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He had also spent 22 months in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Wells, now 86 and a denizen of Los Angeles, recently paid tribute to two generations of Americans — and Union residents — in a dual volume set called "We All Have a Story to Tell" (AuthorHouse Publishing). The first book concentrates on the early 20th century, while the second deals entirely with World War II.
Born in Weiser, Idaho, in 1921, Wells spent nearly all of his formative years in Union, which he left in 1939 on an athletic scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla. Growing up, Wells haunted the public library, so influential that he still recalls his card number: 123.
"I consider the Carnegie Library my education about life," he explains, due to the "variety of books I managed to absorb there."
Much of Wells' upbringing coincided with the Great Depression. "Times were tough," he admits.
His father, Robert Lee Wells, had helped grade the highway through Pyles Canyon and Union, and used a horse-team to harvest lumber and build logging tracks for the sawmill. During the lean years, he took whatever jobs he could get.
Wells recalls a community centered around its sawmill, along with farming and livestock. Orchards of prunes and cherries were primarily harvested by "dusters," those migrants driven westward by the extended drought of the Dust Bowl.
"Never could get a job picking," he says, "because the dusters were getting all the jobs."
As a child, Wells occupied himself with schoolwork, reading and the rough chores of milking, wood-cutting, tending the garden ("very necessary during the Depression years") and barn-cleaning.
"I started chopping wood when I was, I don't know, 6 or 7 seven years old, when the ax was too big for me," he recalls.
His usual wardrobe reflected the severity of the times: one pair of shoes, two sets of long underwear, shirts and pants, a jacket every other year perhaps — and no gloves.
Three years into his enrollment at Whitman, where he studied history and education, Wells was drafted into the Army Air Forces as a radio mechanic. At the end of his service, when he'd obtained the rank of staff sergeant, Wells ended up on Guadalcanal, where his younger twin brothers, Dean and Gene, were training in the Marines. The cover photograph of Book II of "We All Have a Story to Tell" portrays the three siblings on the island — Robert bound for discharge, his brothers to Okinawa.
The twins were active in major landings in the South Pacific, and each eventually suffered injury. They were both awarded purple hearts (Dean two of them), and Dean also came away with the prestigious Navy Cross.
Both live in the Portland area at present. Dean's wife, Lila Jean Ambrose, hails originally from La Grande.
While Wells couldn't include any sensitive details about location or maneuvers in his wartime letters home, he managed to sustain his relationship with Mary Belle Preston, which had begun at Whitman College.
They had cultivated their romance at the regular exchange dances between the fraternities and sororities. Mary Belle's enthusiasm for reading meshed easily with Wells' own. She also boasted a bear-trap memory — and still does.
"I refer to her ‘hard disk,'" Wells chuckles.
While still overseas, he arranged with his mother the purchase of an engagement ring for Mary Belle; no sooner had he returned home than the two were married.
They will celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary in March.
Wells then entered the University of Washington, first as an undergraduate, and then for a master's degree in social work, achieved in 1947. This led to a 31-year tenure with the Los Angeles Probation Department.
"We All Have a Story to Tell" emerged from Wells' burgeoning interest in the intersection of personal and collective history, developed during his retirement. Mary Belle's zeal for genealogy fed their travels, during which Wells began taping the recollections of relatives. Originally, he hoped to find out more about his mother and father, both of whom passed away in the late 1960s.
"In the process, I quickly learned that I didn't know anything about my parents," he says.
A background in social work, it turns out, pays off as a historian.
"It helped make my ear a little more responsive," Wells says of his training. "What (people are) saying, what they're not saying."
Before long, he was picking the brains of diverse family and friends for their own memories. Two decades into this hobby, Wells realized he'd amassed a collection worth real exposure.
Union comes well represented in these pages, from Depression-era domestic snapshots to the military bravery of native sons. Besides Wells and his brothers, there are the stories of Bob Pike, a Union resident killed in the Okinawa landing; Wells' high school classmates Carl Moulton and Frank Terrall; and his youngest sister, Marydith, who provides perspective on the Union home front.
"What I found is that older people are really pleased with the books because it takes them back in time," Wells notes.
Appropriately enough, "We All Have a Story to Tell" is available at the Union Carnegie Library — full circle for this former cardholder turned archivist.
Wells' passion for history still drives his pursuits: He's plugging away at his autobiography, which includes a lengthy account of his Union childhood. He isn't sure there's a market for such an undertaking, but considering his ambition and professionalism, it may not be long before his memoirs hit the shelves.
And he continues to help Mary Belle compile the family records. As Wells says, "The thing about genealogy is, it never stops. If you want a full-time career when you retire, there's one way to go."
Along with the Union and La Grande public libraries, "We All Have a Story to Tell" is available on demand through AuthorHouse Publishing by calling (888) 280-7715 or visiting www.authorhouse.com.