Memorial services are often somber.
But not for the people who loved former Daily Pilot columnist Joe Bell.
They celebrated his life Tuesday night at UC Irvine, where he taught journalism. They had — and I know this sounds strange given the context of the event — fun.
Fun talking about the 92 years Joe filled with World War II service, driveway basketball games, articles in the Saturday Evening Post, frustrations with Angels baseball (2002 excepted), afternoons of martinis and popcorn, the hosting of exchange students and political discussions around the dinner table.
Fun playing jazz standards on the piano and closing down the house by holding hands and singing “Take Me out to the Ballgame” in the middle of January.
Fun rereading Joe’s words aloud.
Fun mingling late into a weeknight, talking about Joe, newspapers, life.
The memorial was an event. Even people who had never met Joe, who knew him only through his published columns, were there. A couple said they wrote him about his work, and he wrote back. After that they considered him a friend, and they came to the service to see him off.
I was lucky enough to be among those asked by Joe’s wife, Sherry Angel, to speak. I followed and preceded a slate of articulate, gifted and loving speakers whose stories about Joe burned as warmly as the fireplace crackling behind the podium.
I came into Joe’s life toward the end — when I became editor of the Daily Pilot four years ago and, by default, the editor of some of his last columns.
As I told Joe’s friends and family, if I were paid by the hour, I’d give back the minutes I spent editing the Bell Curve each week because it wasn’t work at all. It was leisure time.
Joe knew that for a writer less is more. The man knew how to make a reasoned and fair argument in a small amount of space. Just when you wanted to read a little more, it was over — until the next week.
I think I did OK by Joe when I edited him. He never bit my head off for changing his copy. And if you knew Joe from inside the walls of a newspaper, he bit off a few heads.
That’s right. It wasn’t just politicians who received a piece of his mind. Tony Dodero, the former longtime Pilot editor, reminded me that in his day more than a few twentysomething copy editors were on the business side of Joe’s angry phone calls about changed copy.
My guess (hope) is that those copy editors didn’t mind much. Here’s why: Joe was so loved that former students and other journalists at the memorial told tales of how great it was to be criticized by Joe because they learned so much from his critiques.
That’s the sign of a great teacher — someone you love more for telling you what you did wrong than telling you what you did right. Sure, Joe encouraged and inspired his students, but he did something far more important — made them better writers.
Joe, in a word, was authentic. And in my mind, people respond to and respect that quality in a person more than any other. You can be sincere and have friends. You can be mean and have friends.
But if you’re authentic, if you’re true to yourself and your voice, you’ll fill a big room with friends (some you’ve never met) after you die.
And Joe did just that.
JOHN CANALIS is the editor for the Daily Pilot, Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot and Huntington Beach Independent. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and firstname.lastname@example.org.