Notable Nevadan: Dawn Wells
May – June 2016
Dawn Wells is a Reno native and a national treasure. A former Miss Nevada, Dawn will forever live in our hearts as Mary Ann Summers—the Kansas farm girl from “Gilligan’s Island.” Dawn hasn’t slowed down since the show’s end, but she took a moment to talk with our Carrie Roussel about life before and after the island.
Question: Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Dawn: I am a fourth-generation from Reno, and I currently reside in Los Angeles.
I had a ranch in Idaho where I hosted a summer film camp, but let that go when the economy starting having problems. I still enjoy going fishing there, and I’m a good fly-fisher. I actually had a Canadian television show called “Dawn Wells Reel Adventures” where Canadian fly-fishing champion Kathy Ruddick and I traveled the world fishing different locations.
I still have cousins in Reno, and come each a year to visit with them, and to visit high school friends still in the area. In addition, I return often throughout the year for board meetings. I am a founding trustee, president and chairman of the board for the Terry Lee Wells Foundation, created in 1999 by my cousin and close friend Terry Lee Wells. Through the foundation, grants give back to the community where I grew up. Reno has class. It’s a very special place, with good people doing good things. I remember when things were done with a handshake, and when you voted for the person you knew, compared to the party they were running for. That sense of family and community still lives on strong in Reno and the Terry Lee Wells Foundation allows me to be a part of it.
Question: Did growing up in Nevada impact you finding your dream job?
Dawn: I didn’t aspire to be an actress; I wanted to be a ballerina. I would have if I hadn’t dislocated my knee. After that I couldn’t participate in sports or anything athletic. I had no idea about theater, but was in debate in high school, and could take either side of an issue. Reno High School was one of the top five high schools in the nation while I attended, and this helped me academically. I was accepted at Harvard but chose to attend Stephens College in Columbia, Miss., and then went on to University of Washington in Seattle. I remember taking the “Stephens Special” train, which picked me up in San Francisco and then continued to Arizona and on through to Missouri, picking up girls along the way. By the time we arrived we all knew each other. At Stephens I took pre-med and then chose theater courses because I couldn’t participate in P.E. After Stephens I went on to the University of Washington because they were known as having both a good medical school and theater program.
When asked if I would participate in the Miss Nevada pageant I didn’t think I’d win, but thought it would be a good platform and I wanted to stand in front of people to do a scene. After winning I continued on to the Miss America pageant, which was all about scholarships back then, so that I could practice my posture in front of crowds. I decided to head to L.A. .and give acting a try and would return to pre-med if it didn’t pan out. Having received degrees from both Stephens College and U of WA I was well trained, and gave myself some time to make things happen. After a personal interview with Jack Warner of Warner Bros. Studios he proclaimed “I actually had an intelligent conversation with an actress!” I was cast in multiple televisions shows before I took my signature role of Mary Ann Summers in Gilligan’s Island, which was a blessing and a curse. Ultimately, the show went on to be loved world-wide and is translated into 30 different languages.
Question: What’s your favorite thing to do or see when you come back to Reno?
Dawn: I always try to get up to Tahoe to get a fix of the land, the beauty, the serenity of it. My mother used to rent a cabin every summer and we would drive up over Mount Rose Highway in the heat, often having the carburetor vapor-lock on the way up. We’d have to pull over and make sure the butter was in the shade so it didn’t melt while we waited for the car to cool. I distinctly remember mother waking me up to take me out to the car so that we could listen to the end of The Second World War on the radio.
Question: If you could eat lunch with one historical Nevada figure, who would you choose and why?
Dawn: Mark Twain. My grandmother (my mom’s mom) played the piano at Piper’s Opera House as a little girl. My father’s mom, who had moved here from Calaveras County, was actually robbed by Black Bart. He tied them up in the basement and took all the pies and other food the girls were cooking. When they were finally released and came upstairs there was a $50 gold piece on the table, so he was “a good thief.” My great-great-grandfather drove stagecoach in Reno and was held up on Geiger Grade once
Question: Do you have favorite Nevada memory?
Dawn: My best are family memories such as my mom as a Brownie Leader, and when she talked about the building of the railroad in Reno. My favorite memory of all, though, is going ice skating at Idlewild Park. Our group of friends would go over after school and build big bonfires and skate during the afternoons when we lived in Westfield Village by the Reno High School.
Question: What does being Battle Born mean to you?
Dawn: History, how I feel I’m a part of it, and how it remains tangible in Nevada, like we are just a generation away from those who truly shaped the state from the start.
Question: What are your hobbies?
Dawn: I have a second book coming out, another cookbook. I’m a good cook, and my mother and both my grandmothers are geniuses in the kitchen. This new cookbook I’m working on is filled with good home cooking including my own family recipes as well as family recipes that my Facebook fans/followers have shared with me. I’m also going to appear at a Comic Con event in Australia soon, and consider myself lucky that I have plenty of appearances and enough going on to keep me busy.
I read recently in a book excerpt that “Western women are stronger” and that really resonated with me. Nevada is a land that was tough to build, and it still shows in the stability of the state. With strong commercial and gaming standings, plenty to offer families in the way of community activities and the way history has been so well preserved; I really feel Reno is great for kids and a place to raise families.