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Cover of Spring 2000 Issue


Dr. Carolyn Wells

Judy McReynolds

The woman is brilliant and brings out the best in her students -- Becky Bailey, '74

Dr. Carolyn Wells
Dr. Carolyn Wells is a lot like her green van. The van has many capabilities; it accommodates a variety of people -- animals too. It's down to earth, but also high tech; it's solid and reliable and good for the long haul. It doesn't draw undue attention to itself-it's only vanity being the license plate "LOGRHD" (an acronym for a bird called the loggerhead shrike). It supports some very serious, worthwhile pursuits and some good fun too. That's a pretty close match for the senior member of the Longwood faculty who retires in May.

Dr. Wells has taught at Longwood for 40 years; she has taught the children and grandchildren of former students. From 1969 to 1975 she was assistant dean of the college and then associate dean of the college. She was vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college from 1975 to 1981; then she returned to full-time teaching. In 1981-82 she was a special assistant to President Janet Greenwood. She has been a full professor since 1968, chaired the Department of Natural Sciences since 1992, chaired the College Council, now the Faculty Senate, in 1990-91, served on too many committees to name and taught photography in the art department for nine years.

Former students write back to Alumni Affairs and praise her name: "Dr. Wells is my all time favorite, then and now. The woman is brilliant and brings out the best in her students....In those days my best was hard to find, but she kept looking." (Becky Bailey , class of '74, early childhood education professor and author).

Current biology graduate assistant Jonathan Schilling admires Dr. Wells' work in establishing an interdisciplinary masters program: "[It] is a reflection of her understanding of how to efficiently resolve environmental dilemmas." He adds, "She emphasizes wisdom in addition to intellect in solving problems." Schilling echoes Bailey when he says of Wells, "Nobody has ever had as much faith in me, and that has meant a lot."

Today, ask Dr. Wells which is her favorite course to teach and without hesitation she answers, "Environmental Studies."

Wells began her career working as a physiological geneticist for the Atomic Energy Commission in Oak Ridge Tennessee studying the effects of low-level radiation on the aging of cells. She says, "It's only in the past decade that I've really been studying ecology and the environment. It's probably the most important thing that people can learn about because we've got only one world, one planet."

Wells is encouraged that "students are coming with more environmental awareness" but discouraged by a loss of some of the passion for environmental issues in the general population since the 70's and 80's.

In fact, Wells' first words to each Environmental Issues class are "You're going to be depressed by what you learn in this class."

Pessimism, however, does not prevail with Dr. Wells. She developed the Environmental Studies program, approved by the State Council of Higher Education in 1996. This interdisciplinary program includes an undergraduate minor plus the Master of Science in Environmental Studies degree.

Wells serves on a Longwood taskforce charged with developing a comprehensive environmental initiative for the college called "AgendaEarth: Longwood College's Commitment to Environmental Sustainability." Says Wells, "By making our campus a model of environmental stewardship, we send a daily message to our students, staff and faculty that preservation of our natural resources should become a part of all our lives."

She initiated Longwood's summer program in ornithology, a cornerstone of the master's in environmental studies. The ornithology field courses teach identification of bird species by sight and sound and censusing of the breeding bird population of Prince Edward County. The courses include field trips throughout Virginia. Students also study the behavior, habitat and ecological factors affecting birds.

Birding and bird counts are important to Dr. Wells: "Unlike a lot of research, it's one of the areas in which the laypublic can participate in a meaningful way. In fact the agencies depend upon the public."

In the Christmas bird count, which Wells organizes, about 20 people fan out from Darlington Heights and check the wires, the copses, the reservoirs and silos looking for birds from dawn till dark. They record species and numbers from a single shrike to 127 turkey vultures. It's one of several counts during each year that are reported to the Virginia Society of Ornithology. And for this kind of fun, Dr. Wells walks the rutted paths, but relies heavily on the green van.

It should serve well in a very active retirement. Perhaps a contemplative retirement as well as Dr. Wells acts locally but contemplates some big problems. She sees additional stress in the lives of today's students caused in part by an ever accelerating pace of life. She wonders aloud, "What's going to happen to the world when no one has the time to think? We're going to make a lot of mistakes."

Whatever happens to the world, Longwood is a better place for having known Carolyn Wells.

When Wells was approved as the fifth Board of Visitors Distinguished Professor in September 1999, president Patricia Cormier said, "She has devoted a long and distinguished career to serving this institution, and in so doing has enriched the lives of all those with whom she has come into contact. Dr. Wells is an example of the best of the professorate; as a superior teacher, a devoted colleague, a capable leader and an accomplished scientist, she is most certainly deserving of this high honor."

Her retirement may be one more compelling reason for a new Longwood science building - without Carolyn Wells, the walls of Stevens may not stand on May 14.