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Alumna, Former Librarian Bequeaths Nearly Half a Million to SUNY Plattsburgh

SUNY Plattsburgh has received one of the largest gifts from an alumna in the history of the college.

The donation of $470,000 comes from the estate of former librarian Phyllis Wells. Her gift is the second largest bequest to the college from an alumna — second only to the estate gift of another former employee, Olive Mason Flynt, who bequeathed $1 million to the college in 2007.

Wells, who died last January at age 82, earned her Master of Science in elementary education at SUNY Plattsburgh in 1957. She said she loved her alma mater and decided to give the bulk of her estate to it because she “lived her life here and built her career at the college.”

She joined the staff as an assistant librarian in 1957, receiving several promotions throughout her tenure. Notably, she became a senior assistant librarian in 1979 and an associate librarian in 1987, retiring later that year.

“She spent her whole career with us,” said Vice President of Institutional Advancement Anne Whitmore Hansen. “She enjoyed her work and took great pride in her connection with the college.  When she informed me of her intention to support the college so generously, she commented that ‘it was simply the right thing to do because the college gave her so much.’”

She also made it clear that she wanted her gift to be significant, Hansen said. “Phyllis was an extremely determined person. She would regularly share her progress toward meeting her philanthropic goal. She delighted in imagining the impact she would have on students and the library.”

“Her impact on the college as both an employee and a volunteer was already significant,” said SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling, “but, with this gift, Phyllis will continue to make a difference, especially for our students who need financial support more than ever.”

Most of her gift will go to support the Phyllis Wells Endowed Scholarship, a fund that is unrestricted, and, therefore, allows the college to better adapt to the needs of students. 

The rest will go the Wells Endowment for Special Collections in Feinberg Library, to support the preservation of rare and archival materials relating to the North Country, the college and New York state. 

Wells had a special fondness for Special Collections — so much so that she continued to volunteer there after retirement. 

“Phyllis came here once a week like clockwork until her health prevented it,” said Debra Kimok, associate librarian in Special Collections. 

A member of the Clinton County Historical Association and 1981 recipient of its McMaster’s history prize for the best paper on local history, Wells had been studying local churches in order to write a book on their history. She gave some of her notes to the archives. She also donated other historical materials, including information on covered bridges, Clinton County historical markers, ghost towns and post offices.

“We’d talk for hours about local history and her book,” Kimok said. “Phyllis was very detail-oriented and was getting quite proficient at using a computer, something that wasn’t easy for her in the beginning, but which she was determined to figure out.”

Wells also published the “Subject Index to the Clinton County Portion of the History of Clinton and Franklin Counties, N.Y.” 

“It was a huge success,” said Kimok. 

Published in 1880, the “History of Clinton and Franklin Counties, N.Y.” — also known as the “Hurd History” — is the most comprehensive early history of Clinton and Franklin counties in existence, according to Kimok. “Until Phyllis created her ‘Index,’ there was no way to easily find specific subjects in the Hurd publication, which is 508 pages long.”

The love Wells had for local history, Feinberg Library and Special Collections led her to donate all sales proceeds from the “Index” to Special Collections.

Mark Mastrean, assistant dean of Library and Information Services, expressed the gratitude felt by Feinberg Library staff. “We have great appreciation for the long-standing support that Phyllis gave to Feinberg Library. We remember her not only for her most recent generosity, but as a kindred spirit dedicated to preserving local history for the benefit of future generations.”

“Phyllis’ latest gift to Special Collections is just amazing,” Kimok said, “but her most precious gift was her involvement and interest in local history and especially Feinberg Library’s Special Collections. I can imagine her smiling broadly, knowing the surprise she had in store for us. She is sorely missed here.”

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