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Terrel H. Bell: ‘The Thirteenth Man,’ 1921-1996 – educator – Obituary

During the early months of Ronald Reagan’s first term As President of the United States, the African American men and women engaged in teaching and administering community colleges throughout the nation met in Atlanta, Georgia. The group, known as the National Council on Black American Affairs (NCBAA), had assembled to determine what steps we might take as a national Black organization to stave off Reagan’s declared promise to destroy the U.S. Department of Education (ED).


The department, which had only recently been created by President Jimmy Carter, before his defeat by Reagan, was being headed by the “thirteenth” member of the Reagan Cabinet, Terrel H. (Ted) Bell. Dr. Bell, a little known educator outside of the state of Utah, whose national reputation extended only as far as the U.S. Commissioner of Education before his appointment to the Cabinet, was seen by Reagan point men as the perfect individual to disassemble the department.


The NCBAA, which already had begun mourning the death of the newly-created department, indifferently decided to invite the new secretary to our meeting with less than enthusiasm and literally no optimism that any help from the federal government would be forthcoming. Much to our surprise, not only did Secretary Bell accept our invitation but he came, listened carefully to our concerns, assured us that the demise of ED was quite premature and that he looked forward to working with us in the months ahead. it was not long before his words to us in Atlanta were reinforced by his widely acclaimed report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk.


Ted Bell was not the first person selected for high office by a conservative administration to he a disappointment to his bosses, but more importantly to he committed to serving the people of this country, to include Blacks, rather than the ideologues that put him there.


Secretary Bell vividly illustrated the importance of our reserving judgment about public officials rather than making snap judgments based on little or no information simply because they are appointed by a less than friendly administration or before knowing what their positions on issues are–especially those that affect the Black Community in general and urban education in particular. Ted Bell was a man from Mormon country, Salt Lake City, Utah.


It is a region not known for its hospitality towards African Americans, and until quite recently, the home of a religious faith that did not believe Blacks worthy to become priests in the church. Secretary Bell at no time reflected any of that dogma, nor did being from an isolated part of the country render him insensitive to the plight of urban America or the decline of the quality of urban schools.


Dr. Bell was appointed Secretary of Education with a mandate to dismantle the Department of Education. Instead, his A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform called national attention to the plight of American public schools and launched the most massive reform initiative in the nation’s history.


Dr. Bell also believed strongly in the value of open-access community colleges. On many occasions, he likened the community college to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. He believed in individual worth and the value of “opportunity for all.”


If there is anything that drives Black folks at all levels of education up the wall, it is liberal, well-intended white folks who know what is good “for us” without ever talking or, more importantly, listening to any of us. Secretary Bell made no pretense about an “expert” on Black American affairs, but he was more than willing to go that extra mile to try to become knowledgeable just as important was the lesson he taught us about how government can be made to become responsive to the plight of the people regardless of who is at the top even though the inner circle may be hell bent to remove as much government from the people as possible.


Secretary Terrel Bell’s tenure in the Reagan administration was never easy or for that matter, pleasant. He was appointed for the expressed purpose of dismantling ED. And while lie questioned its need before his appointment, he never agreed to push for the department’s elimination before lie completed his own evaluation. Although Reagan endorsed and verbally supported the findings and recommendations of A Nation at Risk, the president never saw it as the federal government’s role to oversee the implementation of the report. Dr. Bell tried to no avail to convince the president that implementation of the report would not interfere with local control of the schools.


As Dr. Bell writes in his book, The Thirteenth Man, it was his intent to remain as secretary during Reagan’s second term but this decision was not greeted with any enthusiasm in the White House. It soon became apparent shortly after the second term was about to begin that the secretary was no longer in asset to the President and that in order for Dr. Bell to stay lie would have to lead the charge to, once and for all, kill off ED.


Once again, Blacks, other minorities, teachers and educators at all levels were losing a friend in a high place. Perhaps tile most difficult part of all this for Secretary Bell to fathom was, why should a department and programs that had made a difference, with the potential for making even greater significant inroads towards turning America’s public schools around, be abolished. He might have been able to understand the administration’s zeal to shut down ED if it had not been apparent that so much good was being accomplished–and even more could be accomplished if only The Nation at Risk’s findings were implemented.


Not long after Reagan’s reelection, Secretary Bell tendered his resignation. He was not about to be the executioner of his own department. During his departure ceremony in the West Wing of the White House, President Reagan paid Bell high praise for his four years of success. The President called him “The Secretary of Excellence,” which was true, hut everybody in the room, including Dr. Bell, knew the President did not mean what he had said.


We have truly lost a friend as well as a great educational leader.


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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