A dear friend and long-time King William neighbor has died. Ralph Wells suffered a fatal heart attack while preparing breakfast early on a recent Wednesday morning. He always said he wanted to die in his own backyard with his dogs nearby. He made it as far as his back porch. He had just celebrated his 84th birthday the day before.
Just a few months earlier, during the 2016 King William Fair, the Brackenridge High School Eagle Band marched down E. Guenther, stopped at Ralph’s house, did a right face and serenaded him with “O, Wisconsin,” the Brack Fight song. They were honoring Ralph for starting the Brack Scholarship Program and keeping it alive for over 30 years. Ralph said that recognition was one of his proudest moments.
In 1983, on his regular evening walks along the river, Ralph began noticing a few high school students gathering to do their homework where Sheridan Street meets the river. Engaging them in conversation, they said it was peaceful and quiet on the river; their homes were too crowded and noisy to study. Touched by the determination of those students, Ralph decided to invest in the lives of his young neighbors who wanted and deserved an education but could not have it without assistance.
At first, the scholarship fund consisted of Ralph’s regular payments; then contributions of friends and grateful patients caused it to grow. In 1986, KWA adopted the fund, but it was some years before substantial money began to flow into the ACCD Scholarship Fund that we’re so proud of today.
Born in Chicago, Ralph grew up in Minnesota where, as a high school senior in 1950, he built a wind tunnel to enter the Westinghouse Science Contest. Honorable mention won him a scholarship to Hamline University in St. Paul. After medical school in 1957, being in the Army Reserves, Ralph went on active duty at Ft. Sam Houston. By the 1960s, his wife, Barbara, and their two children were settled in San Antonio, while Ralph was stationed at various foreign and domestic posts.
Disturbed that the Army was drafting civilian physicians while some regular Army doctors remained stateside, Ralph volunteered for combat duty and served three tours of duty in Viet Nam. He was Medical Battalion Commander and Chief of the Third Field Hospital during the Tet Offensive in 1968. While in Saigon, he treated Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu.
Back in the states, Ralph became Chief of Gastroenterology at BAMC from 1972 to his retirement in 1976. Ralph first treated President Lyndon Johnson at Ft. Sam. When Johnson left office and moved back to his ranch near Johnson City, Ralph began regular visits to care for the former president until his death in 1973. The medical bag he carried is now exhibited at the LBJ Ranch Museum.
Ralph retired from the Army on a Friday in 1976 and joined the Nix Hospital staff the next Monday. After twenty years of Army housing, he and Barbara could finally buy a home of their own. A friend put them in touch with Walter Mathis who showed them the house on the corner of S. Alamo and E. Guenther. Seeing that Ralph and Barbara were discouraged by the rundown condition of the house, Walter invited them to his house for drinks. After a few stiff gin and tonics they made the decision to buy the house.
It took three years to make the house livable but it was a good time to be in King William. The 1970s saw a resurgence of urban pioneers, many of them looking to restore these old houses. Strong, lasting friendships were quickly formed in those early days with good neighbors such as the Battersons, Masoros, Crains, Baileys, Ed Slezak and Caroline Matthews, and Janet and Sidney Francis.
The Wells enjoyed life in King William, collecting and supporting local artists, especially students at SAY Sí. They were breakfast regulars at El Mirador and dined with friends on Monday nights at La Focaccia. At least once a year, they traveled by train to Chicago to visit museums and galleries, dine in fine restaurants and see a few stage productions.
Following Barbara’s illness and death in 2004, Ralph still took his evening walks around the neighborhood but his head was down and his step slower. When Ralph met Ruth Polston, his life changed. Life was good again. They were married in Chicago in 2007, honeymooned at Niagara Falls and began a new life of travel and interesting projects. “Every day was an adventure,” Ruth said.
Education continued to be of utmost importance to Ralph. For years, he read with Bonham students through the Kiwanis mentorship program. The King William Scholarship program for neighborhood students, who would not otherwise be able to further their education, remained a major focus of Ralph’s resources, time and energy until the day he died. - Bill Cogburn
Source: 2013 interview with Dr. Wells