Community and family mourn loss of Benton 4-H leader
"Call back later — it’s not bedtime at grandma’s house!”
That was the response that Sarah Hibbs got at 8:30 p.m. when she called her mother’s house in King’s Valley to say good night to her children.
Hibbs called again at 10:30 p.m. and learned the kids were still awake munching away on popcorn in grandma’s bed.
“I told my mom she was crazy, with a 2- and 4-year-old eating in her bed — she would be sure to find popcorn in it for weeks,” Hibbs recalled.
Kathy Wells shrugged off her daughter’s warning, laughed and said, “That’s OK.”
Days later, the memory of that phone call hit Hibbs.
“When we changed her sheets a few days after the accident, they were full of popcorn,” she said.
Katherine Elaine Wells, 52, died in a car accident June 20 near Blodgett as she and her son were traveling west on Highway 20 to meet Hibbs to drop off Wells’ grandkids.
The first woman to graduate from the diesel mechanic program at Linn-Benton Community College, Wells loved to hunt, work on cars, ride her motorcycle, take care of her farm and animals, and help her husband in his many volunteer positions. Wells has touched countless lives as a leader in the Benton County 4-H program, a mother to any and all children she met, and a life-long friend to others.
“Her door was always open to the kids, whether they were neighborhood kids or out-of-neighborhood kids,” said Rick Wells, her husband of 33 years. “They called her Aunt Kathy.”
Wells’ nieces and nephews, neighbor kids and all of her own children’s friends lived at the house at one point or another.
“She was like an angel rescuing my brother and I from a broken home every weekend, Christmas break and summers for many years,” her nephew, Terry Lee Moon, said. “She gave everyone a home.”
When the neighbor kids’ mom died, Wells took them in. If she spotted a child who needed extra love, she never hesitated to dole out hugs or words of encouragement.
When Wells worked for E.D. Hughes Excavating in Philomath about 16 years ago, she noticed her co-worker, a mechanic, began bringing his 13-year-old daughter, Jo, to work. The girl’s parents had just divorced and she had no where else to go.
“Kathy felt I would enjoy meeting her family and hanging out with them rather than spending 12-hour days working with them and commuting to Salem and back each day,” recalled Jo Brown.
Wells helped Brown adjust to her parents’ divorce. She acted like a second mother — but one who changes out engines and butchers wild game.
“Kathy changed my life and is the best friend a young girl could ask for,” Brown said. “She taught me how to grease heavy equipment, skin a deer and then butcher it and how to replace an engine in a vehicle. There was not one thing she couldn’t do if she needed or wanted to.”
Wells’ work ethic and love of children made being a 4-H leader with her husband a great fit. They began when their children were old enough to join and have continued for the past 21 years.
“Many times Kathy would be working two jobs, and she would come in to the extension office between jobs to pick up supplies for the next 4-H club meeting,” said Tammy Skubinna, who retired two years ago as the Benton County 4-H agent. “4-H is a big family — and Kathy and Rick are a major part of that.”
In addition to the hundreds of kids who Wells has mentored, she has left behind life-long friends.
“She was a level-headed, no-nonsense kind of gal with a mischievous side to her,” said Rita Bell, who met Wells in middle school, and says their lives have intertwined sporadically throughout the years.
Hibbs, of Chitwood, remembers her mother’s mischievous side, too.
“Spray her in the yard with the water hose, she’s going to pack you to the river and drop you in,” she said.
Wells was born in Corvallis, attended school in Azalea and Wilbur, and finished up high school in Philomath.
As recent as the weekend before the accident, Wells helped at a celebration of life gathering for Bell’s father. She was the first to arrive and the last to leave, Bell said.
Though Wells’ husband, three grown daughters and 16-year-old son knew what she had meant to them, they had no idea how many more people in the community knew and loved her.
“She touched so many lives in such a positive way,” her husband, Rick Wells, said. “It was so overwhelming at the service. I had no idea so many people would be there.”
The First Congregational United Church of Christ in Corvallis was standing-room only during the funeral on June 30. When the hallway and entrance became crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, people began to gather under the covered area outside.
The community has also provided an astonishing amount of support in the form of an endless supply of meals, cards, phone calls, donations and prayers, daughter Sarah Hibbs said. After all the good her parents have done, it feels right to her.
“All the people that walked through their doors for help — it was returned, by a million,” she said.
The Benton County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the June 20 car accident. It is still not completely clear why the driver, Wells’ 16-year-old son, Austin Wells, moved into the eastbound lane where an on-coming vehicle was approaching. By the time he turned back into his lane, the driver in the on-coming vehicle had reacted by moving into the westbound lane. The vehicles crashed and Wells suffered the only serious injury.
In her memory, Wells’ family plans to plant a Japanese maple tree at the Benton County Fairgrounds. They hope to also get permission to place a bench beside the tree.
While the family heals over the loss of their matriarch, they take comfort in knowing that Kathy Wells lives on in her kids and all those children she has helped along the way.
Daughter Mary Robeson, of Toledo, will continue to be involved in 4-H, especially when her children get old enough to participate.
“I’ve always enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to being a 4-H mom,” she said.
Hibbs sees herself in her mother everyday. Not too long ago, her husband questioned her when she went out to help someone in a broken-down vehicle at the end of her road. It was the middle of the night and her husband was away working.
“All of that, we get from my mom,” Hibbs said. “She would help anybody, anytime.”