By Michael Reardon
The College of the Holy Cross was a “compromise choice” for young scholar-athlete Ted Wells ’72. Before settling on Holy Cross, he was torn between attending the University of Pittsburgh, which offered him a football scholarship and strong athletic program, or accepting an academic scholarship to Haverford College.
“Holy Cross offered me the best of both worlds,” Wells says. “It had both a strong football and academic program.”
Although Wells played football for only one season at Holy Cross, he found his passion and calling at the College—political and social activism. A founder and president of the Black Student Union, he was at the forefront of the 1969 walkout of 64 African-American students from Holy Cross to protest the suspension of five other black students. The five students were suspended for protesting a recruiting visit to campus by a corporation that was involved with arms production during the Vietnam War. Wells successfully argued the case of the five suspended students before the Student Judicial Committee. All of the students that participated in the walkout were granted amnesty by the school and returned to classes.
Recalling that time, Wells says, “The defining moment for me at Holy Cross was the walkout. You had 64 young African-American students who were willing to sacrifice their scholarships.”
It was during this tumultuous time that Wells first began to earn a well-deserved reputation for leadership, strategy, negotiation and integrity.
A partner in the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Wells has become one of the leading white-collar criminal defense attorneys in the nation. The National Law Journal has repeatedly named him as one of the 100 most influential attorneys in the country. He has been recognized by several other publications, including The New York Times, for being one of the most outstanding jury trial lawyers in America. In the August 2005 issue of Fortune magazine, Wells was selected as one of the nation’s most influential persons of color.
Wells, a longtime close friend of Senator Bill Bradley, acted as his national treasurer when Bradley ran for president. Involved in social, political and community affairs for many years, he is a trustee of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He has previously served pro bono as general counsel to the New Jersey NAACP; New Jersey co-chairperson of the United Negro College Fund; and general counsel to the New Jersey Democratic Party.
Wells, who is the first African-American Trustee at Holy Cross, says of his alma mater: “Everything I received in terms of education and mentoring, I received at Holy Cross. I love the school, and I love the people.”
Although a staunch Democrat, Wells has as one of his oldest friends conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ’71, another founder of the Black Student Union who also participated in the 1969 walkout.
“Our politics are radically different,” Wells says. “I’m as far to the left as he is to the right.”
That the two polar opposites maintain such a long friendship is testament to the character and loyalty of both men.
Who had the most influence on you as a student at Holy Cross?
Father John Brooks. As a leader of the Black Student Union, I had constant interaction with him. I admired and respected his integrity and concern for social justice issues. Without a doubt, he became one of my mentors and one of my heroes.
Did you learn anything about yourself at Holy Cross?
I didn’t realize I had such intellectual curiosity or capacity for hard work. I also developed leadership skills I didn’t know I had.
How did you meet Senator Bill Bradley—and do you still stay in touch with him?
After he was elected to the United States Senate in 1978, I was recommended to him for a job. I met him, and he offered me the job, but I turned it down because I wanted to be a trial lawyer. He was somewhat taken aback by my decision, but we became friends, and I became part of his kitchen cabinet. He’s an extraordinarily close friend.
Did you ever have any desire to run for public office yourself?
I’ve never been bitten by the political bug. I have no desire or aspiration to run. I’ve counseled numerous political figures, but that’s as far as it goes. My public service will always be as a lawyer.
What do you find most interesting about white collar legal defense?
You are always dealing with high-stakes, cutting-edge issues. The clients are usually in the most difficult period of their lives, with their freedom or the survival of the company on the line. After the acquittal of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, I was present when his portrait was being hung at the Department of Agriculture. President Clinton said that day that if it weren’t for Ted Wells’ skills as a defense lawyer we might not be here today.
- Hometown: Washington, D.C.
- Birthday: April 28, 1950
- Current Home: New York City and Livingston, N.J.
- Family: Nina, wife of 34 years and former high school sweetheart; daughter Teresa, 27; and son Phillip, 25
- Additional Education: Juris doctor and M.B.A. from Harvard in 1976
- Most Influential Book: Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, by Richard Kluger. “The book tells the story of a small group of black lawyers who became architects of the Civil Rights Movement from a legal aspect. Many of those lawyers are my real heroes. If not for them, I would not have had the opportunities I had.”