(Editor's Note — Harold Bell (Yale '36) died suddenly January 1 from a heart attack at age 92. Peter's reflections about his father delivered at the funeral in Gloucester are included in our posting for a couple of different reasons. They seemed to go well as a contrast with Peter's Little Rock speech about Africa and Poverty, which already was scheduled for this posting. Also, Harold Bell was a wonderful man who led a full life, which always included Yale. Your Corresponding Secretary remembers him well from occasional visits when we were in New Haven.)

"Reflections on Dad (Harold Bell)"

by Peter Bell
Atlanta, GA
January 5, 2007

Even though Dad died at the age of 92, his death came as a shock to all of us. There was nothing about his heart or head that seemed old or tired. He appeared to have drunk from the fountain of youth. A friend of mine who met Dad several years ago emailed me afterward with a question: what was Dad's secret? I'm not sure that my answer satisfied her. Dad claimed it was the apple pie he ate every day for breakfast!

It is impossible to put into a few words what made Dad so special, but let me at least cite a few characteristics that set him apart.

First, Dad was an existentialist. He enjoyed each person and savored each moment. He lived neither in the future nor in the past, but in the here and now. I would be surprised if he put much stock in a conventional afterlife in any personal sense. What counted for him was giving meaning to this life in this time and this place.

Second. Dad was, however, very future-oriented. He was a man of many projects. He was a visionary. Whether it was taking on debt to renovate the West End or planting saplings that would eventually become towering trees. My mother was a constant source of loving support, but she had a greater sense of her limitations as a mortal. As Dad was warming to pursue some distant goal, Mom would turn to others of us — with a nice mixture of resignation and admiration — and say, "Your Dad thinks that he's going to live forever!" And, of course, he almost did!

Third, Dad loved people of all ages, but he found a special joy in young people. He resonated with their energy and enthusiasm, and he always learned from them. Young people kept his mind fresh and open, and the grandchildren loved bringing their friends to meet with him, too. Dad never became an old grumbler. He maintained the optimism of his youth and the belief that we can each make the world better.

Fourth, Dad was a person of strong ethical principles and social values, but there was nothing simplistic or easy to pigeon-hole about him. He had his doubts about what he called the "hocus pocus" of organized religion, but he was deeply spiritual and loved to commune with nature. When a new neighbor cut down several of the wild shad trees that Dad had loved and religiously pruned at the edge of our property, it cut Dad to the quick. Up to that time, I had only seen him cry on one other occasion, and those had been tears of joy at the birth of my sister Diana.

Dad was a true patriot, but not a nationalist. As children, John and I were trained to raise the American flag each morning and to lower it and respectfully fold it before sunset. But Dad resisted exclusionary dogmas. He sought to understand the whole world in all its diversity. There was never any doubt in his mind, however, that Gloucester and Cape Ann were the center of the universe. This was especially hallowed ground.

Fifth, Dad had enormous determination, but it was never grim. To the contrary, it was quiet, yet energetic and spirited. During World War II, he was determined to enlist in the Navy, but unable to pass the eye test to become an ensign. Each day for several months, he diligently scanned the branches of trees to the end of their tiniest twigs until he finally qualified for the commission. Over the last decade or so, he suffered from spinal stenosis, a painful degenerative disease, but Dad eventually decided that the foregone pleasure of not tending to his gardens was worse than the pain from gardening. And lo and behold, the pain itself seemed to subside and he became more ambulatory. Of course, anyone who was ever approached by him for support of the Historical Museum can also attest to his energetic determination!

Finally, Dad had the gift of making each one of us — in our immediate family and far beyond it — feel special. Each of his children, each of his grandchildren, each of his great grandchildren, and so many others who are here this morning, felt that we were his best friend. In fact, we were very special to him, and he in turn was special to us. He was insatiably curious and genuinely interested in virtually everyone and every thing. Dad was an attentive listener with a discerning eye, and found joy and love in each of us and gave it back many times over.

Harold Bell as he stepped down on June 2, 2004, as president of
the Cape Ann Historical Association's board after 24 years of service.
Photo courtesy of Gloucester Daily Times

(Peter's email is peter.bell@emory.edu.)