When Elizabeth Wells was growing up, she always liked hearing stories about her family history and where she came from.
Then she got to Banks High School in Birmingham, and her history teacher, Gladys Rawls, helped her take that feeling from “like” to “love.”
“She didn’t have to have a note — she knew that history, and she made it come alive,” Wells said. “It was so exciting, and as we did research and projects in her class, I thought, ‘This is fun.’”
Decades later, she still thinks it’s fun. Wells, retired archivist for Samford University and librarian for its Special Collection and Archives department in Birmingham, was honored April 30 during Judson College’s graduation for her lifetime of work in Baptist history.
She was named this year’s Outstanding Alumna — the last the college will have, as it is closing its doors at the end of the summer due to an ongoing budget shortfall. (Read more about the Judson trustees’ decision at tabonline.org/judson-closes.)
Spring graduation was Judson’s final commencement service.
Wells said even though she knew she loved history in high school, she didn’t immediately declare that as her major when she got to Judson.
“I knew my math minor, but I didn’t know what was going to be my major,” she said.
But she quickly “fell in love again” with history and “knew that was what I wanted to do,” she said. She graduated with honors in 1970 and went on to earn a master’s degree in history from Auburn University and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Alabama. Along the way, she fell in love a third time, this time with archiving.
And then a fourth time — with a man named Michael.
She was teaching at a high school in Marion, and this young man lived in the same apartment complex she did. They met in September and married the following March.
The couple eventually moved to Birmingham, and one day she got a call from Samford University.
“They said, ‘You have what we need — you understand Baptist history, you have a master’s in history and you know archives.’ But they said they could only guarantee the position for a year,” Wells said.
That was in 1975. She retired in 2015. She chaired the department for 38 of those 40 years.
“It was a wonderful career, I’m just so blessed,” she said. “Not only did I get to use the history I loved, but I got to learn and grow every day, and I got to teach. I worked with history students and helped direct a lot of research projects.”
She also got to work in preserving the history of Alabama Baptists, including doing the research for the book “The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring and Connecting Baptists.”
She had been around the newspaper for a long time — she wrote her master’s thesis on its early years, and in researching for the book about TAB’s history, she read every available issue from its founding in 1843 up to the present.
She also co-authored “Daughters of the Dream: Judson College 1838–1988.”
Her Outstanding Alumna award is not the first honor she’s received for her work. In 2013 she received the Marvin Yeomans Whiting Award from the Society of Alabama Archivists for significant contributions to the preservation and dissemination of local history in Alabama. She also received the Virginia Hamilton Award by the Alabama Historical Association in 2015 for her contributions in promoting Alabama history. And in 2016 she was presented with Judson’s doctorate of humane letters.
Both awards from the college are special, Wells said. “Judson is not just buildings — it is the epitome of sisterhood and relationship. It’s got the foundation of academics and Christian growth and ministry, but it is a sisterhood. No matter what year you graduated, we’re all sisters. We all shared those traditions.”
During Judson’s spring commencement services, 41 graduates received degrees. John Nicholson, pastor of Siloam Baptist Church, Marion, gave the commencement address and was presented with an honorary doctor of divinity degree.