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 Texas : Features : Columns : The Thirties in Texas
Endangered Stories
Excerpted from "I Was a Teen in the 1930s and Some More Stuff"

MISS BELL

by the Late Harold Bell of Decatur
Editor’s Note: Harold Bell called me out of the blue one day back in 1999 to mention a collection of stories he had written about his younger years growing up in Decatur, Texas. Something we had published (I believe it was praise for another Decatur author) had caught his eye and he was making himself known. Since he didn’t use a computer, we used the phone. Whenever I heard Mr. Bell’s gruff baritone on the answering machine – I picked up immediately and we took up where our last call had ended. He seemed to tire easily, but I was always able to remind him where he had left off. In fact several times, I’d spend hours thinking “how is this one going to end?” Work caused me to turn down repeated invitations to visit him at his home. When I finally found time to visit him at his home in Haltom City, he was alone with a private duty nurse. He jumped up and took me to Decatur –ordering the reluctant nurse to get the car. We drove to Decatur, the scene of so many of his stories. He was surprisingly animated as he pointed out this and that – events I remembered from his self-published book. After walking around the square we went to the mayor’s office –right at closing time. There was the mayor himself – locking the door to city hall. But recognizing Harold’s presence, the mayor cordially invited us into his office. Mr. Bell was Decatur to me and I was a little bothered by the fact that the mayor didn’t know him by name. But as Mr. Bell might have said: “That man didn’t look at his watch once.” It was later that evening when I heard the nurse on the phone explaining his absence to other family members. “I couldn’t believe his energy, she exclaimed – he walked all over the town square!” It was then I learned that he was dying – and had been chair-bound for some time. We had eaten at a restaurant in Decatur and Mr. Bell addressed the waitress with the never-before heard line: “Do you remember me? The last time I was here, I was dying.” I thought at the time that it was some sort of inside joke – known to them.

Mr. Bell had always wanted to be a writer – but he and his wife Lou had moved to NYC after marrying in the last days of WWII and he dove into his career at Coca-Cola while his wife, a librarian, realized her dream of working at the New York Public Library (the one with the lions). After his death, I mentioned the publication of his stories with family members – a promise I had made to Harold. The response was a “let’s wait and see” one, but as years pass, and I reread his delightful, insightful stories, I have decided to publish some of them to fulfill my promise. Texas needs Harold Bell’s stories now more than ever. - Ed

Her name was Miss Bell Ford.

My guess is that half the people in town didn’t know her last name. She was just “Miss Bell.”

One Christmas, a Houston friend of Miss Bell sent an envelope simply addressed with a drawing of a bell and a Model T Ford. All the post office employees knew Miss Bell well, so she received her letter without delay.

Nobody in the world, dead or alive, knew how long Miss Bell taught the fourth grade in and around Decatur, Texas. Some say she started teaching at age fifteen. If that’s true, then she taught close to sixty years.

Miss Bell never married. In those days if a woman teacher wasn't married by the time she was twenty-eight, then people referred to her as a “schoolmarm” or an “old-maid school teacher.” There was no disrespect intended.

It was very prestigious for a child to be in Miss Bell’s fourth grade class. Some parents politicled the best they knew how to get their child there. They knew that she would teach them well, and there would be absolutely no discipline problems. She and my mother were in the same Sunday School class, so I was fortunate to become one of her students. However, I probably didn’t feel so lucky at the time because Miss Bell was pretty strict with me. I’m sure I was a very timid child and not very aggressive, or a good student.

It seemed like nearly every day Miss Bell would turn to me and say, “Harold, you’re never going to amount to anything because you don’t show any gumption.” The next time she would say, “Harold, you’re never going to amount to a hill of beans because you don’t have any gumption.” I finally looked up the word “gumption” in the dictionary and found that it’s a slang word meaning “initiative” or “spunk.” Whatever it was, I knew I didn’t have any. This bothered me for many years.

Miss Bell had her own technique to make her students behave. I never saw her give a child a spanking or even hit them on the wrist with a ruler. If a child was unruly, she would simply report it to his or her parents – not the school principal. If she did report it to a parent, that child was in a heap of trouble.

If there was a need, she would talk to the parents in the grocery store or meet them on the square on a Saturday afternoon – maybe even see them in church on Sunday.

Well, a lot of time went by, and Miss Bell kept teaching the fourth grade, and I didn’t see much of her until I was in my late twenties.

When I was visiting friends in Decatur on my vacation from New York City, I needed to mail a letter. I went to the post office to buy a stamp, and Miss Bell was at the stamp window. I noticed that she had just bought one stamp. After making her purchase, she turned around, and we greeted each other. It was great to see her.

Decatur TX - Post Office stamp window
"Miss Bell was at the stamp window."
Photo courtesy Mike Price, August 2009
I noted the way she was dressed and the fact that she only bought one stamp and wondered if her teacher’s retirement was as good as I would have hoped.

I stepped up to the stamp window and bought a book of stamps and handed them to Miss Bell. You would’ve thought I had bought her a new Cadillac. She went through the lobby of the old post office showing everybody her supply of stamps and saying, “Look, Harold bought me a whole book of stamps! Wasn’t that nice?”

Then she stepped up to the stamp window and called back to an old classmate of mine working in the post office and shouted: “Look here Thurman, Harold bought me a whole book of stamps!”

Miss Bell and I continued our visit for a few more minutes in the post office lobby. I offered to drive her home, but she told me she had some shopping to do on the town square a block away. I told her my car was parked there, so we proceeded together.

As we walked down the post office steps, she took my arm, and we continued to talk.
Decatur TX Post Office
"As we walked down the post office steps, she took my arm, and we continued to talk." Photo courtesy Mike Price, August 2009
About this time I was felling a little pleased with myself for what I had accomplished since I had left Miss Bell’s fourth grade. I quickly thought that here was my chance to put myself in a good light with her and maybe even make her a little proud of me.

As we walked the long block, I told her that I had gone to school over in Denton for two years and then went down to Austin to the University for a year and a half. Then I told her after Pearl Harbor, I went straight into the Armed Forces – just as dozens of her former students had done.

Miss Bell didn’t interrupt, so I kept on talking because I was thinking, “Here’s my chance to redeem myself in her eyes.”

I told her that while I was a student in Denton, I had met a nice, talented girl, Lou Mitchell, and we were married about a year before the end of the war.

Lou was a librarian at Hillcreat High School in Dallas when we wed. My ambition was to go to New York City to continue my education. This was great for Lou because she had dreamed that someday she could work at the New York City Library.

I told Miss Bell that I had received my bachelor’s degree from Pace University, and how I was going to night classes two evenings a week at New York University and one evening at Columbia University – both short distances on the subway from our apartment in Greenich Village. By that time Lou had also realized her dream. Shortly after arriving in New York, she became a librarian for the New York Public Library where she often associated with famous literary people. Some people she associated with were the ones who had written the textbooks she had studied in college. She thought this was great.

Miss Bell kept listening, so I kept talking.

I told her how I now worked for the Coca-Cola Company and had an office on Madison Avenue. Mr. James A. Farley* was president of the company’s export division, and his office was just one floor above mine. Although I didn’t report to him, we often rode the same elevator.

When I told this to Miss Bell, she got a look of amazement on her face because 99 percent of the people in town were Democrats, and they all loved Mr. Farley. She could hardly believe that I saw him almost every day.
Decatur TX Post Office Corner Stone
"... and they all loved Mr. Farley."
Photo courtesy Mike Price, August 2009

By this time, we had reached my car, and Miss Bell gave me an affectionate pat on the arm, as only a woman can do. She then said, “Harold, going all the way back to the fourth grade, I knew you would be a fine success because you always had so much gumption.”

© Harold Bell

Published in TE September 1, 2009

* Mr. Farley was Postmaster General the entire length of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s terms in office. Next to President Roosevelt, Mr. Farley was the most famous person in the United States. He had the reputation of being able to recall the name of everyone he had ever met, and that included people from around the world.

More excerpts from
"I Was a Teen in the 1930s and Some More Stuff"
by Harold Bell
  • Miss Bell
    Nobody in the world, dead or alive, knew how long Miss Bell taught the fourth grade in and around Decatur, Texas...
  • The Sheriff
    "You never know when somebody says something, or does something, that it may have a big effect on you the rest of your life."
  • The Tight-Wire Walker
    "She's very daring. They put her wire up to the very tiptop of the tent thirty-five feet above the ground, and she does exciting maneuvers without using a net."
  • My Date with Mary
    Mary was the cause of the most exciting week of my young life.
  • Decatur post office mural
    The Decatur post office mural
    Photo courtesy Mike Price, August 2009
     
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