Longtime Pilot columnist Joseph Bell retires

Joseph Bell pets his dog, Gia, in his home office, where he did much of his work as a freelance writer and columnist for the Daily Pilot.
(KENT TREPTOW, Daily Pilot)

NEWPORT BEACH — After nearly 20 years as a mainstay of the Daily Pilot and a long career as a freelance writer and journalism educator, columnist Joseph N. Bell is retiring.

Thursday’s “The Bell Curve” column will be his last.

“When a time for change comes, you act on it,” Bell, 89, said in an interview Wednesday at his Santa Ana Heights home office. “You don’t drag it out.”

During his years at the Pilot, Bell, who will turn 90 on the Fourth of July, wrote from a liberal perspective in one of the most conservative areas in the country.

“He was never afraid to write what he felt,” said William Lobdell, the Pilot’s former editor and current columnist. “He was a liberal Democrat writing in Republican territory, and he never flinched.”

From conservative politicians to the John Wayne Airport settlement agreement, Bell followed Newport issues closely. He also found plenty of fodder in Costa Mesa.

Bell harped on conservative Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece for her support of the theory of intelligent design and on former Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration.

“He’s probably as liberal as I am conservative,” Leece said. “Although we disagree, I always enjoyed reading his column.”

Besides politicians, Bell sometimes wrote about his dogs — Coco, who died in 2006, and Gia, a Schnauzer mix who keeps him company today.

The title of one of his columns, “A new dog for an old softie,” belies Bell’s sharp wit and strong attitude honed as a Navy pilot during World War II.

“He was very tough, and very inspiring,” said Lobdell, who credits Bell with sparking his journalism career when he took his class at UC Irvine. “He took journalism very seriously and he wanted everybody else to as well.”

Bell’s column sometimes took a personal turn, like when he covered the death of a friend and his wife — the two pieces he said are his favorites.

“They grabbed me in the gut,” he said.

His other stories were light, often drawing from his passion for baseball. Bell is a diehard Angel fan. One 2003 column on then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger was titled “Take me out to the recall.”

“You can find the humorous in almost everything you handle, except death,” said Bell, who has a copy of Jon Stewart’s book “America (The Book)” on his coffee table. “Humor can be used to enrich, to bring a subject back to someplace that is comprehensible to everybody.”

He even tried to find the humor in a story on drug growers in Mexico, he said. That piece was for a magazine published by the American Medical Assn. in 1967, long before the current drug war. As a contributor for Good Housekeeping, he interviewed the Hearst family (who also owned the magazine) when their daughter Patty was thought killed.

Bell wrote cover stories for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s.

He converted a two-part magazine series into a book “Seven into Space,” on the Mercury Astronauts. His next book effort would draw from his years of columns, he said: “I have so much to choose from.”

His home in Orange County became one of his favorite and most lucrative subjects. Bell moved to Corona del Mar in 1959 from Illinois. At that time, Orange County’s kooky conservatism was a novelty for much of the rest of the U.S., he said.

“I made my living out of Orange County for years,” he said, calling Orange County the product of “tilting the country and all the crazies come to the bottom.”

Bell wrote a story called “America’s kinkiest county” for LOOK Magazine in 1969.

In the early 1990s, as editor of the Daily Pilot, Lobdell asked Bell to write a column for the paper. He had contributed to the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times before that, and wrote about Hollywood during the 1970s for The Times.

A reader submitted the name “Bell Curve” in a contest. They ran with it.

Bell has been one of the most popular columnists in the Pilot, said John Canalis, the paper’s current editor.

“One of the best ways to judge the impact a columnist has on the community is on days when he is not published,” Canalis said.

On one Thursday when the Pilot failed to mention that Bell had the day off, angry and concerned readers peppered the newspaper’s editors with calls and e-mails mainly inquiring about Bell’s welfare.

“Joe is leaving the paper and taking one of Newport-Mesa’s most valuable journalistic voices with him,” Canalis said.

Whatever he chooses to do with his time, Bell said he will be satisfied. Freelancers, by nature, are used to moving from place to place and from subject to subject.

“I didn’t need a job to feel I was safe,” he said. “I didn’t need a place to land. The whole world is a place to land.”