In the wee hours of a June morning in 1968, Huston Wells fell into bed. He was elated and encouraged and envisioned a future quite different than what he had ever known. On that evening, over two thousand miles away, Wells’ role model had won the California presidential primary.
At that time, Wells wasn’t even old enough to vote, yet he was so enamored of Senator Robert Kennedy, that he just knew he was destined to go and work on the senator’s campaign. Kennedy touched the hearts of the young, insisted that a single person could change the world, and spoke to issues of Vietnam, civil rights and poverty. In a documentary, Walter Cronkite said, “He lived more life in 42 years than most would live in 80.”
It was that vivacious spirit and inclusive attitude that drew HustonWells to the potential president, yet when Wells awoke the next morning, he heard the news that plunged the nation into mourning: not five minutes after the California primary speech, as Kennedy was leaving the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles, Sirhan Sirhan fired a .22 revolver at the would-be president. Twenty-six hours later, the man who had been full of promise and hope was dead.
While Wells knew at that moment he would not be called to work on Kennedy’s campaign, there was nothing stopping him from completing Kennedy’s dream.
If one person could indeed change the world, or at least a part of the world, that one person in Franklin County would be Wells.
“He has always been my role model, how he brought people together, how he was so inclusive of everybody. From the rich to the poor, from the black to the white. He was my idol, to be honest. What happened the next day …”
Wells trails off, lost in the memory. “I hope I can live my life trying to help people. That was my start.”
That start didn’t happen for Wells in the political arena. It actually began in the school system.
Teach your children well
Wells graduated from Frankfort High School in 1969. He began his secondary education at Murray State and completed it at Eastern Kentucky University in 1974 with a degree in Speech and Hearing Therapy. After six years as a speech therapist in the Franklin County Public School system, he earned his Master’s Degree in counseling and went on to become a counselor at Bondurant Middle School.
“Over the years, we saw education change, and then come back to [what they changed from]. It is kind of interesting to see and talk about what has progressed over the years,” Wells says. “It is all about the kids and all about making them become better citizens. That part stays the same.”
Because of his continuing education requirements with teaching in Kentucky, Wells again returned to school to earn another Master’s Degree in Administration. He used that degree to secure positions as first an assistant principal, then as principal. He retired from the school system in 2001, but didn’t withdraw from teaching altogether. From 2001 until he was elected to county judge-executive, Wells served as a contractual worker with the Franklin County school system, serving where he was needed, and also invested in his community as a teacher-educator-mentor with Kentucky State University.
While he was still filling the role of counselor in the 80s, Wells became involved with Parks and Recreation. It was during that tenure that his interest in government became more than just a hobby.
Wells was elected to three terms as a city commissioner. During one of those terms, he was appointed to vice mayor, a position which is determined by the leading vote-getter. While Wells was serving that term, the mayor found another position and resigned, which lead to Wells being appointed to the position of mayor. After that appointment, Wells ran for the position and won it.
“One thing led to another again and some people asked me about being a magistrate,” he says. “I loved my community and I wanted input into how we developed.”
Wells won the position of magistrate and served four terms. A year and a half ago, Wells was at a crossroads and said he figured it was either time for him to retire, or move on up. Others had encouraged him to run for county judge-executive.
Wells won by more than 50 percent of the vote.
“First, it is an honor. Second, it says that people believe in me. This says to a leader, go out and lead and make us better and that has been my philosophy here. I am the only person who has served as city commissioner, the mayor, the magistrate and the county judge,” Wells says. “The appeal comes from making your community better, having an input and believing in your community. I want to make this place better than great, to me, that is what it is all about.”
For Wells, better than great came in different forms over the years, but it all boiled down to being community-minded.
Hope in action
“I am not impulsive. I want to hear the facts and the concerns, the pros and the cons. I have used that approach my entire life and it has been successful and is part of my character,” Wells explains. “Making a better community is the right move and we stand hand in hand with each other in that belief and in that charge.”
When Wells listened as mayor, he heard the same thing over and over: the need for a flood wall.
“As a city commissioner, we experienced several floods. I even helped people in the downtown area after floods to spray their basements and houses down with hoses and cleaned the mud out of their homes so I have first-hand experience of how damaging a flood can be to someone’s property,” he says. “It just made sense to me to take a step further and build a floodwall.”
Wells moved with single-minded faith in two things — first, that this was a real need, and second, that it could be done.
“I was ridiculed. I was told that for years, people had tried to build a floodwall and they weren’t going to have it,” he says.
Moving one step at a time, Wells ventured to Washington with a plan. When he returned, he had money for the plan.
“It was a process, but we got it,” Wells recalls. “There were lots of meetings and lots of people saying this couldn’t happen. A lot of people thought they were experts and you became skeptical yourself. I thought, ‘Holy smoke, I’m putting all my faith in these guys, the corps of engineers, and I just prayed, please Lord, let it happen.’”
One part of the issue, Wells said, was that even though the city is on the banks of the Kentucky River, outright flooding from the river itself wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that in low-lying areas, massive amounts of rainwater would back up into sewers and small puddles would turn into large ponds.
“A wall was one thing, but the pumps were the biggest part of the flood protection. Common sense would ask how these pumps would keep water from backing up,” Wells said. “Sure enough, we had just got this built and dedicated and here came a flood. It was almost a record flood. And the system worked. It did exactly what the corps of engineers said it would do.”
Not only did Wells have to have faith in a need, but he also had to have faith in his decisions, and the people he trusted to carry out those decisions. And, he insists, he also had to have a deeper, larger kind of faith.
“In these kinds of positions, if you don’t have faith in something divine, I’d have to say, ‘Whoa.’ When you put your faith in projects, you hope they turn out,” he says. “I think the divine part needs to come out in you somewhere.”
For Wells, this first year in office as county judge-executive has deepened his faith in man and God, and reinforced those old convictions he learned from Kennedy that one person can change the world.
One at a time, but a time for all
Wells says that there were many issues left on the table when he came into office. The county was in need of a fire station, and a multipurpose building to house the sheriff, the county clerk’s voting machines and the coroner’s office. In addition, the county needed to look at animal composting and bringing a few subdivisions into the jurisdiction of the county because they needed help with their roads.
Within a year’s time, Wells says that all of these projects are either already in place, or have been started. The concrete has been poured for the new fire station. The county purchased a building to house the needed offices, and arrangements have been made with Buffalo Trace to use out-of-the-way land to begin one of only two animal composting programs in the state of Kentucky. The program could save Frankfort thousands of dollars of taxpayer money each year.
Meanwhile, Wells looks back on his career with his wife of eight years, Paula, and his three grown children. He believes that his hero, Robert Kennedy, would have been proud of him.
“Don’t tell me we can’t do it,” he says of any project that folks bring to his office. “Tell me how we can get this done.”