A heart attack and the ensuing near-death experience in the back of an ambulance along Interstate 20 five months ago got Albert E. "Gene" Wells thinking less about work and more about his own mortality.
And his grandchildren. And traveling. And fishing.
Probate Court Judge Gene Wells poses in his office last week.
McDuffie County's 68-year-old Probate Court Judge plans to retire on Dec. 31 after 18 years on the bench. He'd planned to make it 20 years, but the heart attack last August changed all that.
"I think my wife and I need to have some fun for a while," he said.
Before taking office in 1989, the Judge was on a different side of law enforcement. He worked for the McDuffie County Sheriff's department for 10 years.
Prior to his days as an investigator with the sheriff's department, he was with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms for 17 years. He also served in the Marine Corps for three years.
Judge Wells had never thought about running for office or serving as a judge until people asked him to run back in 1988. His friends gave him some sound advice on how to handle the new position.
"I told them I didn't know anything about politics. I had always been in law enforcement," Judge Wells said. "They said 'Well, all you've got to do is be yourself,' and I said 'Well, that's all I can do.'"
He has tried to conduct his duties according to that advice through his years of service. It's something the criminals that face him in court may not appreciate.
Judge Gene Wells watches as Sheena Cheeley (left) and Roderick Kendricks kiss following their marriage ceremony last Friday at the McDuffie County Courthouse.
"I told a lot of people when I was running 'If you don't like me as an investigator with the sheriff's office, then you're not going to like me as a judge because I'm not going to change,'" he said.
The people that have witnessed Judge Wells being himself over the years are his clerks who he said make his job easy. He will appoint one of them, Valerie Burley - who started working for Judge Wells in his third month on the job - to replace him until a special election is held. Ms. Burley is considering running.
"I like being able to help the people who really need it," she said. "(Judge Wells) is a nice, fun guy to work with."
During his time serving McDuffie County, Judge Wells has seen many weddings, wills, traffic violations and child guardianship cases. Of those, the only part he doesn't thoroughly enjoy dealing with is seeing children moved back and forth between relatives and friends.
And then there are the short-term marriages, stories of ceremonies on Friday and annulments on Monday.
"I've had them come back in with the marriage license torn in half because they didn't want to be married anymore," he said. "Sorry, it doesn't work like that."
Last week, while penning a letter to inform Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue of his retirement, Judge Wells admitted he'd never quit anything. He said leaving his job will be difficult, but with his doctor prescribing lower stress levels, he knew it was time.
Sometimes, a double bypass coupled with a love of family can change even the most stubborn of minds.