Nonprofit/PSA | 5/6/2011 SCV Man of the Year: Harry Bell
Harry Allen Bell was born July 2, 1923, five years following the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” In the United States, the 1920s were a decade of extremes: a new prosperity had swept into some parts of the country prompting novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald to write about America’s growing fascination with flappers, jazz, fancy cars, and airplane barnstorming. On the darker side, the Harding presidency was rocked by scandal when shady land dealings were exposed in California’s Teapot Dome Scheme; discrimination had risen to a high pitch in Oklahoma prompting the governor to declare war on the terrorist activities carried out by the Ku Klux Klan; and the politically astute were becoming alarmed about the growing unrest in Germany and the rise of a fanatical National Socialist Party leader named Adolf Hitler.©2011 SCVTV
These events were a world away from the small Michigan farm that was tended by Harry’s parents, Harry O. and Thelma Bell. Harry and his sister Ruth, who was born a few years later, not only helped out on their parents’ land, but their grandparents’ as well. In a vivid contrast to the bright, flashing lights of America’s big cities, one of Harry’s chores was to keep the oil lamps lit on his grandparents’ farm because they had no electricity.
Harry graduated from high school on June 16, 1938. Besides the typical teenage preoccupation with girls and all things mechanical, Harry developed a love of airplanes that would dramatically shape his future. He enrolled in flying school and just naturally assumed that his country would use his skills when he joined the Army Air Corps right after Pearl Harbor was bombed. His bubble was burst when halfway through pilot training, the Army began pulling men out randomly to engage in active combat.
Harry became an engineer on B-24 bombers, completing 50 missions in Europe before being released stateside. On those missions Harry. learned literally to “act on the fly.” One minute he could be top turret gunner, the next he was rushing to patch up enemy fighter and flak damage, and the next, tending to wounded crew members. Staying alive was a big part of every mission.
Perhaps nothing can illustrate more clearly the actions of “Our Country’s Greatest Generation” than Harry’s own reminiscing in a World War II publication:
“Our bomb group headquarters was in an old winery in Cerignola, Italy, where we could watch girls stomp grapes as we were briefed for our missions. We flew our first two missions individually with a seasoned crew. Then we got an old dog of a plane, an olive-drab aircraft. Now the fun began. Up early and down to the Bomb Group headquarters for our briefing as we watched the Italian girls stomp the grapes. I thought about security and wondered if the girls could pass on anything to the enemy.
“From briefing to breakfast, then to a bin where we kept our sheepskins, our parachutes and our flak suits. And then on to our B-24. Pre-flight, takeoff, form up, and climb to 40 below zero, usually about 23,000 feet. We would level off at the assigned altitude following our lead plane. Now it becomes real fun! Oxygen mask on, icicles on your chin, open gun-port windows, nice 140 mph breeze, throat mike, and COLD!”
Harry returned from the war with seven battle stars and seven air medals. Of the 1,200 airmen in his 757 Air Squadron, only six hundred made it home.
Back on U.S. soil, it was time to put his war experiences behind him. A young woman who caught his eye at a Michigan dance helped him do that when she consented to be his wife several months later. Harry and Barbara Bell were married on Nov. 17, 1945. The young couple set up housekeeping while Harry completed his studies at Central Michigan College, graduating as a civil engineer.
According to Harry, his first “real” job was in a six-man engineering department for the Los Angeles Transit Lines. That led to a 15-year job working as an associate civil engineer with the office of the Los Angeles County Engineer. Harry opened the County Engineering Office in Lancaster and sat on the County Planning Commission as an advisor on grading and drainage.
Barbara and Harry moved to Lancaster where daughter Janet was born in 1955 and son Ken in 1958. Between business and family obligations, Harry kept his love of flying alive purchasing his own private plane to make annual trips back to his Michigan homestead. Through his association with the Los Angeles Shriners, Harry would also use his plane to fly Third World children suffering from severe injuries and birth defects to Children’s Hospital.
In the early ’60s, another civil engineer applying for a grading permit walked into Harry’s office. The two began talking business, but soon found a personal connection that led to a life-long friendship. Ed Bolden, SCV’s 1970 Man of the Year, not only became a friend, but a partner as well, in real estate and engineering businesses.
Harry and Barbara moved their family to Saugus in 1965 and Harry immediately became involved in a myriad of organizations that helped shape our valley into the thriving community it is today. A few of his contributions to the development of the SCV include being one of five local realtors who founded the SCV Real Estate Board, serving on the formation committee of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, and lobbying to make Castaic Lake a public rather than a private entity.
Harry served as president of the Real Estate Board twice and was named a Realtor of the Year two times. In addition to being a Shriner, he is also a Mason 32nd Degree, a founding member of the local Elks Lodge, and an active member of the SCV Rotary Club for 48 years. Rotary International’s annual conventions gave him and Barbara a chance to visit other countries and meet foreign speaking Rotarians who were also dedicated to the Rotary motto “Service Above Self.” One of Harry’s proudest moments as a Rotarian was welcoming his daughter Janet into his home Rotary Club while his best friend (and her god father) officiated at the induction ceremony.
Harry has also raised money for charitable causes through his love of music. For 25 years, he has performed in local Barbershop Quartets, not only for charity and his own pleasure, but to the delight of the seniors who dine at our local Senior Center. He also assumes the job of song leader at the weekly Rotary meetings.
As a commercial pilot with instrument rating and a seaplane rating, Harry has served as a flight instructor in between his humanitarian missions. Over the years, Harry has owned a number of planes ranging from his beloved Mooney to his current Sting Sport aircraft. In view of the downsizing trend in his planes, friends were shocked to see him recently riding around town in this form of transportation. Not to worry, Harry is not ready to give up his plane yet! His days of flying humanitarian missions to Mexico may be over, but he still keeps his hand in charitable works through contributions to service organizations such as the Rotary Club, Elks, and Shriners. And he’s pleased that he can still fit into his World War II uniform which he wears proudly at Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies.
The Man and Woman of the Year Committee is proud to welcome Harry Bell for his lifetime of service, not only to his community but his country as well.