Friday, November 29, 2013

My Friend, Joe Bell, Died Yesterday

As some of you already know from having read Hannah Fry's article from the Daily Pilot online today, HERE, my friend and former Daily Pilot columnist, Joseph N. Bell died on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 92 from the ravages of age, including the recent onset of Parkinson's Disease.

Joe Bell was a columnist for the Daily Pilot, and the Los Angeles Times before that, for more than two decades.  When he retired from the regular rotation of columnists at the Pilot almost two years ago Mike Reicher wrote about him HERE.  I wrote about his retirement HEREBill Lobdell, currently the Communications Director for the City of Costa Mesa, former editor of the Daily Pilot and, at that time, a columnist, wrote about Joe's influence on his life, HERE, and a couple of his very close friends also wrote short notes in the Mailbag, HERE.

Joe was a fascinating man.  He and I couldn't have been farther apart politically, but I grew to know him well and admire his skills as a writer and his values as a man. During his career, as mentioned in Fry's article, he wrote extensively for many national magazines and, locally, for the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Pilot.  He interviewed and wrote about stars like Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, John Wayne, Julie Andrews, Shirley Maclaine, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Bob Hope, Mary Tyler Moore, Liza Minnelli, Debbie Reynolds and many others.  He interviewed Norma McCorvy - the "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade fame - and wrote about her at the beginning of that dramatic time in her life and, three decades later, when she disavowed abortion and began speaking out about it.   Before he retired a few months before his 90th birthday he was still pumping out pithy prose, skewering the rascals around us and doing it with such flare that those of us who pretend to write can only smile in awe-struck admiration.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of his long, illustrious career included a piece that he wrote that DID NOT get published.  During the Patty Hearst kidnapping , HERE, Bell was on assignment for the Hearst Corporation's "Good Housekeeping", at the Hearst family home in Hillsborough, CA when her parents learned that Patty may have been killed during a police raid on a house in South-Central Los Angeles.  Five Symbionese Liberation Army revolutionaries who had kidnapped her died in the raid, but it turned out she was not on the scene.  Bell wrote the story of her kidnapping, but Randolph Hearst killed it because it contained some information he did not want to make public.

As I've written before, I have a couple links that drew me to Joe.  He was a great friend of my ex-boss, former Newport Beach councilman Don Strauss.  I met Joe on a tennis court where he and Strauss had been soundly thumped during the Adoption Guild Tournament by a couple of whippersnappers.  He was an unhappy, but gracious loser.  And, Jill Angel - sister of his second wife, Sherry, was a dear friend of my best friend, Larry Moore.  She was a CHP officer and competitor in his "Toughest Cop Alive" competition before she moved up the ranks at the CHP.  You will also remember Jill as a traffic reporter for radio station KNX-1070.

I didn't know Joe at the time, but when we lived in Houston we journeyed to the Johnson Space Center and, along with other souvenirs, we purchased a book called, "Seven Into Space" - which was written by Joseph N. Bell!  We've still got it somewhere in our library.  That was Joe's account of the seven original Mercury astronauts and is still highly-sought as a seminal reference piece about the early stages of the United States Space Program.

Joe and I became friends as I wrote to him about columns he had written about local politicians and other issues.  His body of work includes hundreds of columns in which he took on the likes of John Moorlach, HERE; Allan Mansoor, HERE; politicians in general, HERE and HERE; and the then-new Costa Mesa City Council, HERE.

A patriotic guy, Joe Bell was born on July 4, 1921 and enjoyed celebrating his birthday along with that of his country every year.  He wrote about those celebrations frequently, HERE, for example.  A member of the "Greatest Generation", he shared many of the simple values of his peers and wrote about them, HERE.  A Midwesterner, he loved basketball and baseball.  He wrote about the former HERE and the latter HERE - and many more times, too.  He reveled in the exploits of the University of California - Irvine Anteater basketball program.  He taught at that school for two decades.  He agonized when his beloved Angels failed, year after year, but never gave up hope.

Joe loved his family and friends and wrote often about their successes in life.  He wrote a very nice piece acknowledging the publication of Bill Lobdell's book, "Losing My Religion", HERE and of his visit to the theater to see his step-son, Erik Patterson's first play performed, HERE.

Joe also wrote about transitions - the passing of dear friends and the dogs that filled his life with joy.  However, a column he wrote about the passing of his first wife, Janet Hartman Bell, HERE, truly shows you the depth of feeling this man had for those around him.

On July 3, 2011, my wife and I were invited to join a large group of Joe's family and friends to mark his 90th birthday.  That photo at the top of the page was taken at that event, showing him "in the spirit of the day".  We heard his daughters tell stories of growing up with their Dad - of the road trips and the special times in their lives.  We heard very close friends talk about the Joe they knew and loved.  There was no small amount of teasing going on that day and it was joyous to watch the love flow.
(Joe Bell and close friend, Betsy Flynn, enjoying strawberry shortcake)
It was sad to see my friend decline over these past many months.  The debilitating ailments that he had to confront gradually won the battle with his body, but his mind never gave up.  He remained sharp and concerned about events that affect us all.  I will miss him - his wisdom, wit and friendship - but I won't forget him.  According to his family, Joe will be buried in his home town of Decatur, Indiana soon and a Memorial Service will be planned locally early next year.  In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Donald A. Strauss Scholarship Foundation, 4931 Birch Street, Suite 2, Newport Beach, CA 92660.


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Blogger kwahlf said...

This is very sad news, Geoff.
I looked forward to reading Joe's column in the DP every week.
He was a great writer who used wit and humor to get his message across. He understood the dynamics of politics very well and the people in it.
I always wondered what Joe would say about our current political scene in Costa Mesa, and now I know. Thank you for the link to the column I missed.
Rest in peace, Joe.
You will be missed.

11/29/2013 04:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Byron de Arakal said...

Easily the finest writer to grace the pages of the Daily Pilot....ever. He was a friend and colleague. And the greatest moments I experienced as a columnist for the Pilot were not when some of its readers wrote to compliment one of my columns. They occurred when Joe picked up the telephone and called me to praise my writings. Joe was a class act and a superb writer and I will miss him. God's speed, Mr. Bell.

11/29/2013 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger The Pot Stirrer said...

Yep, Byron... Joe not only was an excellent writer, but he knew good writing when he saw it. The number of young, eager potential journalists he nurtured with comments like that are legion. Heck, he'd even pick up the phone and call an old guy with no skills just to offer encouragement. A special man.

11/29/2013 05:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Atlas Shrunk said...

Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord.
A good fellow, to be sure.

11/29/2013 06:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Mike Scheafer said...

Thanks Geoff. One of heroes and a friend for almost 40 years. I told Sherry that Joe has already been to see Gene Autry to cure the Angels. I used to visit Joe just to try and figure how we could help them to get back to the World Series. Will miss him very much.

11/29/2013 06:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this blog while looking for Mr. Bell's article from Good Housekeeping in June 1970, entitled "Let My Dad Go Home". My mom kept that article, and all of the children received copies from her several years ago. I had hoped to find it reprinted, as I work in a nursing home and think everybody should have access to the very best article related to aging family members. So sad I missed being able to personally thank Mr. Bell!

6/23/2014 08:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Pat Boyle said...

When Joe died in 2013, my ex-wife sent me his obituary from the LA Times. I found the obit the other day, searched on-line, and found this blog post, which triggered a lot of great memories of working with Joe. I’m not sure if anybody will read this, but in his memory I wanted to leave behind some evidence of all he did for me. Joe and I had lost touch many years ago, after I moved East and left journalism. I think I last saw Joe in the mid-1990s when I was in California visiting family and I stopped by his and Sherry’s house in Costa Mesa to say hello. As we sat talking and sipping iced tea that afternoon, I still remember his gracious smile and intense interest in what I had been doing with my life. He was always a very good interviewer.

I met Joe in January of 1970, when I walked into his magazine writing class at UC Irvine. I was 23 and fresh out of the Navy, returning to college with little idea of what I wanted to do with my life. Joe’s class and the personal and professional relationship that followed changed all that. I looked through some files this morning and found the original syllabus for his class, labeled “Writing 38” in the course catalogue. I also found several articles I wrote for the class with his comments in the margins and typed notes of appraisal clipped to the front. He concluded one note by saying, “I’ve enjoyed working with you here, and I’m looking forward to continuing on a more professional plane. You’re ready for that. I only hope I’ll be able to point you in some right directions.”

That, he certainly did. Joe had gone to the University of Missouri with Tom Keevil, at the time editor of the Daily Pilot. Joe recommended me for a summer internship at the Pilot. When the summer was over, the Pilot kept me on as a part-time reporter, so that I worked my way through Irvine going to the newspaper’s Laguna Beach office in the morning, classes in the afternoon, and planning commission or school board meetings at night. When I left Irvine, I took Joe’s advice and went to Northwestern for a master’s in journalism. After three years at the Rochester Times-Union in upstate New York, I landed a job at the LA Times and had a momentous career as a reporter and editor before deciding to move on to other endeavors. All because of Joe, who followed my reporting and occasionally sent a note commenting on some story I had written. We would see each other every couple of years when I passed through Orange County, but gradually we lost touch, especially after I moved away from California.

I have read some of the comments here on the blog and am pleased to see that I was not alone in appreciating what a fine teacher, mentor and role model Joe was. We should all aspire to have even a fraction of the impact on people’s lives that Joe did.

6/05/2015 11:14:00 AM  

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