The Time Traveler keeps bumping into an old friend as he takes his trips back to yesteryear, across the intergalactic galaxy of human history and through the tunnel of time.
I recall an old Twilight Zone episode about a familiar hitchhiker who keeps turning up along the roadway. He is a man of slight stature who wears a fedora, cocked nonchalantly to one side, and sports a faint smile.
I never knew the late J.B. Bell personally, as he died three months shy of my arrival in DeSoto County nearly 20 years ago.
But in the pages of his extremely well-written histories of DeSoto County and the many photographs he took of our community, I feel as though I have gotten to know this personable, friendly soul who shares my great love for DeSoto County and her people.
J. B. Bell, or Joshua Bowles Bell, Jr. was born on July 25, 1913 and died on Jan. 18, 2001.
In a story that was written by my good friend and former colleague Rino Dolbi with this newspaper, others summed up their feelings about Bell and the titan he would prove to be in chronicling much of our county’s rich history.
Thanks to J.B. Bell, the DeSoto County Courthouse received the famous murals painted by artist and muralist Alonzo Newton Wells from Goldsmith’s Department Store in Memphis. Thanks to J.B. Bell and Herbert McIngvale, the DeSoto County seat received its first television sets.
Along with preserving the past, it seems Bell also had an eye on the future.
“He was very important as far as the history of the county is concerned,” said the late Annie Ruth Brown, longtime president of the Historic DeSoto Foundation, in that 1999 newspaper story. “He contributed more to the good of this county than anyone else I know.”
During his lifetime, Bell authored 13 books, mainly about the genealogy and historical happenings of DeSoto County. In 1986, he wrote “Hernando Historic Windows,” a sesquicentennial history of the county, and continued to record and share as much of the county’s history to all who would listen up until his death in 2001 at age 87.
Bell, who would marry the former Ramelle Eason, moved to DeSoto County in 1943. Bell was employed in the hardware business for many years, serve a stint as executive director of the Memphis Homebuilders Association, former president of the DeSoto County Planning and Development Commission, and served as mayor of the DeSoto County seat from 1947 to 1965.
Bell could often be found at Coleman’s Barbecue, “swapping lies” and spinning great old stories or sipping coffee at Leigh’s Drugstore.
Local developer and preservationist Jim Seay called Bell a “walking encyclopedia” of history and knowledge.
His piercing blue eyes and quick wit endeared J.B. Bell to many. Sometimes, he made people mad with his views, especially when it came to change, but Bell always shrugged it off.
“Change means you’re ready to do something different,” Bell said. “And to do something different sometimes upsets people. I doubt I was always right. But if you are what you are, you are what you are.”
Bell was authentic. What you saw was what you got. Bell was a straight-talking, affable man of folksy, common sense but someone who also possessed a scholar’s wit and wisdom and inhabited a great love for history.
Throughout DeSoto County’s award-winning museum, I hear echoes of J.B. Bell’s footsteps. I half expect to rub shoulders with him as I pull one of his many historical volumes off the bookshelf.
People like J.B. Bell enrich our lives and give us something that is extremely valuable. They give us perspective. They give us the back story of what went before us. They help us find out where we are going.
Bell never stopped learning and neither should we. He went back to school at age 52 and received his degree from Ole Miss. The lessons of history that Bell still teaches us today through his books, stories and writings, will continue for a lifetime.
Thankfully for us, the story never ends.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.