My father John Bell was larger than life. He was a big man with a kind heart, a great intellect, a care for others and a lover of life. He taught us to dream big and live large. Possessed of boundless optimism and an indomitable spirit, he enriched the lives of all who knew him. A man of grand stature, standing over 6’ 2” tall, he was cast in the mold of a Hollywood leading man. He was born prematurely, just 55 years after the civil war to two strong-willed Irish Catholic parents. His mother Bessie Bell brought him home from the hospital after doctors gave my father little chance to survive and it was on that day that he began the first fight of his life. Following an old world Italian recipe, my grandmother bathed my father in warm olive oil to keep his body temperature up. After weeks of constant vigilance, he gradually improved and won the first of many battles in his life.
Gifted with a superior intellect, the young John Bell rose to the head of his class at Xavier Preparatory Academy. A family story tells the tale of an embarrassed young boy dressed in a military uniform with all its regalia, riding the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan with his proud mother alerting every passenger that it was young John’s first day of school. He was so self-conscious and humiliated by the experience, that from that moment forward, he never knew the meaning of being embarrassed.
A brilliant student, he skipped 2 grades and started college at the age of 16. Though he was accepted to Yale University, his domineering mother insisted he stay close to home to be educated by the Jesuits at St. John’s University. After graduating from St. John’s University at the ripe age of 19, he got a job in Washington D.C. purchasing armaments for the South African Government. He was so proud of the fact that they trusted him with the keys to the Embassy. Notwithstanding a governmental deferment, he felt awkward being the only young person on the streets of Washington, so he enlisted. He was selected, based on IQ, along with an elite group of intellectually endowed young men, to train at Washington University with the purpose of heading up an occupational force in Germany after victory in Europe. When plans changed regarding an occupational force, he became a Sargent in the army corps of Engineers. He received a Bronze Star citation for valor and a Purple Heart during the battle of the Bulge. A humble man, never wanting to take credit where credit was not due, he told us that he received a Purple Heart for cutting his hand while falling off a truck in combat. On the other hand, the citation for the Bronze Star hung on my wall during high school. He was awarded the Bronze Star because during a key battle in Normandy, his commanding officer fell to his knees in tears as the battle began and my father threw him over his shoulder and led the company to victory, displaying the courage of the true leader that he was throughout his life.
After the war, he received a law degree from St. John’s University, completing the 3 year course in 2 years at night. While his fellow graduates were “shepardizing” their cases, as he would say, my father got a job in advertising and decided that an expense account and front row seats at all major sporting venues was a better path to pursue. Having said that, he regretted he was never his own boss, which was something that he instilled in both me and my brother. He used to say, “be your own boss and write your own rules.” He started his storied advertising career with Sunset magazine. The early years of the advertising world saw him spending a lot of time driving in upstate New York. He eventually joined This Week magazine, which became the launching pad for many a famous advertising executive. He ultimately became National Advertising Director for McCall's, then Vice President for the Newspaper Advertising Bureau. He knew always to reach for higher ground. He knew to get out of Brooklyn and to move to Westchester. So our family journey started in New Rochelle, moved us to Wilmette, Illinois, back to Larchmont, and then to Greenwich. Along the way, two things were constant - golf and horses.
Always knowing how to identify the best, my father joined Winged Foot Golf Club in 1959, home to the U.S. Open next month. It was no surprise to me that the greatest golfer of the modern era, Tiger Woods, was mentored by Winged Foot’s Pro Claude Harmon’s son Butch. I remember watching Secretariat’s Breeder, C. T. Chenery, play polo at the Boulder Brook Hunt Club, to which we belonged. My sister Bonnie used to ride with Paul McCartney's wife, Linda Eastman.
An avid reader, a student of history and about anything else that was intellectually stimulating, he could carry on an educated conversation with anyone about anything. My father aspired to greatness and could recognize genuine quality better than anyone I have ever known. He could pick out a great dog as a puppy, a great horse as a foal, a great trainer as an amateur and a great friend from day one. He always told me that the most important decision I would make in life was who I decided to marry. Thank God I listened clearly to those words as my marriage has brought me eternal happiness.
One summer my father took off from work when I was home from college and he spent the summer with me playing with the horses. He said to me, “we had such a great summer together. I want you to remember it forever,” so he bought me a yearling. We ultimately bred that horse to a stallion he had, and the resulting foal robbed him of 5 languages, the strength in his right side and the ability to speak normally. That didn’t hurt John Bell, it devastated everyone but John Bell himself. John Bell is a hero.
Once again given no chance to live, he fought on and showed everyone from the Burke Rehabilitation Facility in White Plains to the Saratoga Springs Nursing Home how, with a strong will, a love of life and an indomitable spirit, anything is possible, even the impossible.
After a fall at the Mews Assisted Living Facility in Greenwich, we brought him up to the Saratoga Springs Nursing Home. It was a wonderful time having him in my backyard, being able to be inspired by him on a regular basis. We went to the races. I used to tease him about picking the winners, because he would insist on doing everything himself. He would walk up to the window and ask the teller for the 2-3-4-5-6...6, and would end up with 6 tickets, invariably one of which was a winner. Too bad he didn't learn that strategy years ago, because he was always a chalk player and the chalk wins only 1/3 of the time paying 20 cents on the dollar.
When he was diagnosed with a kidney tumor, he was already in failing health. He had my daughter Ashleigh write the lyrics to “Smile Though Your Heart is Aching” which he informed us was written by Charlie Chaplin, a fact I didn’t know. He put the lyrics under his hat to remind himself what song he needed to sing from that point forward. Removal of the kidney would have been curative if he were able to withstand the surgery. I persisted to see if I could get that to happen, figuring that if he died on the table, it would be a blessing in disguise. How wrong was I? I would have never learned the lesson that he taught me, my wife and children and the caregivers in the hospital which is the lesson they preach every Sunday in this church which is the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human condition. At a time when most men are at their weakest, John Hamilton Bell was at his strongest. He never listened to the luring demons of weakness. He always heard the battle charge and lived with the 3 word motto, “Up, up, up.”
Authoring the script of the final days of his life, my father refused all medication so as to be of a clear mind to set an example to his boys that with will power and beliefs that you can do it, you can. His family enjoyed John’s 87th birthday on April 21st and were blessed to enjoy a final Kentucky Derby, where with just a single bet, he selected the winner because he bet the chalk. Though debilitated beyond belief, having lost 60lbs and being ravaged by disease, he insisted that when the family came up, he get shaved and dappered up one last time. Though he had been unable to hold his head up for weeks due to fracture and fusion of the bones in his neck, he found the inner fortitude to show everyone a great and memorable time. Sean and I stood vigil the night before he died and honestly, like little boys, we had difficulty watching him pass before our eyes, and we punked out and went home to catch a few hours of sleep. He said it was alright, although I’m fearful he was once again being selfless. We got a call in the early hours of May 8th from the hospital, where Nancy, his nurse, said that 'your father is dying.' She then said to my dad, “Lance and Sean are on the phone and are on their way over,” to which he responded, “please put my hat on.” The last word out of his mouth was “Marvelous.”
The lesson of this life is to know the value of life itself. To believe that anything is possible. To know that you must think about the other guy before yourself, and you must believe you are going to heaven and live your life on a path that will lead you there. My father said that during the war he was not afraid of dying, because he believed he would go to heaven. I asked him a few weeks ago if he still held that belief, and he acknowledged that he did. To you John Bell, and to all of you here in this magnificent cathedral, St. Patrick’s, where he took my mother’s hand in marriage, I say to you, “Up, up, up.”
- Lance G. Bell