Spencer A. Wells is now most remembered for his store, Hemphill-Wells, and the Carpenter-Wells Residence Halls named after him.
When thinking of Veterans Day, many imagine the stars and stripes of the American flag proudly waving or parades full of soldiers in pristine uniforms. The holiday seems firmly grounded in the present, intertwined with recent conflicts in the Middle East. Perhaps we never even think about how it came to be or why it's celebrated each year on Nov. 11.
But Veterans Day, as it was renamed in 1954, is a much older tribute to military veterans. In other countries, the holiday is called Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. It's the international commemoration of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.
In recognition of the 100th anniversary of World War I's cessation, we bring you the story of a veteran of both world wars – a man who was near and dear to Texas Tech University, who shaped the university in its formative years and just might have been shaped, himself, in return.
Spencer A. Wells was born Oct. 3, 1890, in Weatherford. His father, a merchant, died when Wells was only 8 years old; his mother died three years later, leaving Wells and his sister to be raised by an aunt and uncle.
In high school, Wells began working for the Baker-Poston Co. clothing store in Weatherford. But after its owner, W. M. Hemphill and Associates, purchased a store in San Angelo in 1909, Wells moved to the new location. He started as an employee in the shoe department but worked his way up to head of the department within three years.
Because he sold more of the soft-soled children's shoes of the time than many of his colleagues, Wells earned the nickname “Softie,” which followed him the rest of his life, despite – or perhaps because of – its incongruity with the rest of him.
In July 1914, Wells' quiet existence took a dramatic turn as World War I broke out in Europe. A month after the United States entered the war in April 1917, Wells enrolled in officer training camp at Leon Springs, near San Antonio. Emerging as a second lieutenant, he joined the 167th Infantry 42nd Division and was shipped to Europe in October 1917.
World War I
As his 1962 obituary summed up, Wells “saw action during all the major battles” of World War I.
Wells commanded an infantry company in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, and while in combat, he experienced firsthand the effects of the very latest innovation of that era: chemical warfare. It's unknown whether he was exposed to mustard gas, the most effective chemical agent of World War I, or one of several widely used alternatives, but one thing was clear: it left its mark on him.
He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action in the Baccarat sector in the spring of 1918. He also served as a battery commander in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's brigade in the Aisne-Marne sector during the summer.
Over the course of one year, Wells was promoted twice and was elevated to captain just before the Armistice, which officially ended the war on Nov. 11, 1918. Five days later, the 167th Infantry became part of the Army of Occupation in Germany, known as the Third Army.
Their duty was to disarm and disband German forces as ordered by Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. Troops in the Third Army encountered no hostile act of any sort. On the contrary, the German citizens they encountered seemed glad for the end of the war.
According to a daily summary of intelligence reports Wells saved from this time, “the area is orderly and industrious as it has always been during the occupation of the 42nd Division. There are no new movements to report. Aside from military spirit, which is entirely lacking, the morale of Kreis Ahrweiler is excellent.”
Wells returned to the United States in the spring of 1919, bringing a wealth of documents from the war. Now housed in the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech, these documents are fascinating reading. Maps, instruction manuals for grenades and gas shells, field orders, rules for administering military justice and confidential documents stamped SECRET in purple ink, the century-old papers – many water-stained and held together with heavily rusted staples or paperclips – offer a glimpse into life in the trenches.
Among them is the notification of the death of one of Wells' soldiers, 2nd Lt. Edward Glover, of diphtheria, along with the request for his personal effects. Attached is the handwritten U.S. Army Field Message, “We know nothing of his personal effects, nor have we anything at all by which we can make any report. Let me know what to do.” The response: “Nothing to do but forward service record.”
Coming to Lubbock
Upon arriving back in the United States, Wells returned to San Angelo to work for his former employer, which had become the Baker-Hemphill Co. during his absence.
But he didn't remain in San Angelo for long. In 1962, Wells' close friend, longtime Avalanche-Journal editor and publisher Charles A. Guy, told the story of Wells' arrival in Lubbock in his daily column, The Plainsman:
“The way Spencer happened to land in Lubbock is an interesting story. He told it to me long ago, and we later referred to it in conversations down through the years. It was an accident, really. The Baker-Hemphill people were ready to do some expanding. They thought Plainview was the spot and that M.L. Price and Spencer, both in the San Angelo store, were the ones to spearhead the move. So Mr. Price and Spencer went to Plainview in 1922 to find a location.
“There was available in Plainview no good location, so the two set out to drive back to ‘Angelo.' They stopped in Lubbock for dinner, and then afterward, strolled around downtown before bedtime, looking things over. The location [at Broadway and Texas Avenue] then held a one-story building, and it was vacant. Mr. Price and Spencer reasoned that since they already had everything else – including a full set of fixtures – they'd put the store here. They did – and everyone knows the story that unfolded since then.
“The store was first Hemphill-Price and became Hemphill-Wells after Mr. Price's death” in 1925.
Two years after its founding in Lubbock, the store moved to its now famous location at Avenue J and 13th Street, which, at the time, was on the far southwest outskirts of Lubbock's business district.
Wells kept busy in nearly every aspect of the store's business, selling shoes and men's clothing, writing the store's advertising, arranging window displays and even buying much of the merchandise the store would sell.
While president of Hemphill-Wells, he also became president of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce and a director of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce. But work wasn't his only passion. After Texas Tech's founding in 1923, Wells became an avid Red Raider advocate.
According to his obituary in the Avalanche-Journal, “Wells' connection with Texas Tech came from the very start. He was among those responsible for obtaining the college for Lubbock and helped the first band the college had to get uniforms. He also was instrumental in obtaining costumes for the Madrigal Singers on campus. Through the store here, Wells set up a sale of freshman caps with half the funds going to a student loan fund and the other half to the Red Raider Club.”
The Red Raider Club was originally the Matador Club, which Wells helped organize and for which he served as one of its first presidents.
In 1932, Wells – in the guise of Hemphill-Wells – donated a young steer to Texas Tech's animal husbandry department. Sir Spencer I, as the steer was named, was kept for one year and then shown at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, where it sold for what was then the very respectable price of $6.50 per 100 pounds. Thus began a tradition of steers, each named “Sir Spencer,” that would continue for more than 25 years.
As such a prominent local businessman with Texas Tech connections, it was only natural that Wells became a member of the Texas Tech Board of Directors in February 1936. After only six weeks on the board, he became its vice chairman. He was still in that role in August 1941, when then-board chairman J.M. West died, so Wells became the acting chairman. He was named chairman in his own right on Oct. 4, 1941.
But alas, his position would be short-lived.
World War II
On Dec. 7, 1941, forces from Japan attacked the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pulling the United States into World War II, which it had thus far tried to avoid.
Nearly four years earlier, in an interview with the Texas Tech Magazine, Wells said he saw no immediate threat that the U.S. would become involved, but encouraged vigilance.
“War or no war,” Wells said, “I believe every youth in America today should take military training to equip himself for another emergency.”
The first week of December 1942, Wells took his own advice. He re-enlisted in the U.S. Army, was assigned his prior rank of captain and reported for duty to the Eighth Service Command in Dallas. A few days later, he was stationed to Camp Polk, Louisiana.
“I never knew Spencer to show fear of anything except tuberculosis,” Guy later wrote. “There were one or two cases of the illness in his family, and after he was badly gassed in World War I, he was victim of frequent paroxysms of coughing, He thought fresh air would be helpful and to get it, he drove an open car long after closed models came into existence. Nightly, for years, he drove around the edges of Lubbock after work, drinking in the ozone.
“He never contracted tuberculosis and passed a physical to return to service in World War II.”
After Wells' term on the Board of Directors expired on Feb. 19, 1943, the board unanimously adopted a resolution on May 1, 1943, to recognize him as an individual who “offered his services to the War Department at this time of critical need” and “has served this college so faithfully, unselfishly and untiringly, and has contributed so liberally of his means and of his time.”
The resolution further ordered the board secretary to “convey to Capt. Wells a copy of this resolution, together with the affectionate best wishes of the entire membership of the board and the administrative officers of the college.”
Not much is known about Wells' service during World War II. He served in the inspector general department at Camp Polk and, while he was there, he was promoted from captain to major. But the fact that he served at Camp Polk specifically paints an interesting picture.
Camp Polk, near Leesville, Louisiana, was primarily a training facility. Before Wells' arrival there, the camp had become famous for its Louisiana Maneuvers, a series of exercises in August and September 1941 intended to test a fast-growing, inexperienced force. From these maneuvers came an important realization – the need for both mass and mobility – which led to the creation of 16 armored divisions in the war. Ultimately, 50 of the 89 divisions that fought in Europe, the Pacific and Africa during World War II trained at or near Camp Polk.
Despite its importance for training, that was not Camp Polk's only purpose; it also served as a military prison for German prisoners of war. The first POWs arrived at Camp Polk in July 1943, only seven months after Wells landed there.
Nothing is now known about any interactions Wells had with the German prisoners at the camp, but it seems highly unlikely that the U.S. Army would not have capitalized on the skills Wells developed in World War I during the six-month-long Occupation of Germany.
After the war, Wells returned to Lubbock and continued his prior pursuits, both personally and professionally. By July 1959, when Lubbock celebrated the 50th anniversary of Hemphill-Wells, he had been in declining health for some time.
Wells had been a permanent resident and patient at West Texas Hospital for nearly six years by the time of his death at age 72 on Nov. 17, 1962.
During the last year of his life, he was recognized by the university to which he gave so much. On Dec. 3, 1961, the two newest men's residence halls were named in honor of the late John W. Carpenter, a member of the university's original Board of Directors, and Wells. According to an announcement in the campus newspaper The Toreador, “These two men are responsible to a great degree for making Tech the school that it is today.”
As Wells' obituary stated, “His long years of association with the college was one of his proudest personal achievements.”
On Dec. 8, 1962, the Board of Directors passed one final resolution in his name:
“In the death of Mr. Spencer A. Wells, Texas Technological College has lost a friend and staunch supporter who, for the 38-year life of the college, was ever available and anxious to help through his advice, counsel, experience and financial contributions. The college was fortunate in having him on its board, wherein he served both as chairman and vice-chairman. He was one of the founders of the Matador Club, the forerunner of the present Red Raider Club. He was interested in the band, in agriculture, in textile engineering and in many other activities of the college. But he was principally interested in the students. Hundreds of these he enabled to complete their college education and his greatest rewards came from seeing his protégés make good. Through them, his influence lives on and, to the third and fourth generation, this college will continue to reflect his personality.
“Therefore, be it resolved, that the Board of Directors of Texas Technological College acknowledge with sincere and grateful appreciation the services rendered this college by Mr. Wells.”