map
William Wells, 1880s
Union College Schaffer Library,
Special Collections Picture File
map
“Uncle Billy,” date unknown
Union College Schaffer Library,
Special Collections Picture File
William Wells
(April 4, 1820 – December 12, 1907)
Professor of Modern Languages and Literature,
1865-1903

William Wells was born in New York City, but grew up in Philadelphia. He attended the Franklin Institute, and although he never enrolled in an undergraduate college, at the age of twenty-six, his facility with languages allowed him to go to Vienna as a university student and an unofficial member of the American legation there. He received a PhD from the University of Berlin in 1848.  For some time thereafter, he was secretary at the American embassy to the German parliament at Frankfort-on-the-Main; he also served as correspondent on the New York Herald, being the first regular foreign correspondent on any American newspaper. In 1852, he was appointed a professor of modern languages at Genesee College, a co-educational experiment that later became Syracuse University. His experience at Genesee made him a proponent of co-education, although not without some reservations, which he outlined in a speech on the subject at the 1885 Convocation at Union College.

By the time he reached Union to chair the Modern Languages and Literatures department in 1865, Wells was fluent in seven languages. He taught every language in the Modern Languages curriculum including French, German, Spanish, and Italian. He was also dedicated to seeing the world and sharing it with his students.  When he got the chance to teach current history in 1887, for example, he enthusiastically embarked on a series of tours abroad to learn more about the countries first hand. After his fourth world tour at the age of 72 in 1891/92, he was welcomed home by the alumni of Union College with a magnificent demonstration in New York harbor which included a celebratory cannon and band. Outside his duties as professor, Wells continued to write on foreign affairs for various newspapers and was very involved in his church, serving for over 25 years as superintendent at the State Street Methodist Episcopal Church Sunday school. He helped found Drew Theological Seminary and served on its board of trustees. He also sometimes acted as a financial agent for the College, traveling extensively in the 1870s to revive alumni interest in the College. In 1875, he received an LLD from Indiana Asbury University.

Generations of students came out of Union with affection for “Uncle Billy.” He was seen as a kindly man, courteous and gentlemanly, and he typically responded to undergraduate mischief with wit and humor, getting his point across without alienating his students.  Recitations were apparently a particular source of entertainment for the students, although as Wells advanced in years, the entertainment was frequently at his expense. Wells was famous on campus for the jokes he would tell during translation exercises, for example, but they ultimately became so routine that they were marked on the margins of the textbooks handed down from upperclassmen. Tradition held that when Wells told a joke, the students would stamp their feet on the floor; the dust would then settle to reveal a grinning Professor Wells. As a prank, however, students could arrange not to laugh at the correct moment.

Although his home at the south end of North College was in sight of Mrs. Perkins’ residence across the athletic fields, she did not often mention "Uncle Billy” in her letters. In 1895, she noted that the ladies of the faculty sent Wells 75 roses in honor of his 75th birthday.  A decade later, perhaps reflecting on the influence that advancing age was having on the esteemed professor, Mrs. Perkins wrote that the commencement procession was impressive albeit headed “by poor tottering Uncle Billy” (June 9, 1904).  Wells retired in 1902 at the age of 82 with a salary and a home at Union for life. He died in 1907.

Alice Yeckle Wells
Wife of William Wells

Wells married Alice Yeckle while he was still at Genesee College, and their daughter Alice was born there in 1857. Mrs. Wells was heavily engaged in activities off campus as well at Union, being deeply involved in the State Street Methodist Church as well as the Society for the Promotion of Useful Reading and serving terms as a president of both the Woman’s Auxiliary of the YMCA and the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. She was as well loved on campus as in the community; after her death from a stroke in 1906, the Union University Quarterly reported that. “Mrs. Wells’s life was radiant with goodness and good-cheer” (May 1906).  In her letters Mrs. Perkins took particular note of Mrs. Wells’s interest in photography, reporting that she took beautiful views of the garden — images which have survived to be displayed on this web site for Mrs. Perkins’ Union College.