Rita Wells knew from her early childhood that she was destined to attend MSU Billings, or what was then called Eastern Montana College. In fact, Wells often found herself on campus, as her brother, Mike Hughs, was obtaining his degree in elementary education.
“As a kid growing up, I was always on campus for a number of things,” Wells said. “I remember my brother taking me to different social events at the school that kids would enjoy, and I was the little kid in his life, so it worked out perfectly.”
Music in the making
Wells was not only exposed to college life at a young age, but she also discovered her passion for music at only nine years old, when she took her first accordion lessons from her neighbor.
“Music always made sense to me,” she said. “Music was like a second language for me.”
When it came time for Wells to choose a college, her choice was easy.
“MSU Billings was a tradition in the family and that is the university I had my heart set on,” she said. “I just loved being a student there, and I did not want to leave. I was impressed when my teachers would remember me and went out of their way to reach out to me even if I was not in their class that semester.”
When Wells started her college career, she chose to study history because she had always wanted to teach, but music triumphed all of her other curiosities. She came to realize that she could tie music and teaching together to satisfy both interests.
Negotiating a future
It did not take long for Wells to start her teaching career after graduating in 1987. Her first full-time teaching job in orchestra was at Will James Middle School, where she taught orchestra. Twenty-six years later, she had taught at every elementary school in Billings and two middle schools.
“Going from school to school, I was able to see the different building climates and cultures,” she said. “I believe it helped me see that I represent a cross-section of people.”
This unique experience helped her transition smoothly into the next chapter of her career in education. In 2016, she left teaching to pursue a new role as the president of the Billings Education Association, a teachers’ union that represents more than 1,100 teachers throughout School District 2. In this position, she wasn’t afraid to make changes.
“The three-year contract negotiated last year was amazing,” Wells said. “We had been doing one-year contracts, but now having a three-year contract lets us breathe.”
Terry Bouck, former superintendent of the Billings school district, worked closely with Wells. Together, they provided quality education for kids, as well as professional development and training opportunities for staff and administrators.
“Rita is an amazing person,” said Bouck. “She professionally and personally represents all students and staff in Billings Public Schools, along with the community. She is a gem.”
Forever in her heart
Bouck nominated Wells for the 2018 Outstanding Alumni Awards. She was awarded with the Distinguished Alumna Award, which honors alumni who distinguish themselves through personal, professional and civic contributions. Wells received many nominations from members of the education system that wanted to express why she deserved this award.
“She is the epitome of selfless service for the good of others,” said Noreen Burris, of Billings Public Schools.
“She has created a harmonious environment between our administration and teachers so that we can all focus on what matters – the students,” said Rachel Schillreff, also of Billings Public Schools.
Rita said she was honored to receive the award and is committed to her alma mater.
“The day you get your diploma is not the day you are done with the institution. It should be an ongoing relationship,” she said. “This place has my heart. A sincere thank you to the university for what they did for the education my brother and I earned there.”
From the day she stepped foot onto campus as a youngster, to the moment she received her Outstanding Alumni Award, Wells has stayed connected with the university that brought so much to her life and helped her create the framework for her career.
By Carson Woolery, public relations intern
MSU Billings Alumni Association