Moment of Indiana History

Banker Manqué? Herman B Wells’ Once-Promising Future

IU's legendary president Herman B Wells didn't set out to be a university administrator. According to his father, he was “practically raised in a bank”.

wells as a child, with dog

Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University

Future Indiana University president Herman B Wells spent his childhood in Jamestown, Indiana.

Today we remember Herman B Wells as the president and later chancellor of Indiana University, but from his childhood through the first years after his graduation from college, the young Wells appeared far more likely to take up a career in banking than in teaching and college administration.

Herman B Wells spent his early childhood years in Jamestown, Indiana, where his father worked at the local bank. By the age of thirteen, Herman spent his school holidays working alongside his father, learning to operate a Burroughs Posting Machine, which mechanized some of the bank’s bookkeeping operations. Because the large machine was designed to be operated by an adult, standing up, Herman stood on a box when he worked. During the summer after his high school graduation, Herman actually ran a small start-up bank in Whitestown, Indiana.

For one year in Illinois and three years in Bloomington, Indiana, Herman majored in business as an undergraduate. At the end of his sophomore year, Herman was offered a full-time job at the bank in Whitestown, but chose to stay in college. After earning his degree in 1924, he returned to Lebanon, Indiana, where his parents now lived, and again he worked alongside his father in the local bank.

Herman’s career path began to diverge from his father’s in 1926, when he left home to work toward a master’s degree. By 1930, Wells was teaching business at IU; in 1935 he became a dean and in 1937 was appointed as acting president, beginning a long and distinguished career – but not as a banker.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

Source Article: James Capshew, “Making Herman B Wells: Moral Development and Emotional Trauma in a Boone County Boyhood,” IMH December 2011

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