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North High students, staff mourn Robert James Wells

July 30, 1998

photo: MIKE CRUPI / staff photographer

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North High mournsBy BRENDAN KIRBY and TERRY TALBERT / Staff Writers

Whether he was battling his way to a county wrestling championship, acting, playing one of his musical instruments or just hanging out, Robert James Wells left an impression, according to friends and coaches.

"He was not the kind of kid that blended into the background," said his wrestling coach, Greg Slick, who was one of about 150 people who gathered at North Hagerstown High School on Wednesday evening. "This was not a one-dimensional kid. This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of kid that you did not forget."

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North High Principal David Reeder said Wells, who would have been a junior at the school in the fall, was hard to miss.

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"I don't get to know every student here - we have around 1,000 of them - but I did know Robby," Reeder said. "When I would be standing at the cafeteria or in the hall, he would come up to me and talk to me about soccer or wrestling. I'm into weight lifting, and we talked about health and diet.

"Robby was very extroverted. He was a positive kid, an in-your-face type kid. He was very likable. This is a tremendous tragedy," he said.

Wells, 16, who lived at 13545 Halifax Drive in Hagerstown, died on Tuesday afternoon after he jumped off a cliff into a quarry off Hump Road west of Hagerstown.

Friends who were with him on Tuesday said Wells took a running start off the cliff, flipped in the air and landed face-first in the water. They said they jumped in after him but were unable to rescue him.

"Nobody had a problem with Rob That's why he was so easy to get along with," said E.B. Wallech, a North student who was with him when he drowned. "I've only known him for two years. That's how easy it was to bond with him."

North High administrators called in a crisis team from the Washington County school system to help kids cope with their emotions.

Students had the chance to meet with one of nine counselors and to participate in a group session, Reeder said.

"We walked them through the feelings," said Joe Millward, the school system's supervisor of pupil personnel and guidance. "We have the kids confront the thing as it really is."

Several of Wells' personal items were displayed on a table in the school, including a picture of him, a soccer ball, a red Hubs jacket and a Penn State T-shirt and pillow.

On another table, students left pictures of Wells and wrote notes that will be compiled into a book for his mother, Millward said.

Wells, who was the son of Joanne F. Wells and the late Richard S. Wells, was bright in school and a natural leader on the wrestling team, Slick said. He played soccer and various musical instruments, including the guitar, harmonica and piano, friends said.

During his freshman year, a senior took Wells' spot in the 103-pound weight class, forcing him to move up to the 119-pound class, Slick said.

Despite wrestling boys 10 and 15 pounds heavier, Wells held his own, Slick said. For his perseverance, he said Slick was given the "true grit" award.

Last year, Wells was a county champion in his weight division, Slick said.

Teammates said Wells' performance in the district championships - despite narrowly losing - inspired the rest of the team to win the district title.

"Our team went to states because of Rob," he said. "On the wrestling team, it's going to be weird because he was the loudest cheerer."

Slick, choking back tears, said Wells would have been exactly the kind of person to lean on during a tragedy such as this one.

"If this had been anyone else, Rob would have stood up and talked for an hour tonight," he said. "It's been like a bad ride, and we're just not going to get off of it."

Wells also was also a talented actor, according to friends.

William E. Morris, who was artistic director of the now-closed Tres School for the Arts, said he taught Wells for a semester in the after-school program.

"He was a natural in the very beginning," he said. "He was a ham."

Morris said Wells won one of the lead roles in a Christmas production that the group put on at the end of the semester. He said Wells had a special gift for improvisation.

"He could just make it up off the top of his head," he said. "He loved to make people laugh."

Wallech said he and his friends would like to receive permission to mark the spot where Wells died. But their swimming days at the quarry are over, he said.

"I can't think about swimming in that place," Wallech said.

Several of the teens who came to North High on Wednesday said all kids should be warned against swimming at the quarry.

An accomplished swimmer who could do spectacular flips, they said Wells was the last person they thought would drown.

The quarry where Wells died is off of Hump Road.

Martin Marietta Materials Inc. owns 23 acres on Hump Road, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based company was investigating Wednesday whether it owns the quarry, said John Long, vice president of government affairs and community relations for the company based in Raleigh, N.C.

Martin Marietta leases some land in the area to nearby Hagerstown Block Company, Long said.

But Hagerstown Block President George Hill said his company does not lease the quarry.

Reeder said a memorial service for Wells will be held at North High at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 4. He said he expects the program to begin in the school auditorium.

"This is a brand-new experience for me - not one I'd like to relive," he said.

- Staff writer Laura Ernde contributed to this story.

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