I’ve written about my great-grandmother Orilla Wells Bergreen; her father Frank J Wells (1871-?) has been a bit of a challenge over the years. When the well of information dries up, one strategy is to move laterally across the branches and see if a sibling lived a better-recorded life. That is how I discovered Elizabeth M Wells (1868-1949). ¹
Tweetable: When info dries up on your ancestor, search for a sibling with a better-recorded life. #genealogy
The oldest of five, responsibility fell to her early. Their father, Joseph Wells, died in Tidioute PA in 1885.² Though I’ve not found the date of their mother Bridget’s death, “L M Wells” was listed as head of household in 1900. She worked as a school teacher and was evidently raising her fifteen year old brother. ³ (The May 29, 1900 edition of The Evening Democrat, Warren PA, indicated Lizzie M Wells was among teachers re-elected for the 1900-1901 school year, and gave her salary as $44.00 per month. ⁴)
Perhaps it’s logical that as the oldest, the head of household, and a school teacher, she would find her way into a leadership role of sorts. As the secretary of the Corydon Local Institute, she wrote the meeting minutes for The Evening Democrat that ran on April 5, 1894 and April 3, 1895. ⁴ The December 22, 1898 edition reports that she presented at the Teachers’ Institute meeting, a class on Geography. ⁴ Her public speaking abilities extended to her peers as well as her students.
So how do I make the leap from finding two secretary’s reports in the local paper to deciding that Aunt Lizzie was a writer? Surely “glorified note-taker” is the more accurate title. “Writer” implies more than the ability to string together words into sentences, something almost any literate person can do. A writer’s words and sentences are more than the sum of their parts. A writer makes more with her words; she brings about something that wasn’t there before. She creates, a gift from her Creator. Where are Lizzie M Wells’ creative works, those that would seal and establish her identity as a writer?
In the 1932 edition of The Dragon, Warren High School’s yearbook, Elizabeth Wells was shown as the faculty advisor for the “Beaty School Staff.” ⁵ Though not described in detail, this came under the heading of the “Blue and White” student literary magazine. Under her advisement were the Literary Squad and the Business Staff.
I’ve never been a faculty advisor for a literary magazine, but I’ve known a few. I’m here to tell you, no one suffers the poetry of a fourteen-year-old without a deep respect for teens as well as the written word, and no one can–or would–advise young writers unless she was a writer herself. Would you like to know the names of the individuals on the 1932 Literary Squad? They were: Frances McEvoy, Majorie Knabb, Helen Davidson, Winifred Crary, Mary Ellen Ostergard, and Charlotte Knabb. ⁵
Tweetable: She invested her time, abilities and gifts in new generations of women writers. #familyhistory
Aunt Lizzie calls to mind one of my favorite Bible passages, one I return to again and again.
“Have you understood all these things?” They said to Him, “Yes.”
And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” -Matthew 13:51-52
The word scribe here doesn’t quite translate to writer. It is the Greek grammateus, and it refers to a clerk, a public servant, a secretary, a recorder, or a teacher.
Like teaching, the calling to write exemplifies servant leadership. A writer placing words before an audience implies some authority, wit or wisdom worth the time it takes to read them. Perhaps two secretary reports are indeed the extent of Lizzie M Wells’ surviving body of work, but still she made more with her words by stewarding the talents of young writers under her authority and guidance.