Joe Bell: 'insatiably curious ... a great friend'

As a devoted newspaper man, Joseph Bell spent his life sharing stories.

After two hours and more than a dozen speeches during Bell's memorial Tuesday night, it became clear that Bell's personality and humor touched just as many people as his widely published writing.

Bell, a longtime Newport Beach resident known for his extensive publishing record as a freelance writer, journalism educator, author and Daily Pilot columnist, died on Thanksgiving 2013, members of his family said. He was 92.

Bell died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, which had been progressing rapidly during the last eight months of his life, eventually forcing him into hospice care in early August.

"Now Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate Joe because it was the day he chose to leave us gracefully," said his wife, Sherry Angel.

The late journalist left two requests. The first was a funeral in his hometown of Decatur, Ind., which the family hosted in December. The second was a memorial service in Orange County where his former colleagues, friends and family could celebrate his life.

At the University Club at UC Irvine, speakers shared remembrances of the man who loved music, writing, baseball, playing cards, hot dogs and a good martini.

For more than 40 years, Bell wrote for newspapers and magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's, Look, Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping, McCall's, Family Circle, Saturday Review, the New York Times, the National Observer, Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times.

Bell spent the last 10 years of his career writing "The Bell Curve," a weekly column for the Daily Pilot in which he wrote from a liberal perspective in a conservative-leaning coverage area.

During the memorial, Angel read excerpts from Bell's numerous columns, some of which date back more than 30 years ago.

After reading part of a column written for the Daily Pilot in 2002, Angel paused, her eyes looking up to meet the crowd of Bell's admirers.

"When I'm reading his work, it brings him back in a flash like he's sitting right next to me," she said.

Erik Patterson, Bell's stepson, fondly recalled his first encounter with his mother's suitor when he was 4 years old.

"My mom asked me what I thought of him, and I said I wanted to throw him in the trash," he said with a smile. "Needless to say, our relationship blossomed a bit more after that. He became a really good dad to me."

The crowd laughed as Patterson explained the humorous pitfalls of growing up with a journalist as a stepfather.

"During carpool he would quiz us in journalist mode about how we were living our lives," he said. "Every time someone came over, they would ask what his problem was."

Patt Bell, Joe's daughter, spoke with pride as she described her father's decision to leave a stable job in 1954 to become a writer.

"To do that in 1954 was an amazing leap of faith," she said. "The first lesson I learned from him was to take chances."

Nearly everyone who spoke about Bell on Tuesday, including longtime friend and former student Duncan Strauss, referenced the man's ability to listen and care about those around him.

"He was insatiably curious about you, and he was a great listener," he said. "Some of what made him a great journalist made him a great friend as well."

Bell was married to the late Janet Hartman of Fort Wayne for 40 years. They had three children before divorcing. Besides his widow and stepson, he is survived by his three children with Janet, David Bell, Patricia Bell and Debby Bell; three grandchildren, Trevor Simpson, Trent Simpson and Elizabeth Bell; and one great-grandchild, Nayla Simpson.

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