Valdosta Daily Times

August 4, 2013

Valdosta couple celebrates 70 years of marriage

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — People have long used the phrase, Rome wasn't built in a day, to denote that it usually takes time, a vast amount of time, to build something of lasting greatness, but sometimes there are exceptions to the rule.

Take Leo and Mary Nell Wells of Valdosta.

Their courtship lasted 10 days. This past April 25, the couple celebrated 70 years of marriage. Ten days to build a relationship that has lasted longer than many a lifetime.

This past April, the Wells family gathered to celebrate this anniversary. Leo and Mary Nell Wells arrived at the Valdosta Country Club in a vintage Rolls Royce chauffeured by Dr. James Fricker. They gathered with their children, sons Leo Wells III and wife Angie Wells of Alpharetta, Kenyon and Cathy Wells of Lexington, S.C., and daughter Debra Wells Brown and Bill Brown of Valdosta; grandchildren, Leo IV and Anna Wells and Cameron Wells

 of Cummings, James and Kendall Wells Pickens, J. Kenyon and Melanie Wells of Greenville, S.C., Patrick and Sarah Bostwick Knapp of Houston, Texas, Trey and Mary Wells Brown Smith of Tallahassee, Fla., and Anna Haillie Brown of Valdosta; great-grandchildren, Lucy and Jenna Wells, Caroline and Sarah Pickens, Aiden and Catie Grace Knapp, Fiona and Glenn Leslie Smith IV, a total of 200 relatives and friends, along with notes of congratulations from the governor, state legislators, congressmen and Georgia's U.S. senators.

Following the anniversary, to prepare information for a newspaper announcement, daughter Debra Brown sat down with her parents. Expecting to gather a few details, she interviewed her parents for more than a dozen hours during several days. She heard stories she knew of his early work, of their brief courtship, of his service in World War II, of the decades her parents owned the Ashley Street Dairy Queen and the putt-putt golf course behind it, but Brown also heard stories she had never heard before.

The Times also recently sat down with Leo and Mary Nell Wells to ask about the secrets of a long relationship. He said simply, "love and respect." Asked if they have ever had disagreements, the couple laughed, and she joked, "We've had two already today," but they responded seriously that couples must talk or argue through their disagreements.

And they talked about the past. Leo is now 92. Mary Nell is 89. Then, he was in his early 20s, she was in her late teens, and the world was at war, when their whirlwind courtship began.

Leo Fred Wells Jr. was born March 19, 1921, the son of a Southern Railroad worker of the same name and mother Orpha Lee Lawson Wells of Valdosta. Young Leo attended Valdosta schools, graduating in 11th grade, which was then the senior year. During his teen years, Leo learned to pilot a plane from his uncle. After high school, Leo learned radio skills and airplane maintenance at the National Youth Administration School in College Park. In 1940, he joined the National Guard, the 121st Company G Infantry, Fort Jackson, S.C. He didn't care for the infantry and quit after a year.

Mary Nell Johnson was born Jan. 20, 1923, the daughter of Clyattville farmer Rufus Johnson and Bessie Mae Arnold Johnson. Mary Nell attended school in Clyattville. She played basketball. By 1940, Mary Nell worked at McCrory's with her friend, Jeanette Wells. Jeanette wanted Mary Nell to meet her brother, Leo. Jeanette showed Mary Nell a photo of Leo in his uniform. Seeing the photo, Mary Nell realized her brother, Charles Johnson, was standing beside Leo. They thought it interesting that they were friends and so were their brothers.

Leo came into McCrory's to see his  sister Jeanette and briefly met Mary Nell before leaving Valdosta to take a job with Southern Railroad in Jacksonville, Fla. There, in 1941, he took another job with Pan American Airways. He traveled the world from New York to Cairo to Africa and more.

He "had to zigzag all the ocean to avoid enemy ships and submarines," daughter Debra Brown notes from her interviews. "Flew to Accra, Ghana on Africa's Gold Coast, which was Pan Am's headquarters. Leo flew a C-47 cargo plane carrying supplies on a route from Accra to Kurachi, India, one of three routes that Pan Am had across Africa."

This was before his military service in World War II, but he accepted an offer of direct commission given to all Pan Am personnel. He entered the Army Air Corps as a second lieutenant. By 1942, he was a first lieutenant and a commander stationed in Nigeria.

In 1941, Mary Nell graduated high school. She took a secretarial job at the welfare office, then worked as a secretary for the county agent, then in 1942, she worked for the Glidden Turpentine Company. She boarded with her friend Mabel Scruggs at Mr. and Mrs. Hillhouse's Valdosta home.

In 1943, Leo came home on a 30-day leave.

In Valdosta, he called his sister's friend, Mary Nell Johnson, to ask her out on a date. During the conversation, he admitted that he'd heard she was engaged to another. "She played hard to get and would not tell him if she was or not. He didn't call back."

"I heard he started dating someone else," Mary Nell recalled. "I didn't mean for that to happen so I called him."

She admitted she was not engaged. They scheduled a date. Mary Nell had photos of several boys on her mantle; as Leo arrived, she flipped all of the photos face down except for his.

After a couple of dates, Leo parked the car in front of Girardin's, and asked Mary Nell if she would like to be engaged and get married. They went into the jewelry store and bought a ring for $150.

At home, Mary Nell ran into her parents' house. She told her mother, "Mama, Leo asked me to marry him and please don't tell me no cause I don't want to do anything to displease you."

Mary Nell then told her father, who was working in the fields. She told her father about the $150 ring. Her father said, "All I want to know is, has he got anything left?"

On April 25, 1943, 10 days after the first date, they attended Central Church of Christ's Easter Sunday services. Leo gave Mary Nell an orchid to wear. Then, they returned to the Johnson farm in Clyattville, where they married that afternoon.

They had a short time as a married couple, three days, before Leo had to return to the war. In that short time, they conceived a son. Sent halfway around the world, the newlyweds would not see each other again for a year and a half.

Returning home after the war, Leo Jr. met Leo III. Still in the military, Leo and the young family moved to Dallas, Texas. By 1946, Leo left the military as a major. As time passed, this family grew. Leo became a Southern Airways station manager then air-traffic controller at Valdosta airport. Mary Nell returned to Glidden. They built a greenhouse and grew orchids.

In 1952, they purchased the Dairy Queen on Ashley Street. They owned and Mary Nell operated the Dairy Queen for nearly 30 years. During this time, their DQ won numerous awards. They owned a second DQ located on South Patterson but it closed due to the construction of the James Beck Overpass. She sold the Ashley Street Dairy Queen in 1979.

Through the years, the Wells have enjoyed life and family; in retirement, they regularly traveled more than 20 years by Airstream; he still loves playing golf.

Throughout, they have stayed together, cleaving to the simple secrets of a lifelong relationship: Love and respect one another. If there's a disagreement, talk it out. And when you find the one, realize it.

In their home, Leo Wells pointed to a photo of Mary Nell taken near the time they met. Leo smiled at the photo then smiled at a visitor. "You see that picture," he said. "That's why I married her so fast."

A few minutes later, sitting on a couch for a photo, though 92 and 89, they sit as close together as if they're still 22 and 19, as if it's still 1943, back when Leo met Mary Nell.