A Century Set to Music: Edna Ryan Wells

Edna (center) on her 100th birthday with daughters Susan Wells JCA ’67 (left) and June Wells Foltz (right).

Edna (center) on her 100th birthday with daughters Susan Wells JCA ’67 (left) and June Wells Foltz (right).

“I go to Reunion every year,” said Edna Ryan Wells ’39. “I’ll be the only one in my class who is there and they will announce, ‘the oldest class represented here is the Class of 1939 … Edna Ryan Wells, please step forward,’ and I step forward and they are waving and cheering.”

On December 5, 2017, the college community waved and cheered for Edna again, in honor of her 100th birthday. Dozens of alumnae sent greetings from across the country, and President Ames was among the friends and family who gathered in Troy to celebrate with her.

Watch news coverage of Edna’s 100th birthday party.

“My mother is a survivor,” said daughter June Foltz, “breast cancer, triple bypass, pacemaker, left leg broken at age 94 and right leg broken at age 97, as well as macular degeneration, but she continues going strong with plans for tomorrow.”

Today, Edna has a comfortable apartment in Beechwood, a community for older adults. She is surrounded by photos of loved ones, her butterfly collection, sheet music (she has been playing piano since she was eight) and plenty of Russell Sage memorabilia, including news clippings, posters and a 1939 yearbook.

 

Edna grew up in the Lansingburgh section of Troy. She and high school classmates H. Rowena Wiseman, Grace Salsbury, Florence Beebe Hall and Evelyn Wheeler Spendiff were all members of the Russell Sage College Class of 1939. Edna, Florence and Evelyn were classmates from first grade through college.

Edna started as a Nursing major, but switched to Home Economics Education on the advice of a Home Economics major who was a year ahead of her. “When I found out I could be a teacher, that appealed to me!” Edna said.

She has rich memories of her days as a student, especially time in Vanderheyden House (the house for commuter students). “We filled that house,” she said, remembering the beloved house mother and its “good kitchen for proper cooking.”

Music was a big part of her campus life. “They found out I liked to play piano. I got skillful enough that I didn’t have to use printed music and I could transpose to a different key; that was a skill that surprised people,” she said of playing at student gatherings. She enjoyed singing in two choirs and Glee Club. Later she sang in Troy Musical Arts, a woman’s chorus that sang in Troy Music Hall.

The fire that destroyed Troy City Hall on October 28, 1938 is another vivid memory. “I remember standing in front of Stanley’s [department store] looking across the street at the burning building.”

After graduating, Edna taught Home Economics in Green Island and Troy while pursuing a master’s degree at Cornell during summers. She married Robert Wells on September 1, 1946 and the couple had two daughters, Susan Wells JCA ’67 and June Wells Foltz (RPI ’72).

Edna stayed at home when her daughters were young, then taught in the Lansingburgh School System, from which she retired in 1977. Former students often tell her that they continue to use her macaroni and cheese recipe and that they still have the aprons they made in her sewing class.

Edna had set a goal in high school to stand on the soil of every state (48, at the time). In retirement, she rededicated herself to that goal, even taking a two-month road trip around the country in 1978. She visited Hawaii on a trip with Russell Sage College alumnae. In 1988, she reached her goal on a trip to Alaska with Cornell alumni.

 

Throughout it all, music continued to be central to Edna’s life. From childhood, through Russell Sage, her teaching career and retirement, she sang and played piano and organ for church services and community concerts.

Today, she participates in country music jam sessions with local musicians and her daughter June on fiddle. She is known for hosting singalongs for holidays and her birthday. Her 100th birthday was no exception. Edna played several favorites at the party, and sent guests home with a commemorative songbook, which included the first song she sang to an audience as a child (“Alice Blue Gown”), patriotic and religious songs, and an upbeat tune June calls “Edna Ryan’s Tune.” Edna composed it while she was a student at Russell Sage College.

MORE Memories

Childhood: Edna remembers, at age 2 ½, being coached by her mother to use their candlestick-style telephone (with separate mouthpiece and receiver) to call the bank where her father worked and ask him to return home NOW and bring the doctor. After a delightful afternoon with her upstairs neighbor, Edna came home and met her newborn brother Walter.

She also recalls moving to a flat in the Lansingburgh section of Troy when she was 5. As her family removed their furniture from the old flat, a worker came in to install electricity in place of the gaslights. The new flat in modern Lansingburgh already had electricity.

In 1931, when Edna’s family purchased a new house, it included a refrigerator, whose ice cubes were a treat for her friends.

WWII: Edna’s brother Walter joined the Army in 1938. “We knew there was war in Europe, but we didn’t expect to get into it,” she said. On December 7, 1941, she was out to dinner with her parents to celebrate her birthday, which had been two days earlier. When the restaurant manager announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, she remembers her father’s face turning white. “Dad went into shock … he said ‘that means that your brother is at war.’”

During the war, Edna volunteered with the local USO on weekends, making sandwiches for soldiers traveling through the area on the train. A piano was available at the train station, which she played to boost morale. A favorite among the soldiers was “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball.”

Meeting Robert: Robert’s parents lived next door to Edna’s family in Lansingburgh. One day Edna phoned next door to invite his mother to the movies. Robert was visiting and answered the phone. Mrs. Wells was not home, so Edna and Robert took a five-mile walk instead. Afterward, Edna said to her mother, “We were still talking when we got home. I think I’ll cultivate him.” The song “East Side, West Side” reminded them of their honeymoon in New York City.