Ernie Dumas tells me that George Wells, a veteran Arkansas newspaper man, died today. He was 81.
George grew up in Camden, started his college career at Ouachita Baptist and finished in journalism at the University of Missouri before embarking on a career that took him after Army duty to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Pine Bluff Commercial (in its glory days under the editorial leadership of Gene Foreman) and the Arkansas Gazette. He was the newspaper’s federal courts reporter for the last 12 years of its existence. It closed in 1991. During the course of his time in Pine Bluff, he won a Knight Fellowship for study at Stanford University.
George was quiet, careful and unflappable. In my recollection, the pinnacle of his work was encyclopedic and deeply informed coverage of the ACLU’s successful challenge of the Arkansas Creation Science law, struck down in a landmark case. He was an expert, too, on environmental issues, often a major subject of big federal cases of the time, along with civil rights battles. As Dumas wrote in an obituary he’s working on:
When the legislature passed a law in 1981 requiring schools to balance instruction on evolution in science classes with the biblical account of creation, the law was challenged in the U.S. district court. Expecting another show trial like the Scopes affair in 1925, reporters descended on the city. The judge and the lawyers for both sides kept the proceedings on the legal issues rather than on the attorneys (William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial in Tennessee). The judge held that Bible verses were not science and that the law violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by promoting a religion. Wells’s careful and penetrating account of the daily trial of McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education and Mike Trimble’s colorful sidebars were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
Judge William Overton, the presiding judge in that case and in the other major trial of the decade, the Gazette’s antitrust suit in 1985 against the media company that owned the Arkansas Democrat, would later remark that Wells’s reporting on the big trials were models of objectivity, accuracy and depth that newspapers would do well to emulate.
I too remember his absolutely arrow-straight coverage of the critical anti-trust case that owners of the Gazette brought against owners of the Arkansas Democrat. The Gazette lost the case and ultimately the newspaper war. Democrat reporting tended to emphasize their owner’s case.
George continued free-lance writing after the newspaper closed.
He was a pro at a time when newspapers were a much greater part of the national experience than they are today. RIP, George Wells.
I can’t mention George’s passing without sending condolences to his wife Kathy Wells, a veteran journalist herself, an unstoppable civic activist and a supporter of the Times.
Dumas’ interview with George for the Gazette oral history project tells more fully George’s life story.