Sandy Wells, a reporter and columnist for the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail for more than half a century, died Saturday at the age of 77, after fighting cancer for more than a year.
Wells was best known in recent years for her “Innerviews” column, which she continued after retiring from her other duties as a reporter. The column’s first-person style, where she asked questions and let her subjects tell their own life stories, came about when former Gazette Editor Don Marsh noted he liked the first-person columns written by journalist Studs Terkel. Wells tried a couple, and suggested it become a weekly feature.
The first one appeared on Sept. 21, 1988, and the last one ran in print on Jan. 29 of this year. Except for a couple of weeks late last year when she was in the hospital, Wells never missed a week.
In 2013, to mark her 50th year at the newspaper, she turned the tape recorder on herself for a “golden anniversary edition” of her Innerviews column. “Maybe they can use some of it for my obit,” she said.
“Sandy was an old-school newswoman through and through,” said Greg Moore, the Gazette-Mail’s executive editor. “I learned so much from her over the years, and our readers did, too.”
She was born Sandra Lee O’Shea in Huntington, where her father owned the Wellman-O’Shea jewelry store. She and her twin sister, Sherry, grew up on Wiltshire Boulevard, and Sandy described her childhood as “idyllic.”
Wells graduated from Huntington High School in 1959 and started at Marshall College that same year. The school became known as Marshall University in 1961, and she graduated in 1963. She remained a fervent supporter of the Thundering Herd throughout her life.
She joined the Gazette newsroom after graduation, writing about society and fashion at first. She was the paper’s fashion editor for 15 years, during which she remembered flying to New York twice a year and rubbing elbows with designers like Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Oleg Cassini.
In Charleston, she would dress in the latest fashions and walk around town, surreptitiously trailed by a photographer to capture people’s reactions. “When I boarded a bus in the minidress, it suddenly got as quiet as a cemetery at midnight,” she said in the 2013 column. She also designed and laid out the Sunday paper’s society section with a ruler and dummy pages.
When Marsh became the Gazette’s editor, he carved out a medical beat and put Wells on it. She wrote about everything from autopsies to electroshock therapy to, at the urging of then-Gazette Publisher Ned Chilton, the sex lives of people who were paralyzed — a story she said was hard to illustrate in a family newspaper.
“Sandy was wonderful,” said James Haught, the Gazette-Mail’s editor emeritus. “When she wrote, she had a marvelous ability to stir people’s feelings.”
As a general-assignment features reporter, Wells developed a love of local history, and as she put it, she “discovered the ordinariness in extraordinary people, how bigwigs have hopes and hang-ups just like you and me.”
Although she tackled some serious subjects, including the life story of a murdered prostitute whose killing remains unsolved, she said she could never be “a hard-nosed, investigative reporter.” She noted in the 2013 column that she interviewed disgraced State Police serologist Fred Zain for two hours and ended up feeling sorry for him.
She also discarded her impartiality when she talked with Randy Moss before the Marshall football standout’s professional debut.
“I was star-struck,” she said. “I hugged him, and dropped my notebook and tape recorder. Very professional.”
As Wells “retired,” the Innerviews column became her focus. Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward Jr. said he always marveled at her ability to get such a wide variety of people to tell her things about themselves that they probably never intended to disclose when they agreed to be featured in her column.
“Somehow, Sandy got just about everybody to spill their guts,” Ward said. “She had a way of opening people up that any investigative reporter would be jealous of.”
Wells often ended the interviews for her column by asking people how they would like to be remembered.
“Well, remember me by the stories I’ve told,” she said. “That’s who I am. I tell stories. That’s all I know.”
Wells was married to Danny Wells, former Gazette sports editor and state legislator, and they had two children: a son, Shannon, and a daughter, Shea. For the past several years, her companion was Jack Knight of Charleston.
Visitation will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, followed immediately by a celebration of Wells’ life at Barlow-Bonsall Funeral Home, in Charleston. She requests her friends gather immediately after at the Red Carpet Lounge, on Elizabeth Street, for music and merriment.