Tribute to Paul Bell, JD ’55
September 6, 1926 - January 6, 2011
My Dad ... My Teacher of Life … My Mentor in Business ... My Closet Friend ... Steelville's Legendary Attorney … He was a Cow's Man.
My Dad was larger than life, yet a very simple man. He was born in 1926 in the Golden Era, but was only 3 years old when the Crash came on Wall Street—a Depression Baby so to speak. I can remember him telling me the story that “if they got a piece of lard for dinner,” that was a big deal. Picking walnuts all day for 5 cents was a way of life. Cutting brush from the fields on the family 1840s homestead was a normal day. Living in a one-room log cabin was just a fact.
My Dad always believed in education. He would walk three miles in the woods to go to a one-room schoolhouse then walk right back home to gather the cows from the range before dinner. At the age of 13, he jumped a train to the School of the Ozarks, which was a high school then. He worked and paid his way through high school, but he never finished. World War II came along, and he was off to the Pacific. Back from War, he was off to Law School at Washington U. in St. Louis. He never finished high school or went to college.
While at law school, he was playing golf in Forest Park, he could hear an organ playing; he so loved music. (His love of music is why Wildwood has music.) But he followed the sounds of the organ. They were coming from a church across Skinker. There he found my mother. What a love story.
He came to Steelville in 1955 to start practicing law the old-fashioned way. He earned it. As I was a child, he had become the Judge—cigar smoking, overall wearing, martini drinking judge. He so loved the people of our little town. He was such a fair man. I never in all my life ever heard him raise his voice. I do remember one time one of my brothers just accidentally got locked up in a jail cell for a while (not sure how that happened).
My job after school was to walk down the railroad tracks to his office and get my duties for the afternoon, but I always got a quarter for that candy bar. He had a saying, "Work is love made visible." He really loved us. He taught us boys that working 10-12 hours a day was much better than just 8, and we did, and we all honor the fact that we still do.
He later retired to a law practice—a cigar smoking, overall wearing, martini drinking, small town attorney. Everyone loved my dad, and he loved, so loved everyone else. “Just pay me when you can.” Many never could, but that was okay with Dad. If someone poor came into his office and needed a dime, he would give them five bucks. If someone needed a place to live, he would let them move upstairs in his office building until they got on their feet.
He so loved this community. He was a driving force in getting things done. What would our little town be without him? Wildwood. We lived right across the road. I can still remember the day, a Sunday. (We would all gather for dinner; he would barbecue pork steaks.) But just he and I were out there. I said, "Ben really wants to sell it." He just looked over at me and said, "The Kids in this town need a place they can learn to work. It will help mold them. Wildwood could use maybe 10-15 a summer." He gathered us all up and over dinner, it was done.
That was 19 years ago now. Those kids have become doctors, lawyers, teachers. They will all tell you of their time with Dad.
He always came over, smoked his cigars and read the paper on Sundays, but always wanted to know just what they were doing. He cared that much. His last trip to Wildwood, a fundraiser to help the artists of Steelville get on their feet, that's just how he was. He cared that much.
My Dad on his final day went to work at 84. He helped as many people as he could that day, smoked his cigar in his office, came home, fixed a Martini, finished it, set the glass down, and then went to Heaven with a smile.
A true legend and many tears later a man I so loved.
On the day of his funeral (it snowed the night before), there was a blanket of snow over the trails. But Libby and I went for an early morning hike in the woods. I so needed to feel the warmth of the trees. My heart hurt so much. I needed the freshness of the air to revive my soul. The tears kept coming. Libby and I went over to Lover’s Point on the edge of the cliff behind Wildwood. We just stood there. It was cloudy, dark. Then I heard her, the screech of my eagle. She came flying down the river, then up the bluff, then glided right over me. As if she knew I was there. As if she was my dad telling me everything will be okay.
And then a peace came over me. I knew my dad is still alive … in me.