For those who know George Wells, a longtime supporter of Adventist education, it was no surprise to learn he was the benefactor who signed a US$100,000 check for Shilo Church Adventist School in Chicago, Illinois, United States.
While large church donations are not unusual, the story of a fifth-grade dropout who grows up to become a successful businessman and gives back to his community is proof that a heart grateful to God can bless the lives of many.
Wells was born August 14, 1942, in a Rose Hill, Mississippi, cotton field. His unusual entry into the world wasn’t his only early difficulty, as his father left to serve in the Second World War when George was just a toddler. Shortly after his father’s return from duty, his parents separated. His father moved to Chicago and his mother remarried. She and her nine children remained in Mississippi. “I had very little life of my own,” Wells recalls. “Most of my time was spent raising my siblings while our mother worked.”
He said he was forced to grow up quickly. Wells quit school in the fifth grade to help support the family. “My mother and I would get up at 4 a.m. to be ready to meet the truck that would take us to the fields,” he recalls. “We would spend all day chopping cotton, working about 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday, and a half day on Saturday. If we were lucky, we got a 30-minute break. We made about three dollars a day.”
Wells’ mother, a faithful Christian, attended church on Sundays before heading over to the homes of white families she knew. Doing their washing and ironing brought in another dollar to help support her family.
Turbulent Teen Years
Wells had several close calls with death in his younger years. Once, when trying to steal from a local store, he found the store owner’s rifle pointed directly in his face. Another time, after winning a game at a local pool hall, he was stabbed in the back.
“I wasn’t getting along with the people around me,” he says. One day, as a teenager, Wells went to the local telegram office to send his father a request for money. He wanted to buy a one-way ticket out of Mississippi. Seeking help to send the telegram, Wells made the mistake of responding “Yes” to a white man’s question, rather than “Yes, sir.” “The man slapped me, almost bringing tears to my eyes,” he recalls. “I knew I couldn’t do anything. If I hit back, I’d be a dead man.”
Not long after this incident, the sheriff visited Wells and his mother. The sheriff said it was no longer safe for him to remain there. Wells’ mother packed his clothes and some food and sent him to the bus station. At age 17, Wells arrived in Chicago. He lived with his father for a time, but they didn’t get along. His father kicked him out of the house, giving him enough money to buy a bus ticket back to Mississippi.
Returning to Mississippi wasn’t an option for Wells, however. Instead, he lived on Chicago’s streets and in rodent-infested abandoned buildings. Determined never to return home, Wells went to the unemployment office and was sent to Washburne Trade School. There he learned food service. Later, he got a job at The Palmer House, one of Chicago’s most esteemed and historic hotels. Finally earning what he regarded as “decent money,” he was beginning to find some stability.
About this time, Wells learned that his father was searching for a downtown location where he could establish an auto repair shop. Eventually, George & Son was born. Despite their rocky history, this father-son joint venture succeeded.
A New Wife Brings New Life
It was while living in Chicago that Wells first encountered Seventh-day Adventists. He met and married his first wife, Mary Louise, a member of the Shiloh Seventh-day Adventist Church. One Saturday, Wells’ favorite cousin convinced him to come along to another Christian denomination’s meeting. While he was preparing to meet his cousin, Mary Louise convinced her husband to accompany her to her place of worship. As they were driving to Shiloh, the couple passed the cousin who was on his way to pick up Wells. They waved. George never made it to the other church.
After several years of studying with Bible workers, Wells was baptized at Shiloh. Little did he know that he was embarking on a lifetime commitment to do God’s bidding. “I was put to work right away,” he says. He became an usher and then a leader of men’s ministry. “Every year they put me on something, whether it was the finance committee or the stewardship department,” he says.
While continuing to run a successful auto shop alongside his father, Wells remained busy in his church. He taught himself to read and became a Sabbath School teacher. He visited the elderly and helped with clothing distribution. Wells credits his church family with helping him mature as a Christian. They gave him guidance about what to study and how to strengthen his walk with God. “These people took an interest in me,” he says. “I found the encouragement I needed to put all I had into my Christian walk.” Wells admits he was sometimes tempted to take credit for his accomplishments, but he came to realize, “God has done all this for me. When I look at where I came from, I see ‘No way could I have made it on my own.’”
Wells’ decision to give back to his church encompasses much more than time. Through the decades, he has generously supported the tuition needs at the local church school. He also supported students attending Oakwood University. As one church member points out, “They wouldn’t have been able to attend Oakwood without George’s help.”
According to John Boston, senior pastor of Shiloh Seventh-day Adventist Church, Wells’ recent donation of US$100,000 for the local Adventist school came about due to Wells’ “earnest desire to make his life of use to the glory of God. Even though he’s had a lot of success, he often says, ‘What good is it if God is not pleased?’”
When asked about his commitment to supporting the needs around him, Wells explains, “The need leads me to give. God is a Giver. He blesses us, and so we should bless others,” he says. Ever humble, Wells is quick to add that he feels nothing but gratitude for all that God has done for him. “It’s been a long road to get here,” he says, “but I made it. Sometimes I pray, ‘God, even if you don’t do anything else for me in this life, I thank you for what you have already done.’” And, as he often does, Wells adds a favorite refrain, “He blesses us that we should bless others.”