, c. 1960.

On a November afternoon, over lunch to celebrate his 90th birthday, Jim Wells reflected on his years with the Newberry, both as a member of the staff and as a long-time supporter.

“I was hired in 1950 on a trial basis by Stanley Pargellis, who was Librarian then,” Wells recalls. A year later, he officially became the custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. By the time he retired in 1984, Wells had worn many hats at the Newberry. He became the library’s first vice president in 1975, with responsibilities that included acquisitions and publications. In 1981, he was appointed George A. Poole III Curator of Rare Books, a position now held by Paul Saenger. He significantly enhanced the library’s collections through the donation and purchase of books, and he helped see the library through many changes, including the construction and move into the new stack building.

“He is a true ‘book man’ and was the Newberry’s face in the book trade and library world for many years,” says Paul Gehl, who succeeded Wells as custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation.

Wells also was instrumental in nurturing the library’s early fundraising efforts and could be considered the second “father” of the Newberry Associates, after it was established by Lawrence Towner. “The idea of bringing together a broad, sizeable donor group was a new idea at the Newberry in the mid-1960s,” adds Gehl.

Apart from staff duties, Wells has long given his personal support to the library. He is a member of the Newberry Associates, contributing each year to the Annual Fund, and is a member of the Blatchford Society, which recognizes those who have remembered the library in their estate plans. “I’m a great believer in charitable gift annuities,” notes Wells. He has donated funds to establish charitable gift annuities at the Newberry, as well as a number of other organizations that provide him with income for life. In his will he has named the library as a residuary beneficiary of his estate.

At 90, Wells serves a special role as an ambassador to the past. At the same time, by establishing a personal legacy at the Newberry, he also plays an important role in its future.

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