Someone we can lean on

At 93, Vince Wells is NJPAC’s eldest volunteer, but will always be a son of Newark.


How does Vincent Wells, NJPAC’s long-serving volunteer, get around as much as he does? Buses, trains and automobiles – and the last as a passenger only.


Since 1924, the year he was born in Newark’s North Ward, “Vince” stayed close to home and never learned to drive, relying on mass transit and friends with wheels. When he enlisted in the Navy during World War II, Uncle Sam graciously agreed to provide the transport.


About 18 years ago, some acquaintances who were volunteering at the Arts Center realized Wells’ apartment was near the new campus and, because he could get from there to here, invited him to assist with arts education workshops.


“I did work for a living, but (volunteering) was my primary interest,” recalls Wells, whose past business experience was put to immediate good use by the Office of Volunteer Services.


“Vince helped new volunteers become great volunteers,” says Ginny Bowers Coleman, Director of Volunteer Services, who describes Wells as a dapper dresser with “a wicked sense of humor.” “He has contributed much more than just time, which amounts to well over 4,000 hours.”


A graduate of Arts High School, Wells believes he may have been the first African-American employed full-time at Newark City Hall in 1942, where he worked in the office of Commissioner Joseph M. Byrne Jr. for $20 a month. He held wide-ranging clerical and fund-raising positions throughout his career, at such places as the U.S. Air Force in Port Newark, the Veterans Administration, two art museums (Jersey City and Montclair), and two lamp manufacturing companies. During his tenure at the North Reformed Church in Newark, he watched the filming of the Harrison Ford hit, Presumed Innocent, in 1989; from outside his workplace at the Montclair Art Museum, a dozen years later, he watched the fall of the Twin Towers.


In the Sixties, as manager for the New Jersey office of the National Jewish Hospital in Denver, Wells was involved with an ongoing campaign to court well-heeled businesses like Bamberger’s and Manischewitz at two giving levels: $19 and $25.  


Throughout his life, Wells, the oldest member of the American Legion’s Newark post, volunteered for many organizations, and especially remembers his time with the YMCA. He served as chairman of the Y’s Mid-Atlantic Area Youth Committee and was a board member with the Summit Area YMCA. His deep interest in American history led him to leadership positions and a gold medal for service from the Y’s “Youth in Government” program for high-schoolers; he produces an itinerary from 1959-60 that lists cities throughout the tri-state area where he spoke to Y boards and youth committees – without relying on a car.


“Of 365 days, I had given at least 125 to Y activities and asked for $100 in expenses to offset travel,” he says, grinning.


On one of his stops, Wells spoke to a Hi-Y club led by Garden State historian John T. Cunningham, who mailed him a letter of commendation. (“Thanks for making New Jersey a better place for our youth,” it reads.) Enclosed was a reprint of Cunningham’s often-referenced 1960 essay for National Geographic: “I’m from New Jersey.”


Wells also spent considerable time as a freelance photographer and, in the 1980s, as an auxiliary officer for the Newark Police Department. When asked to sum up his lifework, he quips, “I’m permitted to help do things.”


The recipient of the Volunteer Department’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, Wells says he’s most proud of the success of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which “proved so many people wrong” when it transitioned from its bucolic outdoor setting in Sussex County to a bustling, urban performing arts center. 


“At NJPAC you have a certain something that you can contribute,” he concludes. “You’re listened to. Whether your suggestions and ideas are used or not, someone listens to you.


“If you belong to an organization, as you get older you’re pushed aside. The only place I know where the older you get, the more respect you get, is in the church. … So I get a sense of fulfillment that I’m not a throwaway; somebody’s listening to what I’m saying. I’m contributing.”


Sept. 29, 2017