George Henson Wells (1938–2019)

George Henson Wells was a reporter and editor at the Pine Bluff Commercial and Arkansas Gazette. His long career was marked at the end by his distinguished reporting on two epic federal trials.

George Wells was born on February 9, 1938, in Hot Springs (Garland County), the son of George Wells, who was at one time an insurance salesman, and Annette Wilson Wells. While his father worked at construction jobs around the country during World War II, he and his mother lived in Camden (Ouachita County), his mother’s hometown. They lived in an apartment over a grocery store until Wells graduated from Camden High School and they moved to Hot Springs.

At Ouachita Baptist College (now Ouachita Baptist University) in Arkadelphia (Clark County), he took journalism courses and edited the college’s weekly newspaper before transferring to the University of Missouri at Columbia (MU) , which had the nation’s first and largest journalism school. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism while editing the school’s daily community newspaper; he followed this up with a master’s degree in history at MU. While awaiting the draft in 1963, he worked at the Arkansas Gazette as a copy editor to meet the aging editor J. N. Heiskell’s demand that the paper reflect the King’s English in all its articles. In the fall, he was sent for most of his two years of service to the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama. Afterward, he was a reporter for two years at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Pine Bluff Commercial hired him in 1966, and for over thirteen years he was the newspaper’s city editor or its political and environmental reporter, covering state government. At the Commercial, he met and married Kathy Gosnell, a reporter from Monticello (Drew County); they had no children. He received a John S. Knight Fellowship and spent a year studying and writing at Stanford University in California.

In 1979, he returned to the Gazette in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and became its federal reporter, covering the federal courts and government agencies. The federal district courts and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals were still hearing many civil rights cases involving the desegregation of schools and public facilities, as well as employment discrimination. The decade saw explosive growth in a new field of litigation: environmental law. An ardent environmentalist, Wells wrote knowledgeably and earnestly about the arcane scientific and legal issues involving the state’s streams, air, and forests. His work bolstered the rising environmental activism.

Wells’s most celebrated reporting was on the battle over evolution and the Bible. When the legislature and Governor Frank White enacted a law in 1981 requiring Arkansas schools to balance instruction on evolution in science classes with the biblical account of God’s creation of the universe in six days, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged the law in federal district court, which was supposed to set up a second so-called Scopes “Monkey” Trial, after the one in 1925 when a Tennessee teacher was fined for teaching about evolution instead of the divine creation. But the federal district judge, William Overton, and the attorneys for both the ACLU and the state kept the trial focused on the narrow legal questions about free speech and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Overton struck down the law as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. Wells’s careful and penetrating account of the daily trial of McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

Three years later, the same judge presided in the other major trial of the decade, the antitrust suit against the Arkansas Democrat filed by the Arkansas Gazette. The owners of the Democrat and a chain of newspapers and other media companies, who enjoyed a heavy financial advantage over the larger and more successful Gazette, won the jury’s judgment, and the Gazette expired six years later. Judge Overton later remarked on the objectivity and accuracy of Wells’s reporting on the advantages of the Democrat’s case and the occasional weaknesses of the Gazette’s.

When the Gazette’s brief owners, the Gannett Corporation, closed the paper in 1991 and sold its assets to the owners of the Democrat, Wells did freelance writing for a number of journals. He died on September 22, 2019. His remains are interred at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Obituary of George Henson Wells. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 25, 2019.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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