Bill Bell, aka Charles W. Bell, New York Daily News Religion Editor and human-interest columnist, has retired. In his closing column on Easter Sunday, he announced his retirement in a much more colorful way: “I’m putting the cap on my pen.”
An editorial in the same edition captured Bill Bell well: “He’s among the town’s best-known and best-loved scribes, a man who touched countless lives with his warm and large-hearted reportage, a man who won millions of friends and fans – a raucous, ebullient, cigar-chomping wag who could thoughtfully debate theologians, a good old Arkansas boy who never lost touch with down home yet was entirely comfortable in the Vatican.”
Cancer forced him to put the cap on his pen. It knocked him down, but it hasn’t prevented him from continuing to be one of the most inspirational people I’ve been blessed to know. When the cancer was diagnosed a couple of years ago Dianna said, “Don’t you think you should go talk to Frank?” In a perfect Bill Bellism he responded, “If you think it will help him…”
Below are some passages from Bill’s farewell piece—the entire column can be accessed on line.
“There are so many good, untold stories that it seems a pity to say this, but this is my last column. After 51 years, I am calling it a career, something I never imagined I would say one day.
It was a wonderful life, and the only reason to retire now is to devote full time and energy to a battle with cancer. It also gives me a chance to express a deep appreciation and profound gratitude to readers over the years.”
“This was never just a job, and when I wrote, they were never just words.”
“I always loved newspapers, always devoured them, never earned a cent in any other line of work, and oddly, never considered religion a special separate category of news. But eventually, faith in its many astonishingly diverse roles almost always turned up in one way or another.
“It didn’t begin that way. I started in sports, in Pine Bluff, Ark., and after stops in Panama, Cuba, and a couple other whistle stops, I wound up in London, with United Press International (UPI), where I covered the ’72 summer Olympic games (and terrorist massacre) in Munich before I lost interest in sports and spent 16 happy and rewarding years in Africa, Italy and elsewhere.
“It was my great fortune at UPI and then, for 25 years at the New York Daily News, that I was assigned to a lot of stories that seemed important at the time, and probably were – three papal funerals and elections, the Berlin Wall, Gulf War, Somalia, the Oklahoma City bombing, Cuba, Princess Di, more then 20 papal trips (and three U.S. visits), the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Jackie O’s wedding, four political conventions, and on and on.
“The real heroes and real deals were not celebrities and big shots, but ordinary men and women who did extraordinary things and did not need or want publicity agents to spread the news… I started taking notes because this was religion as a verb.”
“New York, a place of a million daily graces, large and small, often hides its good deeds behind a tough guy swagger. And the religion writing I wanted to do, and didn’t always accomplish, was to show the many ways that New Yorkers, many of them strangers in a new land, practiced their faith in their own special ways while adjusting to their new spiritual homes..
“The blessing was that most spiritual leaders were willing to accommodate a pilgrim. Some were secretive, frightened of the press, or jealous of their titles and role. But that applies to a lot of professions.
“Another blessing for admirers and respecters of religion is that New York is home to some of the country’s greatest sanctuaries – think St. Pat’s, St. John the Divine, Temple Emanu-El, Riverside, Abyssinian Baptist, Fifth Ave. Presbyterian, and, spread across the city beyond them, dozens more architectural jewels. And in their pulpits, some of America’s great preachers.
“No wonder a religion writer would never run low on material.
“Add to that a religious landscape that is constantly in flux – the immigrant surge in the Pentecostal movement, which is literally changing the face of some neighborhoods; the struggle by the great traditional Protestant churches to stay relevant; an erosion in the levels of obedience and worship participation in the Catholic church; and, perhaps most of all, the impact of the Internet on religion.
“The press has been catching up, making the connections, but still tends to limit most public discourse about religion to abortion, birth control, divorce, sex ed, gay rights and other social issues. Religion, to be sure, is much more.
“So now, it ends.
“At least for me. The Daily News has its roots in New York’s neighborhoods and their particular institutions and it always pleased me to see the attention we devoted to the role of good works and good deeds. Long may it continue.
“Thank you for the feedback, expressions of interest, and the many helpful suggestions. And as Jimmy Breslin, a hero, once put it, “Thanks for the use of the hall.”
That’s a great closing line: ‘thanks for the use of the hall.’ I was tempted to capitalize his final word – he and I have surnames you can play with. The editors at the News wrote a headline for Bill’s final column: ONE BELL OF A CAREER.
Bill Bell is sitting in the neutral corner, but he hasn’t left the ring. He’s ready to hear the bell call him back to fight another round, and I know he’ll come out swinging. Hang in there Bill Bell, keep your guard up and keep the faith.