Robert M. Bell ~ The classmate I thought would be governor
by Gene Owens
Robert M. Bell, the flagship of my high-school class, passed over the horizon last week, and my world's center of gravity shifted.
I hadn't seen Robert in more than 20 years, but he had been a steady presence in my memory, a strong tie to the world in which I grew up and from which I launched my career: a world fast slipping away.
I have lost other classmates in death, but Robert was different. He lived out his full threescore-and-10 life span, carved out his niche in local history, then passed on. When we were classmates at the old Graniteville High School in Aiken County, S.C., I thought he would eventually become governor of South Carolina. He didn't -- not because he lacked the capacity, but more likely because he lacked the ambition or the taste for cut-and-slash politics. But he did become the Aiken County attorney and a member of the state Democratic Executive Committee.
The last time I saw him was at a class reunion on the eve of the dedication of the Robert M. Bell Parkway in Aiken, honoring his service on the S.C. Highway Commission. I was master of ceremonies for the class event, and I turned it into a roast. Robert, I told my classmates, was 35 years old when we graduated. That wasn't true, of course. He was a teen-ager like the rest of us, but he had the look and manner of a man in full maturity. The next day, Strom Thurmond gave the main address at the parkway's dedication at the Aiken campus of the University of South Carolina. I can tell you that, even in high school, Robert was by far the better orator.
Our 1954 yearbook has a long list of honors after Robert's name. In addition to other activities, he was president of the student body and class valedictorian. He was voted "Most Dependable" and "Most Likely to Succeed."
My first story on a presidential election was written for the school paper in 1952, when we polled the student body on its preference. Dwight Eisenhower won over Adlai Stevenson in a landslide. Robert had been a Stevenson fan early on, but switched to Ike after a carload of us went to Columbia to hear the general give a campaign speech. In adulthood, Robert reverted to the Democratic party.
Robert was a tall, well-formed man, but he lacked the coordination of an athlete. He was always a model of decorum. He was a scholar but not a show-off. He had a firm grasp of his own ability and never felt the need to advertise it. He excelled at teamwork.
Robert and I faced each other four times in oratorical competition. I won the first two bouts. In our junior and senior years, he discovered the oratorical flourish and won going away. He became president of the student body; I became editor of the school paper. Each of us won a scholarship awarded by a foundation set up by William Gregg, founder of the Graniteville Company, the textile firm that gave life and breath to our town.
After the commencement ceremony, our paths diverged. He went off to the University of South Carolina to study law, and I went off to the University of Georgia to study journalism. By 1965, when he obtained his law degree, I was an editor with the newspapers in Norfolk, Va.
We were entering our 50s when we next saw each other at that class reunion in his honor. I was living in Virginia at the time, and we chatted about his experiences traveling through the Old Dominion on some legal assignment.
It was as if we had taken off our caps and gowns the previous day and now were getting back together -- older, paunchier and balder except for Robert, who still looked like a man of 35. I realized that I was looking at my classmates as finished products, and not as moist clay waiting to be molded. Robert, I figured, was not destined to be governor, but had he taken that road, he would have been a good, honest and objective one.
Robert is now a part of a world that used to exist. The Graniteville Company has long since vanished from the textile scene, and its shuttles have gone silent. The Gregg-Graniteville Foundation survived the company; Robert became president of the institution that financed our educations.
With his death, I see our generation and our world sliding inexorably into history. The old landmarks are gone. The old institutions are being replaced by the new. The village once well maintained by a paternalistic company now languishes in disrepair. The streets once kept smoothly paved are now cracked. The vacant lots that once rang with the shouts of playing children are now silent. The faces that once provided its identity have been replaced by new faces. The people with whom I shared the lofty hopes of adolescence are now septuagenarians.
"Man's days are like grass," wrote the psalmist; "he blossoms like the flowers of the field; a wind passes over them, and they cease to be, and their place knows them no more."
In a little while, I suppose, our place will know us no more. But in the place that shaped us both, Robert Bell's memory will remain green for as long as a sliver of our world remains.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers
and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in
semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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