Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The unforgettable Ned Bell, G.G. (Good Guy)

Remembering a Ketchum original, 25 years later

Express Staff Writer

One of Ned Bell?s favorite outdoor pastimes, one that he shared with his family and son Dave, was hunting for morel mushrooms. Here Ned returns from such a trip. Courtesy photo

     As the summer of 1988 ended, a true Ketchum original, Ned Bell, died of cancer after 68 wonderful years in the world—48 spent at the Sun Valley resort where he settled in 1940 from his roots in Nebraska.

     This recollection means little to most Wood River Valley people in 2013, 25 years later.

     Yet everyone who remembers the consummate people person with the G.S.O.H (Great Sense of Humor) will recall a funeral service that was both sad and happy.

     Let’s just say Ned Bell, a master of making fun with initials, was a G.G. (good guy).

     Father Reginald Wilson, earthy leader of Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church at that time, pointed out to the large audience gathered inside the Sun Valley church that Ned Bell’s final farewell to the community he loved was probably the most upbeat funeral service at which he had ever presided.

     He said that if the essence of being a good Christian was loving people, then Ned Bell was a great man.

     Ned’s friend Jack Flaherty spoke about Ned’s days as a Sun Valley Lodge bellman, his stint as a Ketchum restaurateur, and also Bell’s history as an insurance man, semi-professional bookmaker, sports nut and man about town. He said Ned Bell was a man who worked overtime remembering your name and cultivating an enviable list of friendships.

     Father Wilson, like Bell a man who enjoyed a sociable round of golf at Sun Valley Golf Course, wasn’t finished.

     After the article about Ned’s funeral service was published in the Mountain Express, Father Wilson telephoned the newspaper with something to add to his comments. Taking a phone call from a man of the cloth about a published article can be intimidating for a reporter, but here’s what he said:

     He wanted it understood that he had done marriages that weren’t as upbeat as Ned Bell’s funeral.

     The anecdotes and funny stories flew like the leaves of approaching autumn in those days after Bell’s death, which occurred Sept. 29, 1988 at his Sun Valley home. Recently, I told a Ned Bell anecdote to a friend. He listened patiently and then, with a quizzical look, asked “Who’s Ned Bell?”

     Where to start?

     Start with a Midwestern-flavored sense of humor that pivoted on the foibles of people, most prominently Ned Bell himself.

     Once, I posed a question to Ned about his college days at the University of Nebraska. He said, “What did I get in college?—oh, yeah, it was the A.A.N.A.A., the All-Around No Ability Award. I got that one year for my S.C.F., my Seven Consecutive Fumbles. But that wasn’t my fault. At the time I had a P.N.D., a Post-Nasal Drip. It would drool all over the ball. I’d get the ball and, hell, I’d drop it! And you’d get all those big guys and, hey, I’m not going to try to recover my own fumble!”

     Start with his family.

     Ned’s daughter Andrea, better known as Andy, shared his passion for baseball and softball. She has said about her father, “I always saw that he was passionate to people who were less fortunate. He always took a lot of pride in this community.”

     His son Dave remembers the family hunts for morel mushrooms, and the family road trips to Mexico during which Ned would remember everybody’s names in towns from Elko, Nev. all the way to Mazatlan.

     Dave remembers his father for his optimism and wishes he could have more of that attribute. He always enjoyed travel, but towards the end of his life, Ned commented about Sun Valley, “I think we’ve got the best four seasons in the world and I want to be here during parts of all of them. Winter is great. It’s a good social time. Everybody seems in good moods. Why, I think it’s probably the happiest season of all four!”

     Ned and his wife Betty Bell had four children including Dusti, who died five years ago and was remembered for teasing the tourists, and Bridget Cimino, a runner and Animal Shelter volunteer who loves shelter dogs.

     The fact that the entire family stayed in Ketchum and Sun Valley and still lives here comes as no surprise to Dave, who can’t imagine living anywhere else. Their parents, flatlanders from Nebraska, met here and helped make the tiny community of Sun Valley what it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

     Son of Hubert and Ethel Bell, natives of the farm country of southeastern Nebraska between Grand Island and Lincoln, Ned came to the four-year-old Sun Valley resort in 1940.

     He joined the U.S. Army during World War II and served as a paratrooper and First Lt. in the 82nd Airborne Division. He was stationed in Japan after that nation surrendered. He was called back to service in the Korean conflict.

     In between Ned’s service stints was arguably a more important post as owner, manager and chief bottle washer of the Nedder’s Belles women’s softball team in Sun Valley.

     His future wife, the former Betty Weir, came to Sun Valley in 1946 and took a job as a soda jerk so she could learn how to ski. And how she learned! Betty made the 1952 U.S. Winter Olympic team as an alpine downhiller at Oslo, Norway.

     Here’s how Betty described an early encounter with her future husband:

     A longtime Mountain Express columnist, Betty wrote, “(Sun Valley Resort) general manager W.P. “Pappy” Rogers—a big man in every way, fiery but warm, demanding but appreciative, wholly hands-on always, was a greeter of nearly every incoming bus and the rider of many a Shoshone-bound bus when it snaked its way through the snowplowed canyon the highway often became. Abundant snowfalls were common then.

     “Florence ‘Flo’ Law was his executive assistant. Most of us suspected she was co-general manager, the lady who could smooth everything out. For example, when Mr. Rogers’ softball team would get whumped by Nedder’s team, my future husband’s team (Ned Bell was manager of the employees’ cafeteria as well as the famous Boiler Room), Mr. Rogers would find him even though Ned had put some effort into not being a highly visible target.

     “Mr. Rogers would summarily fire him, tell him to get to Personnel and pick up his train ticket back to York, Nebraska—and ‘don’t miss that five o’clock bus to Shoshone!’ But after an hour or two of cooling-off time that likely included a chat with Mrs. Law, he’d seek out Ned again, de-fire him, and tell him never mind about the bus.”

     After her Olympics trip, Ned and Betty married in 1952 and started their family. They divorced in 1968 but were blessed with an enduring relationship. Along the way, like most marriages, the couple had many adventures and experiences.

     In 1964 Ned opened a restaurant/bar called Nedxers in Ketchum which burned down not long after opening. He opened another operation in an old caboose and railroad water tank called The Caboose. It too went up in flames.

     After the second fire, Ned went into the insurance business full time. He had been working part-time as an insurance man since 1958. He became an underwriter for Mutual of New York, a position he held for the rest of his life. Ned achieved the company’s top honor on numerous occasions.

     His insurance office was located a couple of doors down from Corby Dibble’s Sun Valley Ski Club office on the Sun Valley Mall, on the second floor above the present-day Towne & Parke Jewelers.

     It was a tiny office. You were fortunate to find the door open and Ned in there. He was more comfortable out-and-about, making his rounds, cultivating future customers and checking on the current game scores for his businesses of chance.

     In 1986, shortly after the end of the memorable Boston Red Sox-New York Mets World Series, I asked Ned which team he had preferred in the Series and naturally, he gave me my money’s worth and more.

     He said, “Of course I’m for whoever I bet on, and I bet on ‘Bows Tone.’ Bows Tone is what they call them down in Mazatlan. I watched all the games with these seven Mexican friends of mine, and about three of us Gringos. We had bets like—well, we bet a mio, it’s a thousand pesos, which is about, gee, 800 pesos to the dollar, so it’s about $1.30. Something like that. We did that on every ball game, and I lost those last two games. But I thought Boston would win, I did. They were a strike away from winning!”

     Countless people went into Ned’s insurance office with a specific purpose in mind, then emerged feeling light-hearted, indeed, light-headed from laughter. You had the sense that you hadn’t quite gotten what you had come for, but, still, you left strangely fulfilled.

     “You’re not going to use all of this in the newspaper, are you? You don’t want to use my name anyway, because you’d really get booed. Maybe fired. Well, hell, you could work in insurance—you could work in insurance with me! But I tell you what, we’ve got to put in a couple of good hours a week!”

Ned Bell

     Once, I sat in his office and asked Ned about the painting of Teddy Roosevelt on the wall.

     “He’s my first policy holder,” said Ned about the 26th president, who died in 1919, the same year Ned was born. “Don’t forget the other painting—Abraham Lincoln over there. They don’t come in much. They’re gone. The layaway plan. A couple of great guys.”

     Mornings and early afternoons during the summer meant slow-pitch softball at Atkinson Park in Ketchum, a softball paradise 35 years ago.

     There were up to 60 teams those days in men’s and women’s leagues. The women played in the morning and at noontime, for one reason to free up playing space with the abundance of teams, for another reason because many of Ketchum’s women worked evenings in the restaurants.

     Ned Bell was the daytime softball type—guiding light of the Nedder’s Belles teams.

     Talented and attractive, the Nedder’s softball players all wore the No. 13 numbers on their jerseys. Ned practically lived at the park in the summer—egging on his team, providing running commentary and cheering all the players. His daughter Andy said, “He had a lot more fun than if he’d played with a bunch of men. He loved baseball.”

     He was a natural in taking the microphone and announcing the River Street Retreat women’s softball tournament games that matched great players from Idaho and Utah over the Fourth of July holiday at Atkinson Park.

     Magnifying its importance to the delight of his listeners, Ned always called the park diamond “West Ketchum Coliseum.” He mentioned the thousands of fans lining the sideline. The fans heard and raised their drinks in appreciation.

     He sprinkled his commentary with newsflashes crossing his line of sight, for instance, D.O.F., Dog on Field, and, when the Barger-Mattson gals got hot with the bats, he brought out B.F.O.B.—Bases Full of Bargers. There was also the famous P.H.D., Provo Hairdo.

     The casual reader who has temporarily misplaced his or her sense of humor might wonder why, in this week of disruptive and frightening wildfires, the Mountain Express has chosen to remember Ned Bell. The fact that he passed away 25 years ago is a rationale. Keep in mind that Ned, a true optimist, was most of all a genius at changing the subject.

     Less than two years before he died, I went to Ned’s office and asked him about his recent hospital stay. His reply was a textbook example of how to deflect attention from a question about a health issue:

     He said, “Well, this flu or whatever, it acted up, that’s all. Naturally every once in a while you get sort of down. Hey, I’ve always had perfect health but I’ve never been a great athlete. I told everybody I was, of course. But I like to kid, to dream. Like I’m still with the Broncos, or they’re training me for the 49ers. But we all do that.

     “Like I was saying, I’ve always taken care of myself, so why did it have to happen to me? Anyway, the world is that way. I’ve always thought I’m going to be one of the first guys to get out of here alive. But it’s not true. And what I’ve got, I’ll probably die from it, unless I get shot by this girl’s husband in Mexico—I prefer that! Well, actually he’s her ex-husband. But he’s jealous, he’s got a pistol. Here they call them ‘pistol.’ In Mexico it’s ‘pistola.’ P-I-S-T-O-L-A.

     “Are you learning anything yet? What are you laughing at?

     “Well, Paul (McKinnon) came in to see me in the hospital (Sun Valley’s Moritz Community Hospital), because this thing acted up, this flu or whatever. Anyway, we’re sitting outside there. I had this end room on that sort of a new addition on the golf course side, because you can leave there without paying the bill—you can walk out the door.

     “We’re clear out underneath the tree, and we’re looking at the horse race down at Les Bois for that Wednesday. I said, boy, the No. 2 horse looks good, how do you feel about the No. 2 horse in the third race? And Paul says, I don’t feel good at all! I said, you don’t feel good? And he said, I don’t know, I feel like could throw up! So I said let’s go in the bathroom here, and then he went right down to the nurse’s station, which is just 50 feet away, and 60 seconds later they had him in ICU—Intensive Care.

     “Of course I went down to see him and, gee, it was real scary—something with the heart. But I did say afterwards, because we started kidding, Paul and I: I said thank God we weren’t up in the Copper Basin because I guess you’re supposed to give him mouth-to-mouth. And Paul and me, well, we just don’t do that. Well I knew I wasn’t!

     “That’s like the guy who got the snake bite in the wrong place. I mean, you’re just supposed to let him go!

     “Well, since then Paul has had some surgery, but I did that. Well, hell, I had eight years of pre-med trying to get a four-year degree! You always feel like you’re still a doctor! Well, everybody in my family is a doctor. I’ve got my dad’s name up there on the wall. ‘H.O. Bell, M.D.’ I wonder what the H.O. is for? I do know, I really do know. But he said if I named any of my kids Hubert he’d disown me. And since I hated to go to work—well, I had to leave the house when I was only 27.

     “You’re not going to use all of this in the newspaper, are you? You don’t want to use my name anyway, because you’d really get booed. Maybe fired. Well, hell, you could work in insurance—you could work in insurance with me! But I tell you what, we’ve got to put in a couple of good hours a week!”


The rock at the field

     Nobody knew better than Ned Bell about the ups-and-downs of a resort like Sun Valley—the dry winters in some years, the deep snows in others, the summers that seemed too short and an economy that bounced around with weather.

     In the 25 years since Ned’s death, wildfires have been a recurring scourge in Idaho starting with the great Yellowstone fire of 1988, which occurred in the summer before his passing. He would have been dismayed at how the fires have scarred the hills around his beloved Sun Valley.

     More than anyone perhaps, Ned through his nature and actions realized an essential fact about Sun Valley:

     Certainly it’s about the skiing, hiking, skating and fine dining, but most of all it’s about treating people right, pulling together when necessary, and making the place where you live, a better place.

     Ned’s former wife Betty, five years his junior, still pumps her cruiser bike up the hills of Ketchum on her errands.

     His children still contribute to the community. His grandchild, Ebi, daughter of Andrea, is learning balls, strikes, foul balls and, if she’s lucky, the specifics of the Infield Fly Rule.

     There’s even a rock that remembers Ned Bell at Atkinson Park. You can lean against it or sit on it. Kids slide down it and hide behind it. It’s unaffected by fire or quirks of nature.

     Attached to the rock is a plaque on which is inscribed: Ned Bell—Sponsor, Coach, Announcer, Fan, G.G. (meaning good guy). To dress up the area, they planted blue spruce trees around it at the time. Those trees are now good sized, providing summer shade.

     It was a family rock, one that Ned and Betty Bell hauled out of the forest and installed at their home on Washington Ave. in Ketchum, then moved to another home in Sun Valley. A month after Ned’s death, it was moved to the park and placed along the right field line, in foul territory. There it stayed.

     Young families are commonly seen picnicking around the rock, shaded by the grove of trees in the shadow of Baldy—relaxing while they talk about the latest game of softball at West Ketchum Coliseum.

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