Dr. David Bell was compassionate, thoughtful and brilliant leader
Just nine years old when his father died, Dr. David Bell made a promise to live up to his expectations.
He did that and much more.
The York University professor emeritus and senior scholar in environmental studies lost his fight with pancreatic cancer last week. He was 72.
When Jamaican-born Herbert Bell Sr. parents found out he was enlisted in the West Indies regiment before his 18th birthday, the teenager was quickly de-enlisted and sent to Boston to pursue engineering studies. Anxious to serve in the military, Bell came to Canada and joined the First Battalion New Brunswick Regiment in 1917.
He was later transferred to the 206th Battalion in Siberia during the First World War where he was wounded and sent back to a Halifax hospital to recuperate. Leaving the Army as a decorated hero, Bell ran an automotive repair business in Toronto for 24 years before passing away in 1953.
The youngest of five children born on April 9 (Easter Sunday), 1944 and the first of his siblings to attend university, Bell was one of the few Black deans at a Canadian university.
“In everything I have done in the last seven decades, I have tried to ensure that my father would have been proud of me,” he said a few days before being presented with the 2016 Harry Jerome President’s Award.
A member of York University’s Glendon College first graduating class in 1965 and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship recipient, Bell completed his doctorate at Harvard University four years later and taught for two years at Michigan State University before returning to York University.
He was the dean of the university’s Faculty of Graduate Studies for six years, dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies, a position he held for four years until 1996, and the women’s soccer coach for nearly a decade.
“David was a wonderful professor, a great and helpful colleague and a terrific bass player,” said York University’s president emerita and professor Dr. Lorna Marsden. “We are going to miss him a lot.”
A leader in environmental public education, research, innovations and legislation, Bell was a member of the City of Toronto’s Environmental Task Force, the Toronto Sustainability Round Table, a founding member of the International Sustainability Indicators Network, a founding core faculty member of the Schulich School of Business Sustainable Enterprise Academy and the founding director of the York Centre for Applied Sustainability that became the Institute of Research & Innovation for Sustainability.
He was also a former member of the National Round Table on Environment & the Economy and ex-chair of the board of directors of Parc-Downsview Park Inc., a federal crown corporation mandated to create urban greenspace for Canadians.
In addition, Bell was a consultant and advisor to private sector companies and governments in Canada, Jamaica and China.
Despite retiring from York University a decade ago, Bell maintained a busy schedule.
He was the chair of the Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) and co-chair of the Education Alliance for a Sustainable Ontario and the National Education for Sustainable Development Council.
Dr. Bob Bernhardt, the LSF governance, nomination & board development committee chair, said Bell’s death leaves a tremendous hole in the leadership for sustainability in Canada.
“David believed that the future would reflect, for better or worse, the education that the youth was receiving today and he devoted his life to making that education sound,” said Bernhardt, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. “He believed that effective stewardship of our planet depended upon developing leaders of tomorrow who respected the environmental, social and economic health required to drive sustainability. He was also compassionate, thoughtful and brilliant.”
To memorialize Bell’s legacy, The LSF has established a fund in his name to support the empowering of young people to be change-makers.
Three years ago, the Canadian Network for Environmental Education & Communication (EECOM) recognized Bell for championing environmentalism and sustainability.
“It is difficult to summarize the contributions of an individual who has had such a long and illustrious career reaching such a broad range of audiences,” said Education Ducks Unlimited Canada national manager Merebeth Switzer in the nomination letter to EECOM in support of Bell.
The eminent scholar also had a passion for music and started playing the bass as a teenager. He studied with Ray Brown at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music founded by the late Oscar Peterson with whom he was a close friend.
Bell nominated Peterson for an honourary degree conferred by York University in 1982 and played key roles in Peterson’s involvement in the university’s jazz program and his installation as its eighth chancellor in 1991.
The accomplished jazz bassist played gigs in Toronto and Prince Edward Island where he and his wife had a summer home.
“Just two weeks before his death, he played at a retirement home even though he was not well,” said Bell’s sister Bev Salmon, Toronto’s first female Black city councillor. “Once he made a commitment to something, he was determined to follow through. He was a perfectionist who had a full and wonderful life.”
The same year Bell graduated from York University, he met Dr. Lorne Tepperman at the Skyline Hotel.
“David was playing in one band and I was playing in another,” recalled Tepperman, a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto’s University College.
They attended Harvard at the same time, developed a close friendship and co-wrote a book, ‘The Roots of Disunity’, in the mid-1970s.
“After that, for many years we didn’t see each other very often,” said Tepperman. “We went in different directions with David focusing on administrative work and me on research and book writing. But this all changed after I turned 60 when my wife bought me a piano and urged me to get back into playing music.
“So I joined some bands that he belonged to. We became close friends again, perhaps even more closer than we had been in Cambridge as young students. That’s because we now understood life and each other better…While I am somewhat withdrawn in band settings, David was always pleasant and inclusive. Everyone liked and admired him and they all learned from him. He gave advice in a friendly way and it was usually sound. David was confident, but not boastful. He loved meeting and hearing new musicians. In fact, he just loved music and its inclusiveness, its passion and spirit.”
The recipient last month of the Jackie Robinson Fortitude Award, Bell is survived by his wife of 50 years – Kaaren – their children Jason and Kristin Bell Doan, three grandchildren and siblings Bev Salmon, Rena Jones and Marjorie Sorrell.
Herbert Bell Jr., the eldest of the siblings, passed away in February 2014 at age 79.