Here’s my favorite Joe Bell story: As editor of the Pilot in the ‘90s, I arranged for Joe, our star columnist, to hit some tennis balls with Lindsay Davenport, an up-and-coming Newport Beach pro who would later earn the No. 1 ranking on the women’s tour and win an Olympic gold medal.
Joe, at the time an avid tennis player in his early 70s, badly wanted to test his skills against one of the best female players in the world. As I recall, after some rallying, Bell asked if he could try to return one of her booming serves.
“I thought I might have had a chance,” Joe told me afterward, “until I started sweating so much that I short circuited my damn hearing aids.”
That’s Joe — curious, competitive and never losing his sense of humor. I probably don’t have to note this, but he wrote a hell of a column about the experience.
Joe wrote scores of great pieces. Like Ted Williams with a baseball bat, if you put a keyboard in front of Joe, chances were he’d hit the column out of the park. Joe was — and still is — a natural.
My friendship with Joe goes back nearly 30 years when I became editor of the New University, UC Irvine’s student newspaper. At the time, we were a ragtag bunch of wannabe journalists dying to learn how to report and write the news. The one problem? The university offered no newspaper journalism classes.
So we looked under the cushions of the New University’s meager budget and found enough coins to pay Joe — a nationally renowned journalist who taught magazine writing at UCI — to instruct us on how to be real reporters.
He took it as seriously as a Marine drill sergeant training a class of new recruits. And at times, he was just about as subtle.
For Joe, journalism was a noble profession, the only one in America important enough to be mentioned in the Bill of Rights. And he seemed to take personal offense at anyone — even a college student — who dirtied the Fourth Estate through sloppy reporting, flabby writing or careless errors.
Ted Newland, UCI’s legendary water polo coach, once told me that his biggest frustration was how long it took for his players to learn.
“If I could hook electrodes to their [private parts] and shock them each time they make a mistake, we’d shorten the learning curve quite a bit,” he said, smiling in amusement.
For me and other students — including current Orange County Register star reporter Greg Hardesty —Bell’s sometimes withering critiques on how we stained the good name of journalism served as our electrodes.
We learned fast — for instance, “If your mother tells you she loves you, find some other sources to confirm it!” — and became a mighty little student newspaper, much to the dismay of campus power brokers — faculty and students — who weren’t used to having a public watchdog detail their misdeeds and often petty politics.
I fell in love with journalism that year, and I have Joe to thank (and sometimes to blame, given the bumpy ride in recent years). He was my one and only formal teacher.
We kept in loose touch over the next decade, and when I became editor of the Pilot, I knew a regular column from Joe Bell would help revive the then-floundering newspaper. He was an excellent reporter and writer, he had a lifetime of rich experiences upon which to draw, and I knew his unbending liberalism would spark endless controversies.
To my delight, he accepted the offer, and his columns immediately became must-reads for Pilot readers. My guess would be that most readers didn’t know how fortunate the community was to have a journalist of Joe’s caliber writing for the local paper.
Though he didn’t know it, I continued to learn from Joe.
He turned in copy that was tight, sparkling clean and on time. He sat down with folks he disagreed with to argue civilly and in person. And he had an endless curiosity — about the news, about people, about dogs, and, most admirably, about himself.
He had the humility to frankly reflect on his actions and life, looking for ways to better himself. It’s why he decided, at age 89, to retire his column at the Pilot and pursue other writing ventures that he felt would give him more satisfaction. He believes in evolution.
His decision to stop his Pilot columns surprised many, including myself. And it reminded me of something I heard last week at my Aunt Sadorous’ memorial service.
I don’t think my aunt, a Christian Scientist, had ever been to a doctor. Even in her 80s, she played tennis, traveled the world and swam around the Seal Beach pier everyday.
But in November, severe stomach pains finally forced her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Weeks later, she died.
At her memorial, an old friend stood and admitted to the packed crowd that she hadn’t been in touch enough with Sadorous in recent years. Through tear-filled eyes, she explained she had taken for granted that Sadorous — who seemed ageless — would always be around. And, in honor of Sadorous, she vowed to be a better friend to all.
I felt the same way about Joe’s Pilot column. Somewhere in my head, I believed it would be around forever. I would read it each week and then go on with my day. I never dropped him a note, I never picked up the phone, and I think we’ve had one meal together in the past 10 years.
And that’s no way to treat your career mentor.
Thank god we only lost Joe’s column and not the man himself.
So Joe, how about breakfast next week at Coco’s on Bristol?
WILLIAM LOBDELL, a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist, is a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is email@example.com.