Gene Bell died at the age of 85 on July 9, leaving a loving family and a legacy of helping youth through his quiet but dedicated leadership in the FAAM basketball league.
Along with several other Evanston community leaders, Mr. Bell founded FAAM in 1968, and as its “Commissioner for Life” mentored many hundreds of Evanston youngsters.
Mr. Bell, Evanston Township High School class of 1950, was a two-year starter in basketball there, a 6’3” forward who was on two Regional- winning teams: the 17-5 team of 1948-49 and the 15-6 team of 1949-50. “He was an athlete, with speed, quickness and great elevation. He was an outstanding defender and rebounder for his time. Most of all, he was a team player and a winner,” said Robert Reece, a long-time friend and a colleague at FAAM.
After graduating ETHS in 1950, Mr. Bell attended Upper Iowa University on basketball and baseball scholarships. But in 1952 his grandmother’s second husband died, and he returned home to help out, taking a job in the Evanston warehouse of Row, Peterson Publishing (which later became Harper & Row).
When the business moved to Kansas 16 years later, Mr. Bell started his career at ETHS, first on the custodial staff, later in security. He eventually rose to second in command, under William Logan, who had been the City’s first African American chief of police. After 27 “good years,” Mr. Bell retired in 1995.
In 1968, School District 65 cut back its middle-school athletic program, and in response a handful of African American community leaders formed an after-school sports league for Evanston youth. The league was FAAM, Fellowship of Afro American Men, and prominent among the founders was Mr. Bell, who headed up the basketball program. He was known far and wide as FAAM’s “Commissioner for Life.”
Originally FAAM was targeted at Evanston black males but the league quickly expanded and within a few years white youngsters were admitted, followed by kids from Chicago as well as other suburbs. Later girls’ teams were added and a cheerleading program was introduced.
Thousands of young men and women were shaped by FAAM’S high-minded principles and touched by Mr. Bell’s quiet but firm leadership, which reflected the challenges and achievements of his life. “I knew Gene back when I was a student at ETHS; he was a year ahead of me,” Mr. Logan recalled in a 2011 profile in the RoundTable. “I worked closely with him for more than 40 years. Gene always gave back to this community … always cared about the kids … always tried to help and mentor them and keep them out of trouble.”
Mr. Bell was born Dec. 30, 1930, in Oak Grove, Okla., and raised on his parents’ 60-acre farm. An only child, he worked in the fields, harvesting cotton and corn and tending the pigs, cows and chickens. He walked a mile every day to a two-room country schoolhouse, “one room for the little kids and one room for the bigger ones,” he recalls.
His mother died when he was five, after which he was raised by his grandparents. When his grandfather died, in 1943, his grandmother sold the farm and moved to Evanston.
He credited much of his success to his grandmother, Leora Bell, who provided a strong foundation of discipline and love. “My grandmother made sure I did the right thing. She was the matriarch of our whole family. She meant everything to me.”
That motivation was central to the creation of FAAM. Mr. Bell, Mr. Logan and the other founders wanted to provide good role models for the kids, and believed in the principles that organized sports instills: teamwork, discipline, respect for the coaches and officials, and giving 100%.
More than that, Mr. Logan said, Mr. Bell was a beacon, “not just to the African American community, but through his work at ETHS and his church and youth programs, to the City as a whole.”
ETHS Athletic Director Chris Livatino said, “Our thoughts and prayers from Evanston Athletics and the entire ETHS community are with the Bell family. For the past five decades, Gene Bell was a father figure to so many of our students and such a great leader in our community. Without having to raise his voice, he commanded the respect of the kids and adults he worked with through his care, fairness and easy smile. He will be missed but never forgotten.”
Mr. Bell’s contributions earned him many honors – from local churches, the City of Evanston, NAACP, Save Our Children, Evanston Police Department, and more. He says his greatest accomplishment was raising his two daughters, Gina and Renee, with his wife, Barbara, who passed away in 1993, and his second wife, Connie.
But perhaps his greatest thrill, he says, is “when a kid who went through FAAM comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you, Mr. Bell, for helping me.’” His epitaph, he told the RoundTable in 2011, should read: “He worked to save the kids.”
Mr. Bell was husband to Connie, father of Renee Johnson and Gina Bradley, step-father of David Owens, grandfather of Aaron Bradley and step-grandfather of Karisa Owens.
Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. on July 18 at Ebenezer AME Church, 1109 Emerson St. There will be a repast immediately after the services at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to either Ebenezer AME Church or to FAAM, P.O. Box 5612, Evanston, IL 60204