Final farewell

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Community says goodbye to Police Chief Joe Bell

By Stephen Lega

Family, friends, law enforcement officers, local and national officials and members of the public were among the hundreds of people who gathered Saturday afternoon at Marion County High School to pay their respects to Lebanon Police Chief Joe Bell.


During the service, Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw, who had appointed Bell as the police chief just 14 months earlier, commended Bell for his leadership, his perseverance and his ability to smile in any situation.

"I was amazed at the quiet strength that this man had," Crenshaw said.

He encouraged Bell's sons to follow his example, and he gave thanks for Bell's life.

The funeral service or "Home Going Celebration" for Bell was being held just a week after the Class of 2011 had graduated from MCHS and in the same room where Bell himself had graduated from high school in 1971.

Bell, 58, died June 6 at Taylor Regional Hospital, where he was undergoing prostate surgery.

Assistant Chief Wally Brady said he was upset when Bell's fiance, Susan Yocum, called to let him know what had happened. Days later, Brady said he went into Bell's office and expected him to turn around in his chair.

"Everybody in the police department family was upset," Brady said. "It still don't seem true."

Bell served the public for more than 33 years as a police officer, including the last 14 months as the chief of police. He also spent more than three decades involved in youth sports. But his impact goes beyond the years he gave to his community as a public servant and as a volunteer.

"It's probably unexplainable," Ernie Robinson said. "If you needed something done, you could call for Joe. It's gonna be a big loss. For me personally, it's gonna be a big loss."

Robinson worked with Bell on youth sports for a quarter century, and he said Bell was always willing to do anything.

"He was for the kids no matter what anybody said," Robinson said. "He was all about the kids." 

Bell served on youth league boards and coached baseball, basketball, football, softball and tee-ball.

"He was a presence to the kids. He didn't say a whole lot. He was just always there," Robinson said.

During Saturday's service, Lebanon First Baptist pastor, Rev. Tommy Calhoun, recalled being a year behind Bell in school. Bell had been a talented football player at MCHS, and he returned for a game the year after he'd graduated. Calhoun was playing halfback for the Knights, and he was wearing Bell's old jersey.

"After the game, Joe came to me and he said, 'Tommy, you're wearing my jersey and you're also wearing No. 44.' And he said to me that night, 'Don't you ever embarrass me,'" Calhoun told the audience Saturday afternoon.

Calhoun also spoke of Bell's devotion to his home county. Bell could have gone anywhere for his career, but he chose to stay in Marion County.

"Joe was serious about the law enforcement. Joe was honest, and Joe loved Lebanon," Calhoun said.

Calhoun read from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, where Paul wrote that the day of the Lord would come like a thief in the night. Calhoun added that Bell's death also came like a thief, surprising family, friends and coworkers alike.

Two days after Bell's passing, his brother Clarence said he was still in shock. 

"I'm expecting him to walk through the door right now," Clarence said. "I still don't believe it."

He said he'd spoken with his brother the night before his surgery. He also knew that Bell had been on blood pressure medication, was diabetic and had a stent put in earlier this year, but he didn't anticipate any complications.

"He wasn't a picture of perfect health, but none of this, I thought, was major," Clarence said. "He was still up and going as good as anybody."

Clarence, who is two years older than his brother, described him as being laid-back, much like their father. And, like the other boys they grew up with in St. Mary, Bell enjoyed sports. Clarence said his brother was a good catcher in baseball. In football, he could just run people over, and his size created problems for people in basketball. 

And then there was boxing. Clarence remembered one Christmas they got boxing gloves.

"We beat on each other, and everybody else, of course," he said. "Joe was big enough if he'd stayed in it, he could have probably been like Mike Tyson or something."

Clarence also remembered his brother talking of going into law enforcement, perhaps inspired in part by one of their relatives Blue Bell, who was the first African-American to serve on the Lebanon Police Department.

"I was the law breaker and he was the law enforcer," Clarence said. "He never had that rowdy blood like me and some of the rest of us did."

Perhaps it was just as fitting that Bell would become the first African-American to serve as Lebanon's Chief of Police. 

Clarence said his brother was dedicated to his job, but he was just as dedicated to kids of the community. According to Clarence, his brother was just a good-hearted guy.

"If it was a round ball, he was in it," Clarence said, laughing. "And he wasn't just in it to be in it. He was in it to win."

Rev. Moses Lee Radford was one of three ministers who spoke during Saturday's service. Radford is the pastor of First Baptist of Nicholasville, where Bell's daughter, Lynette, is a member. Bell would visit Radford's church when he made trips to see his daughter, and any time Bell was at a service, he would tell Radford how he'd been touched by that day's message.

"He was an encourager. He was one who cares, one who was watching over those in his care, one who loved his family," Radford said. "And I thank God for the opportunity to have met him."

He added that we may not understand why someone like Bell dies at the age of 58, but God will be there to help us through the tough times.

"Trust in the Lord. Lean on him. Count on him, for he will help you through this period of life," Radford said.

Rev. Cleotus McElroy continued that theme in his eulogy. He reminded the audience that God will be their refuge and their strength during times of trouble, according to Psalm 46. Likewise in Matthew 11:28, Jesus said that he will give rest to those who labor with a heavy burden.

"You're not unreachable. You're not untouchable. You're not unhealable. There's a God that is able to take control of your mind, your heart and your spirit," McElroy said.

As the service drew to a close, a fleet of police vehicles and a pair of motorcyclists with the Patriot Guard Riders of Kentucky escorted Bell past the Lebanon Police Department and on to St. Augustine Cemetery. Rows of American flags, and dozens of law enforcement officers from the Marion County Sheriff's Office, Marion County Detention Center, the Kentucky State Police, and surrounding communities stood at attention and offered a final salute to Bell.

A flag was folded and presented to Bell's fiance.

Rhonda Orberson, a dispatcher with the Lebanon Police Department, made the last call for Chief Bell.

"Lebanon to Unit 1. Lebanon to Unit 1," Orberson spoke into the police radio. "This is the final call for Unit 1, Chief Joseph Solomon Bell. Chief Bell served the Lebanon Police Department and the citizens of Lebanon with honor, integrity, and distinction. Unit 1, Joseph Bell, is 10-7. May he rest in peace."

"Taps" played, and the final prayers were offered.

As those gathered parted to go their separate ways, it was clear that Bell will not be forgotten.

Brady said he doesn't know how many people have stopped him on the street since Bell's passing to express their sympathy. 

 "He's going to be missed," Brady said, "and he's going to leave some awful big shoes to fill."