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Olive J. Bell

Valley loses colorful character

By EOWYN LeMAY IVEY-Frontiersman reporter


MAT-SU -- The Valley lost one of its most well-known senior citizens and colorful characters when 88-year-old Olive Bell died last month.

A solo world traveler, journalist, poet and former Wal-Mart greeter, Bell died at Valley Hospital Feb. 24. A celebration of life is slated for May 15 at the Wasilla Area Senior Center.

Jokingly dubbed a Palmer Pioneer Home escapee, Bell became a local hero in the mid-1990s when she left the home after living there for nine years, got a driver's license and set out to have an autonomous life. At the age of 80, she became a Wal-Mart greeter.

Wasilla Area Seniors Executive Director Tim Anderson first met her as she began this second phase of independence.

"She was near and dear to our hearts," Anderson said. "She was just a very helpful person, very positive and energetic. She volunteered here a lot, and always participated in anything we did." He described how Bell would work garage sales and other fund-raising events for the senior group.

In one of her poems, Bell wrote, "Make a pact with life. Meet it day by day," and throughout her life, she seemed to strive to meet each of those days with energy and passion.

Born in Yakima, Wash., in 1915, Bell attended college in California and worked at the U.S. Space Program at Vandenberg Air Force Base. She came to Alaska in 1969 and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for 15 years.

But Bell wasn't one to get stuck in a rut.

"You can't live on what has gone by," she told a Frontiersman reporter in 2001. "Don't try to do the same things over ... do something different."

And that's what she did. She wrote a book of poetry, "A Thinkle of A Bell," and Gov. Tony Knowles placed her poem "God and Alaska" in the legislative hall in Juneau. In 1996, at the age of 81, she traveled to Australia and five years later to the Netherlands. Wheelchair bound and alone, Bell took in the sights and sounds of the world and, true to form, formed friendships abroad.

In her obituary, friends wrote "She was never at a loss for conversation ... Those of us who knew her carry memories of wonderful gatherings with coffee, elegant surroundings and great conversation."

Wasilla Area Seniors Deputy Director Mary Haley remembers how Bell would invite people to her Wasilla apartment and urge them to step out on her patio, which she had devoted to plants and flowers.

"It was her pride and joy. She'd say 'Go look at my flowers.' And there were tomatoes ... everything," Haley said.

With this in mind, Haley said she had been working with Bell to design "Olive's Garden" in the new assisted living facility being built this year. With Bell gone now, Haley said they will design it with her in mind.

"She'll continue living on in everything we do here," she said. "She touched everybody."

Bell was preceded in death by her husband of 20 years, "Red" Bell, as well as her parents and all her siblings.

She is survived by many friends and acquaintances around the world.

Source:  Frontiersman, 24 February 2003




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