Ken Wells awarded TFAE’s 2023 James J Buquet, Jr Award of Distinction

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Photographed from left to right: J.J Buquet, Glenny Lee Buquet, Ricky Murphy, George Robichaux, Danny Walker, Mark Felger, Ken Wells, Ashlee Barahona

The Terrebonne Foundation for Academic Excellence announced Ken Wells as the recipient of the 2023 James J Buquet, Jr Award of Distinction. The James J. Buquet, Jr. Award is presented to a Terrebonne Parish Public High School graduate. The award winner is recognized for vision and excellence in a chosen field or other areas of personal endeavor. This individual has provided service unselfishly to his or community, state, nation or internationally.
The James J. Buquet, Jr Award was established by the Terrebonne Foundation for Academic Excellence in 2008 to honor Mr. Buquet’s commitment to public education.

Ken Wells is a journalist and novelist who grew up in Cajun country on the banks of Bayou Black. His father was a part-time alligator hunter and snake collector and full-time payroll clerk for a local sugar mill; his mother a homemaker, Cajun-French speaker and gumbo chef extraordinaire.

Second of six sons, Wells graduated from Terrebonne High School in 1966.He began his writing career as a 19-year-old college dropout covering car wrecks and gator sightings for the Houma Courier. He returned to college and earned an English degree from Nicholls State University, where he served as student body president in his senior year. Upon graduation, Wells was named the Courier’s managing editor, a position he held until he left to attend University of Missouri School of Journalism. After completing his masters degree with honors, he taught at Missouri for a year, then spent four years as a reporter for the Miami Herald. In 1982, his final year at the Herald, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a series on how a multi-billion-dollar drainage system serving agribusiness was helping to decimate parts of the Florida Everglades.

His near-miss with the Pulitzer landed Wells a job with The Wall Street Journal where, from the  San Francisco bureau, he roamed the West covering stories as disparate as polygamy in Utah and the Exxon Valdez Alaska oil spill, and contributing regularly to the paper’s popular Page One “middle column” feature. He moved to The Journal’s London bureau in 1990, in time to help out with the paper’s reportage of the first Persian Gulf War. He also traveled widely in Africa and wrote extensively about South Africa’s transition to a nonracial democracy. In 1993, he joined the paper’s Page One staff in New York as a writer and editor, continuing his sporadic reporting trips to South Africa and eventually running a team of stateside reporters that wrote exclusively for the front page. Two of his writers–Tony Horwitz and Angelo Henderson–won Pulitzer Prizes. Wells also won the American Society of Newspaper Editors distinguished headline-writing award in 1994.

Ken left the paper in October 2006 after 24 years to help launch Portfolio, the Conde Nast effort at publishing a glossy national business magazine, serving as a senior editor and writer. He joined Bloomberg News in January 2009 after Portfolio folded, a victim of the Great Recession. He spent six-and-a-half years at Bloomberg/Bloomberg Businessweek as a writer and editor in various capacities before leaving in August 2015 to spend time at his lakeside cabin near Sullivan, Me., and  begin work on a project dear to his heart — a social and cultural history of gumbo. The book was published by W.W. Norton & Co. to glowing reviews in February 2019.

Ken’s literary commitment to his bayou home runs deep. He is the author of five well-received novels of Cajun Louisiana published by Random House: Meely LaBauve, Junior’s Leg, Logan’s Storm (collectively known as the Catahoula Bayou Trilogy), and Crawfish Mountain, a picaresque tale of political skullduggery and Big Oil shenanigans in the Louisiana wetlands. Tom Wolfe said of Crawfish Mountain: “Wells is the Cajun Carl Hiaasen.” Meely LaBauve–in print for twenty-two years now–has been called the Cajun coming of age novel and compared favorably with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (though 60,000 words shorter.)

Ken’s fifth novel, a young-adult book titled Rascal, a Dog and His Boy, was published by Random House’s Knopf Young Adult imprint in 2010. A side note to Rascal is that Wells was able to convince the world famous Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue to paint the Rascal cover–only one of two commissions that Rodrigue, who passed away in 2013, ever accepted in his career. Also of note: Wells never quit his day job to become a novelist, instead writing all of the books aboard a New Jersey Transit train that he rode during the years he commuted to The Journal’s New York City office.

Wells also had the honor of being chosen to be the editor of two anthologies of Journal Page One “middle column” stories, Floating Off the Page and Herd on the Street, published by Free Press. His selection process–combing The Journal’s archives for months–showcases the work of the paper’s best writers over the sixty-plus years that the middle-column feature had been published to that date.

In 2004, Simon & Schuster published his first nonfiction narrative, Travels with Barley: The Quest for the Perfect Beer Joint, a travelogue through the nation’s $75 billion beer industry. Wells drove almost the entire length of the Mississippi River to complete his quest. The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous, which grew out of his reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina reporting for The Journal, was published by Yale University Press in 2008 and won the Harry Chapin Book Award. Of the raft of post-Katrina books, Wells’ was singular in its focus on the bayou people of St. Bernard Parish and a coterie of die-hard shrimp boat captains whose valor during the storm saved hundreds of lives from Katrina’s killer surges. Wells followed his characters for more than two years after the storm to show their courageous determination to rebuild their lives in a place even more battered than New Orleans. Yale published a paperback version of the Pirates to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in August 2015.

Wells has previously served on the faculty of the annual Faulkner Society Words and Music Festival in New Orleans, and has been a frequent lecturer at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference sponsored by the University of North Texas School of Journalism. He currently serves as a juror for the Tony Horwitz Fellowship, an annual immersion reporting grant awarded to a student or recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and established to honor Horwitz’s memory and reporting style.  Ken is also a consulting editor to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting founded and run by McArthur Genius Grant recipient, Jerry Mitchell, a legendary Mississippi investigative reporter. Ken’s literary and journalistic accomplishments were rewarded in 2009 by an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Nicholls State University, and induction as a Louisiana Legend by Louisiana Public Broadcasting the same year.

Wells’ newest release “Swamped!” is a collaboration between Wells and his niece Hillary Wells. The book, released by Koehler Books Jan. 13, is an adventure tale of two wildly different teens flung together amid dire circumstances. Jack Landry is a Louisiana homeboy and Olivia FitzGerald is a Harvard-bound New York City teen who struggles to find a way to safety after a plane crash in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Swamp.

Ken, when he’s not visiting Louisiana to eat gumbo and chase redfish and speckled trout in the bayous south of Houma, lives in Chicago and splits his time between the city and his summer lakeside cabin in the wilds of Maine. He is an avid fisherman, hiker and photographer and when he’s not writing books continues his search for the Perfect Beer Joint. He also dabbles in blues and jazz guitar and songwriting and cooks a mean Cajun gumbo.