THOMSON, Ga. - Retired McDuffie County Probate Judge Albert Eugene "Gene" Wells was best known for his no-nonsense approach to law and justice and his witty, joking ways outside of the courtroom.
Mr. Wells died unexpectedly Thursday morning after having undergone surgery last week at University Hospital in Augusta. Close friends say he was released from the hospital last Friday, but was taken back by ambulance last Saturday.
For 17 years, Mr. Wells served as judge of McDuffie County Probate Court until his health began rapidly declining. He had experienced heart problems during his career on the bench - one particular heart attack nearly claiming his life a few years ago. He left elected office on Dec. 31, 2007.
Mr. Wells replaced himself on the bench with his longtime former clerk, Valerie Burley, who now sits as judge.
"I just visited with him on Tuesday night at the hospital," Judge Burley recalled. "It's so hard to believe he's gone. He was a man who loved life and people. He loved telling jokes and making people laugh and feel better. We're all going to miss him a lot. He was a most honorable man."
McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall said he knew Gene Wells for more than 30 years.
"I remember when he worked as an ATF revenue agent and would come to McDuffie County on liquor still cases," Sheriff Marshall said. "He later worked at the sheriff's office as a deputy before being promoted to an investigator. He and I worked a lot of cases together. We got along very well together. Whatever he believed in - that was it."
The sheriff called Mr. Wells a fine law enforcement officer and judge.
"He contributed a lot of things to law enforcement and to our Probate Court," Sheriff Marshall said. "I remember him making the first crack cocaine arrest in McDuffie County."
Toombs Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway said Mr. Wells' passing "is a great loss for McDuffie County" and he had served the county in a faithful and loyal manner.
"I think his death and his sense of responsibility, integrity and humor will be greatly missed," Judge Dunaway said.
McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton said when he heard the news of Mr. Wells' death that he was shocked.
"This is a sad day for all of McDuffie County," Mr. Newton said. "We'll never be able to replace him. He was a super nice guy and would do anything he could do to help anybody, if he could. Judge Wells was a no-nonsense type of person in the courtroom, but knew how to be compassionate, too. He believed so strongly in the law and justice for everybody."
McDuffie County Manager Don Norton said of his neighbor, "I'm very upset. I liked Gene a lot. He was a really good guy. This is a real loss to our county."
Mr. Norton remembered Mr. Wells welcoming him to the county when he came 4Â½ years ago. The two were neighbors on opposite ends of North Courtland Drive, just outside of Thomson.
"I was shocked to hear that Judge Wells had died," McDuffie County Sheriff's Department Maj. Ronnie Williamson said. "Life is so precious and goes by so quickly. I knew him as a real witty man, who was always sharing a joke and smiling. He always seemed so happy. I really think he loved life."
Mr. Wells worked as a deputy and investigator for the McDuffie County Sheriff's Department for several years after leaving as a federal agent with the U.S. Department of Customs and Federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosions Agency.
He was a longtime member of Second Baptist Church in Thomson. Mr. Wells is survived by a second wife, Betty Evans Wells, of Thomson; two sons, Tom Wells, of Thomson and Steve Wells, of Dearing.