BY TIMOTHY HARPER
Raising their family in a segregated neighborhood in the Washington, D.C., of the 1950s, Ignatius and Pearline Mitchell toiled at several jobs to make sure their children were well educated. Ignatius worked as a mail sorter in the postal cars of trains that ran back and forth between Washington and New York, and moonlighted as a carpenter; Pearline always had one or more jobs at a shop, restaurant, or hospital. Together they scrimped and saved. By the time their daughter Nina, the fourth of their seven children, was ready for high school, the Mitchells could afford to pay her tuition at an all-girls' Catholic school.
On the first day of ninth grade, most of the white girls were put into academic classes, on the college preparatory track. Nina Mitchell and most of the other black girls were put into business classes, on the track to become secretaries.
"That first day, when I came home from school with that typing book," she recalls four decades later, "my dad put on his suit, and he went down to that school, and he told those nuns to take his daughter and all those other black girls and put them in college prep courses. And they did."
The lesson from that day-never to let anyone else tell her what she cannot do, simply because she is black and female-was just one of many that young Nina learned from Ignatius and Pearline Mitchell. Every Sunday after church, the parents took the whole brood to one of Washington's many museums, especially the Smithsonian or one of its branches. The family then talked about what they had seen and read about history, culture, and the arts. Her parents' teachings served Nina Mitchell well through college and Suffolk University Law School as well as a long and varied career in law, philanthropy, and public service.She is now Nina Mitchell Wells JD '76, the New Jersey secretary of state. A key part of her job is to expose thousands of children to education, arts, and culture in the same way her parents did for her. "From my own life, I know that kind of exposure is so eye-opening, so enriching, and so empowering," she says. "There's nothing more important we can do for our children."
In high school, Nina Mitchell went on to become one of the best students in the academic program as well as president of the senior class. During that time, she also met Ted Wells, a football star at a nearby all-boys high school, and they began dating. When he received a football scholarship to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, he persuaded her to enroll in Newton College of the Sacred Heart, an all women's school only 45 minutes away. (Newton was later absorbed into Boston College.)
After growing up in an all-black community, Nina Mitchell suffered from extreme culture shock. "Why do the security people always follow me around in the stores?" she asked her white classmates in Newton. She had always wanted to be a nurse, but after experiencing such racial discrimination up close (her earlier schooling experience notwithstanding), she decided to major in sociology.
"For the first time I got a real sense of the disparities in the African American community," she says. "That was during the start of the busing era in Boston. It was very contentious, and race relations were very tense, very difficult." She began volunteering in dorchester and Roxbury, organizing tenants against unfair landlord practices and setting up an ecology-themed summer day camp for neighborhood kids. Her senior thesis was titled "Community Organization: The Politics of the Poor." After hearing Gloria Steinem at a conference, she committed herself to women's issues, too.
At home for winter break during her senior year, she and Ted Wells impulsively decided to get married. She bought a red dress for $15, he borrowed a dashiki, and together they exchanged vows in her parents' living room after Christmas dinner. After graduating, Ted went on to Harvard Law, and Nina took a job with the Social Security administration. But between her husband's passionate talk about what he was learning at law school and her own experiences in the poor neighborhoods, she decided that a law degree would help her have more impact. She was admitted to Boston College Law School, but was not offered any financial aid. Wells then applied to Suffolk Law.
At that time, suffolk Law had a brand new admissions director, John C. Deliso, who had just earned his own JD from the law school. Hard as it may be to imagine today, in 1972 women made up no more than 5 percent of the law school's student body; black students were even rarer. but the law school had a new dean, David J. Sargent, now president of the university, who encouraged Deliso to recruit more women and minorities, and Deliso undertook the task with gusto.
"It was something that came not only from my heart, but from the institutional heart," says Deliso, now an associate dean of the law school. He visited more than a hundred colleges that first year on the job, seeking minorities and women interested in applying to Suffolk Law.
Imagine Deliso's delight, then, when Wells came to him. He told her that Suffolk Law wanted her and offered an attractive financial aid package. "Suffolk aggressively recruited me," she remembers, smiling.
Three years later, after a distinguished law school career that included publishing a number jof scholarly articles and helping to lead a then new student organization, the Black American Law Students Association, Wells graduated in 1975.
Nina and Ted Wells moved to Newark, where he had a federal clerkship and she worked as a municipal prosecutor. He subsequently went into private practice and made a national name for himself for his work on complex, headline-grabbing corporate lawsuits and high-profile white-collar crime. He has led the defense for a number of prominent public officials, including two cabinet members, former presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer.
In 1978, Wells gave birth to their daughter Teresa and took a five-week maternity leave. Two years later, after she had moved on to a corporate counsel position with New Jersey Bell, their son Phillip was born, and she came back to work after four weeks. "I just felt it was very important for women to show that just because we have children is no reason in inhibit us from practicing law or being full-time professionals," she says. "It was an important message to send at that time. I didn't want my male colleagues to feel like they had to work doubly hard because the phone company had hired a woman."
Over the next 12 years, she advised on Bell's real estate deals, often appearing before local planning boards. "I got to know New Jersey pretty well," she says. With live-in help, Ted and Nina Wells juggled family life. As his career took off, though, he was spending more time away on trials. So Nina took a job that allowed her to spend more time at home: bringing legal challenges against utility rate increases for the state's public advocate office.
When their children were in ninth and seventh grades, she announced that she was taking a sabbatical to be a full-time mom. That proposed careeer track quickly evolved into that of a full-time mom and part-time philanthropist and activist. "I got hooked on nonprofits," she says--the Girl Scouts, the Fresh Air Fund, the United Negro College Fund, the Association of Black Women Lawyers, and a dozen more.She rolled up her sleeves and helped renovate a convent into a center for kids who had been taken into foster care by the state, she shopped for Christmas gifts for the needy, she sat on boards, and she threw wine and cheese fundraiser at her home. She and Ted also began raising money for Democratic candidates such as former Senator Bill Bradley and longtime Congressman Donald Payne. Through all the charity work and fundraisers, the Wellses' two children worked alongside their mom.
After two years, Nina Wells was fully immersed in the nonprofit world, her kids were fully immersed in high school, and she was ready to go back to work. She spent several years as counsel to a commercial finance firm not far from the family home in Livingston, New Jersey, and then several years as an assistant dean at Rutgers Law School, where she mentored many female students. Her first non-law job was at Schering-Plough, the pharmaceutical company, where she was vice-president for public affairs and head of the company's philanthropic activities.
One of her projects for the Schering-Plough Foundation was at a community health center seeking federal seed money. She contacted the office of Jon Corzine, then the junior U.S. senator from New Jersey. He spent a day with her, listening to presentations about how the center's preventive programs would not only serve thte public but save money in medical costs. A few weeks later, more than $1 million came through from Washington. "That's how government should work," Wells told her children. She became a Corzine fan, helping to raise money for his successful 2005 run for governor. Wells's daughter Teresa also worked on Corzine's campaign, and after the election she became part of his press staff.
During the transition, Corzine came to see Wells. they talked about education and the arts, and then he asked if she would come to Trenton, the state capital, as his secretary of state--an appointed office and the state's chief official for overseeing elections and promoting the arts and tourism. In January 2006 Wells became Corzine's first appointee.
Her life now is a whirl of boards and awards--sitting on or giving speeches to boards, and either giving or accepting awards. At museums, parks, galleries, historical sites, jazz fests, art festivals, farmers' markets, libraries, schools, and day care centers, she is the smiling ceremonial face of the state and has become one of its most recognized and most popular citizens. "Today's Renaissance Woman," headlines call her.
"Nina Mitchell Wells is an extraordinary advocate and a distinguished leader," says Corzine. "As secretary of state, she is a tireless champion of arts and culture, volunteerism, New Jersey's rich historical legacy, as well as the Garden State's $37 billion travel and tourism industry. And in this crucial election year, I've place the Division of Elections under her stewardship. She is indeed a valued member of my cabinet."
Many others are effusive, too, starting with her husband.
"Nina has had such a fascinating legal career," Ted Wells says. "She has been a prosecutor, a corporate lawyer, a public interest lawyer, an associate law school dean at Rutgers, vice president of pubilc affairs at a multinational corporation, and now secretary of state. And she did it all while raising two great children and dealing with the fact that my trial schedule kept me away from home quite often. She is the true Superwoman."
Nina Wells, meanwhile, says she has come full circle. "With my life, I know that going to museums and being exposed to culture and the arts for myself, as well as all my siblings, it really changed, I think, our view of the world," she says. "It really opened it up. It gave us a whole different perspective on what was potentially available to us. And allowed us to really go beyond our neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and see the potential and the future for ourselves."
Her only interest outside work these days is family: Ted Wells is a senior partner and head of the renowned litigation department at the New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Whatron & Garrison; Teresa worked for John Edwards' presidentail campaign and is now weighing other political staff jobs; and Phillip graduated from Fordham Law last year and is now an associate at the New York firm Schulte Roth & Zabel. On the rare evenings when she doesn't have official duties, Wells is often at the theater--a busman's holiday--or cooking for family and friends at home. Bouillabaisse is a favorite, along with Cajun dishes. "I am sure that my husband married me for my crab cakes," she says.
She insists she has no plans beyond serving as secretary of state, but others may have plans for her. New Jersey is one of the few states that does not currently have a lieutenant governor, but that will change after the next statewide election in 2009, when Corzine is expected to run for re-election and New Jersey will elect a lieutenant governor for the first time. Corzine has not hinted at a running mate, but Nina Wells is one of the names mentioned by political observers. She says she is not interested.
"No desire whatsoever," she says. "I am committed to public service, but I am not a politician."
But who knows? Maybe the girl whose father pulled her out of typing class will become the woman who sees running for office as yet another statement she can make on behalf of black women everywhere. As Wells puts it, "I never separate myself from being black and being a woman. I always appreciate the fact that whenever I've done well, when I have excelled, it's undoubtedly been beneficial in terms of both African-Americans and women."
ALUMNI PROFILESPaul Cherecwich Jr.