David Wells was a titan of journalism. For 35 years at the Cincinnati Enquirer, David had his hand in everything from investigative reporting to editorials to breaking news.
He was a gruff, huge, intimidating former-high-school-football player who would shout across the newsroom when he needed something from you.
He turned journalism into an art form.
“You could call him, in the greatest of compliments, old school,” Mark Curnutte, a visiting instructor of social justice and former reporter at the Enquirer, said.
For most of his colleagues over the years, it took some time to realize that his serious manner wasn’t really all that intimidating on the inside. It took some time to realize that his gruffness wasn’t from his core.
Rather, it was the grit that can only stem from the determination of the best of us. David may have been a stoic face at times, but it was his immense integrity that shone through to his former colleagues at the Enquirer and his former students at the Oxford Observer, an online newspaper publication he founded.
His passion for telling truth to power, for showing the truth to his community, for doing the good, solemn work of local journalism was the passion one could hardly find more than once in a lifetime.
For Curnutte, a compliment from David on his writing taught him more than what others could teach in a lifetime.
“When David gave you a compliment like that, it did a lot to propel you forward,” Curnutte said. “And I’ll never forget that.”
Once that tough layer was broken, the people once intimidated by David learned who he really was.
He was the type of person who loved to tell you something. To teach you something.
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He would tell the story of being run over in a football game by John Cappelletti, who went on to win a Heisman trophy at Penn State.
He would stop people as they walked by his office — conveniently located before the exit reporters had to use to leave — to stop people.
“Uh, hey Patti,” he would say to Patti Newberry, who worked alongside him both at the Enquirer as a reporter and at Miami University as a professor.
“David, I’ve got five minutes,” she would say when in a rush.
He could talk to anyone for hours. He knew about anything and everything and wanted you to know those things too.
He covered stories on virtually every topic available in a city, including the one time he stayed at a prison for hours just so he could get a murderer to warm up and speak with him.
However, it wasn’t just in doing the job that David proved his passion for his people.
He made great friends at his job. He made great friends like Ronnie Agnew, another reporter with whom David worked for five years, who would drive him home on many occasions when David and his wife shared a car.
David would invite Agnew into his home for a cocktail. Agnew often accepted.
Next thing they knew, one cocktail became two. Sometimes it would become four.
“We would just love talking to each other,” Agnew said.
They became such friends that once, while Agnew was over at David’s new home, David pointed across the way to a new house for sale.
“Hey, your house is over there,” David had said.
He wanted his friends, his colleagues, to be near to him. If Agnew hadn’t been transferred right before finalizing the paperwork, that’s exactly what would have happened.
When Agnew moved away, they stayed in touch. It didn’t matter how long it had been since the last time they spoke. They just picked up where they left off.
His closer friendships that lasted longer turned into brotherhoods. For David and Howard Wilkinson, a senior political analyst at WVXU and former Enquirer reporter, their families became one.
Wilkinson had known David’s kids since they were babies and could see firsthand that the only thing to rival David’s commitment to journalism was his commitment to his family.
They spent hours at a time in games of Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble that were “a thing to behold.”
It was during moments like these that David and Wilkinson became close. David may not have known why others saw him as gruff or intimidating, but it showed even with his children in the office.
“Brian, say hello to Mr. Wilkinson,” David sternly said, instilling fear in the small boy.
“Hello, Mr. Wilkinson,” he had said with a trembling voice. Brian Wells, David’s son, would go on to know Howard for the rest of his life. He wasn’t Uncle Wilkinson or even Howard. He was Mr. Wilkinson.
David’s daughter, Caroline Stanton, a government lawyer in Washington D.C., didn’t see him as the intimidating, large man many others did.
David was a devoted grandfather. When his wife, Toni Wells, passed away in 2014, he became a full-time grandpa.
“He would fly out to D.C. for my kids’ dance recitals,” Stanton said. “He never missed an important event.”
He learned to split his passion between reporting local news in the Oxford news desert and spending as much time as possible with his family. His devotion to all aspects of his life was clear to his children.
“He taught me always: It’s not just OK to question authority, it’s your obligation,” Stanton said.
David fought for these beliefs his whole life. He instilled the core values of journalism into all those around him.
He was why Emily Scott, a class of 2022 journalism and political science double major, got her job reporting in Akron.
He was why Stella Beerman, a class of 2022 journalism and emerging technology in business and design double major, gained incredible respect for the journalistic craft.
He was why Taj Simmons, a senior journalism and psychology double major, got his first experience as part of a journalism team. He demanded the best from his students, and expected the best.
David’s tenacity paved the way for future journalists to hone their skills, to become great.
“Our country’s lost a great journalist,” Agnew said. “Caroline and Brian lost a great father, and the Enquirer has lost a great friend.”
Braden and Jackson Wells, and Alice and Fiona Stanton have lost a great grandpa.
David Wells, 71, died in his Union Township home of a heart attack on Monday, April 10. He is survived by his two children, his four grandchildren and his two children-in-law.
The titan of journalism left behind an army of journalists — young and old — who will never forget the experiences gained from being graced with working with David be it for one year or for 40.
The intimidating, gruff, giant man also left behind an Amazon account history full of unicorn robes for his granddaughter’s fifth birthday.