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Al Bell brought the world to rural Iowa

March 5, 2010
By ANNE BLANKENSHIP Daily Freeman-Journal Managing Editor

I've been sharing some talks with a few of my old school chums lately. We've connected again on Facebook, the social networking site that seems to have become the favorite meeting site for those 35 and older.

We've been reminiscing about the old days at Madrid Community Schools. We've been remembering teachers and favorite fun spots, the corner candy store and the best sledding hill in central Iowa. We've also been talking about the annual appearance of Al Bell and his wife, Rhea.

Back in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, Al Bell was a teacher and adventurer who would bring the world to small town Iowa schools. He traveled to the far corners of the world- exotic places that we rural Iowa school children had only seen in books. Al Bell went to Africa, Egypt, Greece and many, many other places.

Like so many other students across the state, my classmates and I would wait all year long for Bell's next appearance. The entire school would gather in the gym for the assembly. A few of the older elementary boys would be chose each year to have the honor of helping to carry in the boxes of artifacts that Al Bell would bring to share. That was truly an honor, and the boys clamored to be chosen to help.

See, Al Bell was a big name. We wouldn't have been any more excited if a rock star had walked into the room. With all of us gathered on the bleachers in the gym, he would bound into the room and proclaim, "This is a grrrreeeaaatt day." And with that, we were carried off on an adventure to another part of the world. He had tables full of interesting items to illustrate his stories -- souvenirs of his travels. He and his wife would also don the native costumes of the places he visited. I remember quite vividly seeing the Bells dressed in colorful costumes from Greece - complete from tasseled hat to soft felt slippers. Sometimes, he would bring animals along, too - monkeys, sled dogs, and others.

Each year, after his appearance, we would stand in line waiting to get an autograph or just a word or two with this icon. Then one year, the school took a slip of paper and had Al Bell sign his name. The secretaries mimeographed the slip of paper (no photo copiers in the olden days) and passed out an autograph to each student.

Apparently, my friends and I are not the only ones who have fond memories of Al Bell's programs. Facebook has an "I Remember Al Bell Group" that boasts more than 1,500 members. There are blog sites and discussion groups online devoted to the Bells. I've also read of an effort to locate the films that Bell created to show with his programs. The hope for that effort is that Iowa Public Television or the Iowa State Historical Society would step in to help preserve and remember this wonderful Iowa adventurer.

Bell's last programs were presented in 1980. Another teacher took over for a few years, but the adventure soon came to an end.

For more than 30 years, the Bells brought the world to rural Iowa gyms and inspired a love of adventure and wanderlust in many, many Iowa farm children. Now, kids can just Google any topic and find a wealth of information. But it's just not the same as hearing a great storyteller share his adventures.

I hope that the efforts to preserve and honor the Bells come to fruition. It would be a shame to lose those memories.



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