Friday, January 11, 2019

Before the memory fades: Edith Helen Bell, fiercely dedicated servant of church, youth and community

By Walter Lunt

She’s been described as a ‘force of nature,’ a lady with boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm while in service to the people and the institutions of her much beloved town of Windham.

The whirlwind that was Edith H. (Burgess) Bell became stilled with her passing in Williamsburg, VA on Dec. 22, 2018 at the age of 92. She was an educator, historian, musician, outdoorswoman, a community leader and, as will be explained, a ‘straight shooter.’ The projects and institutions with which she was involved touched nearly every family in town from the 1950s through 1990.

Edith Bell holding Tyler Andrew Clark
News of her death first reached Windham by social media. On Facebook, one admirer shared, “(she) was one of my greatest role models.”  

Joyce Greenacre, who served with Bell in the Delta Kappa Gamma Society, a professional group of key women in education, called her colleague a true ‘woman of distinction’ who never hesitated to step forward and give wholeheartedly to any group she belonged to.”

Born in Waldoboro, Maine in 1926, Bell grew up on the family poultry farm, attended local schools and graduated from Waldoboro High School in 1943. She was a member of Girl Scouts, 4-H, youth Grange, school band and attended church school – a training ground for what would become a life of service to church and community, for which Windham would later become the beneficiary.

Bell earned her teaching degree from Gorham State Teachers College in 1947, the same year she married Fred Albion Bell of Westbrook. The couple settled in Windham where they bought and renovated an 1832 farmhouse on River Road. Here they raised two daughters, Johnna and Joy.

Early on, Edith taught elementary grades in Windham and gave private piano lessons. She later earned two master’s degrees and became a librarian and media specialist at Westbrook Junior High School.
Despite a busy schedule with family and career, Edith became involved in numerous church and community activities. She and Fred joined the Windham Hill United Church of Christ (U.C.C.) where she taught and became superintendent of the church school. In addition, she was the church organist and sang in the choir. Edith would later create the popular hand bell choir in commemoration of daughter Johnna who died during her early years of college.

In the community, Edith’s busy pursuits included the formation of a Girl Scout troop, president of the Windham Historical Society, and trustee of the Windham Public Library.

She created the Cardinal Troop Girl Scout Camp on Dundee Pond that served hundreds of young girls over several years. Becky (Plummer) Delaware remembers week-long outings at the Presumpscot River site, led by Edith and co-leader Betty Pulkkinen.

“They were a brave pair (supervising) 20 girls, ages 8 to 18, doing wilderness camping.” Edith blew Reveille at 7 a.m. and Taps at 9 p.m. “They kept us entertained; we hiked, swam, sang, did crafts, campfire and generally had fun.”

Whether in the classroom, church school or Girl Scout meetings and camp outs, Edith had rules and standards. All were expected to live by them. But Delaware also recalls many instances when Edith was helpful and understanding. At Cardinal Camp, “We had outhouses. At night, after campfire, all 20 or so girls had to use them. Having no electricity, we all had flashlights; inevitably some girl would drop hers ‘down the hole.’ Edith to the rescue. She would retrieve the light, clean it up and return it to the delighted girl.”
Windham history compiled by Bell

Before meals, campers would sing grace. Anyone who was late for the gathering would have to endure the camp’s “sin-song,” “Always behind like the old cow’s taleDelaware pointed out, “It chastised the late one and entertained the rest of us.”

Linda (Bailey) Lunt remembers Cardinal Camp as “…the greatest part of school summer vacation. We had so much fun.” All the leaders and counselors had camp nicknames: Edith was Bucket, Pulkkinen was Cutie-Babe, and so on. “I remember cooking dough-boys over the fire; they were basically Bisquik on a stick. On the first day of camp, Lunt said all the campers brought home-made snacks. The leaders would serve them throughout the week. “When my chocolate coo-coo cookies were never brought out I asked Cutie-Babe what had happened to them. She just said they must be ‘in another box.’ Years later, Lunt said Cutie-Babe (Pulkkinen) admitted she had “always felt bad” about those cookies. It seems she and Bucket (Edith) had eaten them in the hours after Taps because “they were sooo good.” Many years later, Lunt would become a scout leader herself – “I used many of Bucket’s ideas and strategies with my own troop.”

Edith had numerous other busy pursuits in the community. She wrote and compiled historic photos for the book “Images of America – Windham, Maine”, which is still sold today.

Of her friend and fellow U.C.C. parishioner, Laurel Parker says, “Edith was a presence. This woman had two speeds: full (steam ahead) and dead stop.” She said the church’s carillon was donated by Edith Bell in memory of her deceased husband, Fred. She also bought the collection of English bells (to commemorate her late daughter) and trained others to play them. The group, known as the Melody Ringers, played in the church and for various events around Windham. “The church was her world,” said Parker, who is the U.C.C. historian.

Due to declining health and a desire to be closer to family, Edith departed Windham in 2009 to join her daughter Joy and husband Kenneth Mair in Williamsburg, Virginia. Bell’s many contributions and the many stories of her life in Windham remain; especially her legendary affection for ice cream.
“It was her way of celebrating anything. She even had a collection of unique ice cream cups and dishes,” said Parker. Asked about her favorite flavor, Parker answered, “Any kind, any time.”

Edith Bell is also remembered for some of her unique personal characteristics. Daughter Joy said her mother disliked woodchucks and snakes; woodchucks because they ate the plants in her garden and snakes because, well, they were snakes. “Mom,” she continued, “would always confront her problems head-on – rarely seeking help from others.”

One weekend, as Joy returned to the Windham farm from college, a neighbor sought her out and proclaimed, “Your Mother!” It seems the previous week Edith had confronted both challenges in her own way. She told Joy, “I went up to Libby’s Rent-all, got a chainsaw and some instructions on how to use it, and cut the mess around the well-house – then I had a bonfire and cooked hot dogs on a stick.” Apparently, that took care of the snake den; next, the woodchucks.

Ignoring the advice of her neighbor, Edith purchased a 20-gauge shotgun – and practiced firing it. After many misses, she managed to bag the marauding marmot, whereupon she boxed it up….and put it on the neighbor’s porch.

Joy said among the family photos at the Windham farm she found one of her mother wearing a baseball cap, holding the 20-gauge gun and striking a distinct Annie Oakley pose.
Edith Bell will be remembered at a special commemoration on Saturday, Jan. 12 at Windham Hill Church at 11:00 a.m. The public is invited. Among other activities, the hand bell choir will play the hymn “Beautiful Savior”. And of course, ice cream will be served.

Among the numerous messages on Facebook following her death was this from one of her many friends and admirers: “It better snow ice cream when you get to heaven.”  <

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