EAST LANSING - Andrew Wells spent a sunny morning greeting his East Lansing High School students as they came to school - fist-bumping hundreds of them.
Some students the high school principal clearly knew, as he asked how their parents were and congratulated others on recent athletic triumphs or musical performances. He complimented other students, noticing a fresh outfit or hat and even a flashy pair of go-go boots.
Every student that walked through the school's front door got a fist bump.
Even the shy students who walk into school alone with their heads down, seemingly trying to avoid interactions. It's important to acknowledge every student who walks in the high school doors, Wells said, to show them that they matter. That someone cares about them. If a student walks in and seems down or something seems off, he makes an effort to follow up with them later in the day.
"He's always been a really wonderful presence," said Marie Adele Grosso, a senior and student body president. "He's always glad to see people, which is a really great trait."
Students, past and present, who've walked into East Lansing High School over the years have grown accustomed to Wells, standing tall with a smile on his face, even if it was behind a mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as they walk into school. He'll soon be greeting students for the last time as he puts a cap on a school district career of more than 33 years. Wells' retirement begins at the end of the school year.
Reflecting back on his time with East Lansing Public Schools, Wells can't help but cry a little.
Passion for 'working with kids'
Wells' is a story of humble beginnings.
He grew up in Detroit in a neighborhood not far from the streets where the riots of 1967 unfolded. His family moved to East Lansing in 1968 when his mother, Martha Bibbs - the first woman and the first Black person appointed as the state personnel director for the State of Michigan Civil Service Commission - married Jim Bibbs, a legend in his own right, known for his track and field coaching career at MSU. He was the first Black head coach in MSU history.
Wells enrolled at Hannah Middle School, where he became involved in intramural sports, played in the band and quickly began to be recognized as a leader by staff and students. While at East Lansing High School, he was a successful student and star athlete, including being named MVP for two consecutive years in basketball and track and field. Wells was also captain of the basketball and track teams for two years.
After graduating from East Lansing High School in 1976, Wells attended Michigan State University, ultimately earning a Bachelor's degree with a major in urban development and a minor in physical education and exercise science.
He later earned a Master's degree in athletics administration and an education specialist degree in K-12 administration.
Wells' career at East Lansing Public Schools started in 1981 at what was then Hannah Middle School as a lunchroom supervisor and, later, district community liaison officer. In that role, he worked with at-risk high school students.
He briefly left ELPS for a job as assistant director of intramural sports at MSU in 1987 before returning in 1994 as the school district's athletic director and associate principal. Wells had experience with kids at MSU basketball and track camps and was eager to get back into a school again.
"I really liked the educational setting," Wells said. "I wanted to get a feel for education.
"Working with kids was a passion of mine."
It was a call from his old physical education teacher, the late Fred Waters, who was the interim principal at the time, that brought Wells back home.
Waters first called Wells into his office as a sixth-grader, telling the young Wells that he was a leader. Years later, Waters still remembered Wells and respected his leadership potential, leading to the job offer.
His career flourished from there. After returning as athletic director and associate principal, Wells would coach boys and girls basketball and track and serve as principal at Whitehills Elementary for 10 years and Glencairn Elementary for two years, including concurrently for two years.
Wells was named East Lansing High School principal in 2017.
"I've done everything in this district," he said. "And it's been beautiful."
Superintendent Dori Leyko said he's been a staple in the school district for more than 30 years.
"He has touched the lives of thousands of students and families throughout his tenure in the District," she said, in a statement. "Mr. Wells' positivity, wisdom and love for students will be missed by all who knew him. We are so fortunate to have had such an impactful leader in the district for so many years and wish him the best in his well-deserved retirement."
A principal for the students
Even as the morning rush of students streamed into the high school Thursday morning, teachers and staff shuffled in line amongst their students for fist bumps from Principal Wells.
Wells clearly has impacted the student body at East Lansing High School during his tenure. Teachers have felt that impact as well.
Jade Bennett started teaching at East Lansing High School in the fall of 2021 and in the middle of COVID-19. Instead of getting the experience of standing before a class of students giving the day's lesson, or walking the halls and talking with her new colleagues, Bennett found herself at home or in her empty classroom in the empty school, teaching her students through a computer screen.
More: They landed their dream jobs as teachers. Then, COVID-19 hit.
Wells realized the struggles and stress teachers experienced and made it a priority to call each individual teacher at their homes to check in, make sure they were OK and ask if there was anything he could do to help.
He would even pop into the occasional Zoom class. While the idea of a boss or superior watching them work could be a scary act for some, Wells' presence, both in the Zoom classes and now in the school building classrooms, is welcome and, sometimes, a relief. Many times during the Zoom classes, students wouldn't turn cameras on or interact with Bennett or other students. Having Wells in the class at least gave her someone to talk to and someone else to encourage students to participate.
Once teachers and students returned to the schools, Wells could be seen roaming the halls, popping his head in or taking a seat to observe a class.
David Ferguson, a senior, has seen Wells pull entire classrooms aside to say something wise or share some wisdom.
"He has so much love to give," Ferguson said. "He's one of the most supportive people I've met."
During Teacher Appreciation Week, Wells came to each classroom.
"It was all a surprise," Bennett said. "He demanded the attention of the class - I thought they were all in trouble. He gave us a shoutout just for being here and working our butts off. You could tell it was really genuine and that he meant it."
It's not uncommon for Wells to become emotional while talking with his teachers or giving speeches to the staff. None of it is artificial, Bennett said. Everything he says clearly comes from his heart.
That emotion was on display as he reflected on his time spent in education.
"These kids mean so much to me," he said.
And it's clear that Wells means a lot to them.
"He's going to be really missed, not just by us, but by the students," Bennett said. "He's a familiar face and that is going to be really hard for some of us to lose."
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: After 33 years, East Lansing High School Principal Wells retiring