Rep. Dr. Larry M. Bell Sr. enjoyed a special moment with family and friends as they sang “Happy Birthday” to him during a Thursday celebration at Alfredo’s in downtown Clinton.
At 79, more than 50 years of his life on earth have been spent making his community a better a place. The achievements of Bell were honored with heartfelt tributes during a reception and scholarship for his service as an educator and legislator. After 18 years, Bell is retiring from the North Carolina General Assembly as representative of District 21, which includes Sampson, Duplin and Wayne counties.
“It’s been a pleasure having you all here tonight,” Bell said during the event hosted by the Scholarship Dinner and Retirement Celebration Committee. “When I look around, I can tell stories about everybody here.”
After graduating from high school, the Clinton native continued his educational journey at North Carolina A&T University and later became a teacher, coach, principal, central office administrator and assistant superintendent. The next step in his career was becoming superintendent of Sampson County Schools. Bell talked about his time serving as a county commissioner and district leader at the same time. During that moment, Bell spoke about goals and commitments to build schools around the county.
“I want to thank all of those people who served with me over the years in getting some things accomplished,” Bell said about improvements. “I could not have done it without them.”
Marcus R. Bass, committee chair, said Bell has always been an advocate for education.
“From day one in 2000, when he stepped foot inside the General Assembly, he decided to make education his number one priority,” Bass said. “As he begins to take his final steps from the chambers of the House back into the public as a civilian, we want to make sure that citizens recognize the importance of education and continuing the academic pursuits of young people from Southeastern North Carolina.”
Bass spoke about Bell’s contributions to revitalize downtown and said the restaurant building, a former department store, was part of that. He was very pivotal in the process of development across Sampson County.
“His footprint has been left in this county and we’re literally sitting in it this evening,” Bass said.
Bell graciously thanked everyone for their contributions to the scholarship based on citizenship. Funds will be given to school systems for one-time scholarships. It will enable each school system to award a post-secondary scholarship to a senior who has distinguished themselves in their community. Bell expressed how it’s important to recognize students with good character who may not be at the top of the class. He was not the valedictorian or salutatorian of his class, but he went to school with students who held those titles and left college after the first semester.
“It’s always that child in the school who may not make all As and Bs, but they’re good citizens and they’re the ones who become your board members and your county commissioners,” Bell said.
Before Bell took the podium, remarks and stories were shared by legislators from the delegation, who represent both sides of the political aisle. Sen. Brent Jackson said he met Bell in the early ’90s when they served on the Sampson Community College Board of Trustees. Jackson got to know Bell well and said he’s an honest, thoughtful man who loves his family.
“I can’t think of a better tribute to give to Dr. Bell,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever had the opportunity to have come to know, love, honor and respect and I thank you very much for your friendship.”
Sen. Don Davis said his career and journey was “A+.” He added that Bell is a thoughful individual.
“He really enjoys serving and we know that,” Davis said “That’s the beauty of serving with him. Representative Bell, I’m just honored to be with you today.”
While making a tribute to Bell, Sen. Louis Pate said Bell loves to spend a lot of time with his grandchildren when he is not working with legislators in Raleigh. Pate said it’s a model everyone can learn from.
“It’s a shame that more grandparents don’t look out for their grandchildren in the way that he does,” Pate said. “I do admire you and thank you very much for the light you’ve shown to those grandchildren and also the children of Sampson County. We’ve appreciate everything you’ve done.”
Rep. Marvin Lucas talked about their friendship and said he discovered how they had a lot of common with the ages of children and their grandchildren. He told humorous stories about how, while serving in the North Carolina General Assembly, the two had fun sitting in the back and doing “devious things.” Lucas said he’s going to miss serving with him.
“Nobody can replace Larry,” Lucas said.
He’s also going to be missed by Rep. Daren Jackson, who said he never heard Bell raise his voice while serving in politics. He said that voice is going to being missed, especially for public education.
“Your work is not done,” Jackson said. “We’ll continue to work on your behalf and I hope you’ll continue to stay involved and make that voice heard.”
Shortly after, on behalf of Gov. Roy Cooper, Jackson presented Bell with The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which is among the most prestigious awards presented by the governor. Next, Sampson County Commissioner Sue Lee bestowed a proclamation on behalf of the county board in recognition of his service.
The event also featured remarks from Clinton Mayor Pro Tem Marcus Becton, Commissioner Thaddeus Godwin, Rep. John Bell IV and Rep. George Cleveland. J.W. Simmons said Bell would visit a nursing home and have lunch with residents during his days as a superintendent. Simmons recalled a moment when he traveled to Carr Memorial Christian Church when the weather was bad to attend a funeral of a resident. Before she passed, she made a wish for Bell to sing at her funeral. Bell delivered, and did so acapella.
Mary Brown, former board member for Sampson County Schools, was one of the members who voted for Bell’s appointment as superintendent.
“We are so proud of what you have achieved and all that you have accomplished for the benefit of others,” Brown said.
Bill Starling, president of Sampson Community College, said Bell made contributions with integrity as a board member for more than half a century. Larry M. Barnes, who served with Bell on the college board, met Bell in 1979 when he was Sampson County’s director of human resources. When Bell was the principal of Halls-Piney Grove School, he invited Barnes to give the address at the eighth grade graduation. Barnes’ speech was written with the purpose of inspiring others.
“Little did I know, I was inspiring Larry Bell,” Barnes said with humor.
After reading portions of the speech about being the best in every arena, having responsibility and being true to others as well as yourself, he ended with a quote from Aristotle — “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”
“At every station of Larry’s career, the education of our youth remained his vision,” Barnes said. “I looked at the program for that graduation day again — ‘Scholarship, Achievement, Leadership.’”
“That was a fitting title for that event because it sums up the life of Larry Bell.”
Barnes added that Bell has always been the best that he could be.
His son, Larry Bell Jr. made a video tribute featuring highlights of his career and others inspired by his work. It featured remarks from Dr. Freddie Williamson, a former student of Bell’s. Williamson is now the superintendent of Hoke County Schools. Dr. Bell spoke about his days at Union Elementary School when Williamson became a principal in the local school system. He applauded the career and work of Williamson as a superintendent.
“You all have really inspired me tonight,” Bell said. “That video really touched me because of the people who have been in my past.”
During the benediction, he sung “To God Be The Glory” as everyone listened with admiration before the cake was cut.
“To God be the Glory, for the things he has done,” Bell sung. “All the wonderful, all the marvelous, things he’s done.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.