It has been more than four decades, but Wayne Leininger can still vividly remember where Thomas Wells (ACCT ’73) sat as a student in the cost accounting class Leininger taught in 1971.
“He sat on the last row, on the right-hand side. I can just visualize it,” said Leininger, retired department head of accounting and information systems.
Wells, who was in his junior year, had a “quiet and reserved” personality — “it was a challenge to get him to participate in class.” But he was also an outstanding student, Leininger discovered — “one of the best students I ever had.”
In fact, when Leininger gave exams, he typically checked his answer key against the answers Wells turned in to make sure that the answer key was correct.
Accounting professor Gene Seago recalls that Wells was in an advanced income tax class he taught in 1972. “He took the class ‘pass-fail.’ Most students who took courses ‘pass-fail’ would do well enough to pass, but no more. Tom attended all classes, was attentive, asked good questions, and consistently had the highest grade in the class on exams. He was an ideal student.”
Wells died of leukemia in 2005 at 54. He started his career at Ernst & Whinney but later moved to Geico Corporation, where he held increasingly important roles, including controller, vice president, group vice president, and chief financial officer, and played a key role during its acquisition by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 1996.
Uncompromising integrity and clarity of mind
His obituary noted: “The profession he chose was with financial figures. He liked numbers, their precision, clarity, and completeness. He loved to solve complex accounting problems, and did it better than most.”
It included a statement from Geico chairman and CEO Tony Nicely: “When Tom arrived at Geico in 1980, we were just a few years removed from some tough financial challenges; on our way back to financial strength, but still a pretty nervous organization. We needed a keen mind and a calm spirit to help us stay on the right course, and we couldn’t have found anyone who fit that description better than Tom. We continued to benefit from Tom’s wisdom, character, diligence, and financial acumen throughout his career. There is no doubt that we would be a lesser company today if not for him.”
The obituary noted that Wells was known throughout his career for “his uncompromising integrity and his ability to analyze and resolve the most complex financial and accounting problems. He felt that his key role was to always be sure that numbers told an honest story. Aside from his exceptional accounting talents, he gave generously of his time and energy to teach and prepare others for management responsibility.”
Wells’ widow Kathy Dargo, a retired accountant, wanted to make “a legacy gift” to the accounting and information systems department in his memory, said Bob
Brown, professor emeritus and a former department head.
The department proposed a research center in financial accounting, Brown said, Over the next couple of years, the proposal was “modified sufficiently to satisfy both parties.”
The final proposal “provided more flexibility to the department and set aside more financial support for undergraduate students than did the original,” he said.
“When the process started, Kathy’s primary residence was in the D.C. area. She made several visits to campus and was a delight to be around,” Brown recalls.
At dinner one evening with Brown and other Pamplin faculty, Dargo recounted the numerous meetings her late husband, as Geico CFO, had had with Warren Buffett. During some of these meetings, when a numerical answer was required, Buffett and Wells apparently “had a kind of a contest to see who could come up with the correct answer first,” Brown said.
“She never said who won most often but, from what I heard about Tom, my money was on him.”
A quest to learn and excel
John Renner (MGT ’73), managing director of Renner & Company, lived in the same dorm as Wells for most of the time both were students. They took classes and studied together.
“Tom’s quest to learn and excel rubbed off on us,” Renner said. “His enthusiasm to excel quietly challenged us to work harder and hopefully get a higher grade on an exam. I know Tom was, as I am, grateful for the education we received at Tech that launched us off to successful careers.”
Wells, stopping by during one campus visit to see Seago, expressed his appreciation for how well Virginia Tech had prepared him for his business career, Seago recalls.
“His success continues to be a source of great pride for the accounting department, the college of business, and the university.”