By J. D. Beathea / Sunday December 1, 1974
From 1968-2013 Harold and Hattie coordinated and were the host for 45 straight Christmas toy parties for elementary school children without grants or loans.
If success is measured in terms of financial reward, here’s a man who hasn’t made it. But there are thousands of kids in the DMV who will vouch for the success of HAROLD BELL.
He may be the only guy living who ever grew up in a ghetto, in real poverty, but still never learned to “play the game,” that great America pastime.
Everybody plays the game to some degree. That’s what success is all about. Playing the game. Being alternately malleable and assertive with the right people at the right time. Bell never learned, if he had, given his drive and single-mindedness of purpose, he would probably be dangerous.
At 35 Bell has not changed much from the days he starred in football, basketball, and baseball while playing musical chairs in the Washington, DC high school system while attending Spingarn, Eastern and finally graduating from Fairmont Heights.
For several years Bell also starred as a wide receiver for the Virginia Sailors, a semi-pro team that was considered the Redskins’ farm team. Through it all, he maintained one consistent trait—an ability to drive coaches up the wall. He never saw a football he could not catch, a basketball he could not shoot or a base he could not steal.
Redskins’ LB Harold McLinton and Dave Robinson making children first.
This was the pre-Vince Lombardi days. Defensive backs who could not guard Bell one on one in a telephone booth received tryouts at the Redskin camps.
Receivers who only looked at passes that Bell could have caught got tryouts. He soon realized he was not about to become a football star in the NFL.
Somewhere along the line, he decided his mission in life was to help inner-city kids to get some of the breaks he could not get or didn’t even know about. In this venture, Bell was an unqualified success.
But in the workplace, he continued to drive his superiors up the wall. That is the primary reason he is out of a job, although he can still be found in the streets of the inner-city, talking to youngsters, finding money when they needed it, dispensing advice and helping them to get in college.
“Athletics was a way out for me,” Bell said. It took me off the mean streets. In a way I was lucky. There were Spingarn coaches and teachers like Coach Dave Brown who refuse to let me self-destruct. They helped guys like Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Willie Wood, and countless others. I’m trying to do the same thing.”
Today, Bell picks up the telephone and calls, Jim Brown (NFL), Earl Monroe (NBA), Dave Bing (NBA), Roy Jefferson (NFL), Johnny Sample (NFL), Lenny Moore (NFL), and many other great athletes. All they want to know is where and when. They are there when he needs them.
Perhaps Bell’s devotion to youngsters now is his way of trying to repay some of the people who helped him when he most needed it. And there was a time when he needed help desperately.
“When I was playing at Spingarn we had a great football team. I had a talented QB named Donald Wills. His brother was L. A. Dodger shortstop, Maury Wills one of the great all around athletes to come out of the DC Public school system.”
“I was a legend in my own mind as a wide receiver. I really thought they could not win without me. It was just throw me the ball I am open. One game my selfish play got me pulled from the game and locked on the team bus for half-time. My head was so messed up at the time I almost got kicked off the team. They won without me. I had to apologize to my teammates after the game.
The lesson learned–no one is indispensable.”
It still didn’t take. Bell had a habit of saying what was on his mind and looking at the world from his own restricted field of vision. There was no room in his life for playing the game. Next move: Eastern, the same thing. Then on to, Fairmont Heights where he finally graduated.
Bell’s mother, a single parent who was welfare after losing her good government job as a clerk typist, had a nervous breakdown as a result of trying to make ends meet for her three boys. The 4th son, Bobby lived with his grandmother. His younger brother Earl, now a DC cop a juvenile delinquent in every sense of the word was sent to the receiving home. His youngest brother William aka Puddin went to live with their next door neighbor. Bell was left to fend for himself. He slept in his Aunt Doretha’s car until she found him one morning leaving for work. He moved in with her so he could finish high school.
“This was a very difficult time because it was his way or no way. If it had not been for sports and Coach Brown, he says, “I would undoubtedly have been on drugs or robbing banks just to stay alive. I was trying to go to hell in a hurry.” His Brown Middle School Principal William B. Stinson had predicted he would not live to get out of high school. I got over that hurdle,” Bell said.
After a while things improved after he struck up a relationship with Petey Greene and Richard M. Nixon at the Burning Tree Golf Course in Bethesda, Maryland. The two men would become his future mentors. Petey would later become a legendary radio and television talk show host and Nixon would become the President of the United States.
Burning Tree was an all-white male golf course for the rich and powerful–no women were allowed to play including their wives. But a funny thing happens every Monday, the black caddies were allowed to play, but not the wives.
Vice-President Nixon liked Bell and they became friends after several outings on the golf course together. Nixon was a terrible golfer but he was a sports fanatic. He and Attorney General William Rogers played late in the evenings and Bell would hitchhike a ride into DC with them to catch his bus home to the projects. The Vice-President didn’t have Secret Service men riding shotgun at that time. During the 20 minute ride, the two would talk sports.
He and Petey became friends even after his homeboys from the projects warned him to keep his distance from the card and crap game hustler.
“Petey was the reason I met Nixon. One early evening after I had completed my tour I became bored sitting around waiting for my homies to come in from the course. I thought I was a pretty good gambler and I decided to go down into the woods to check out Petey Greene–big mistake. I was broke in the blink of an eye. I found myself back at the caddy shack with two-dollars I had borrowed from Petey for my bus transportation and Little Tavern Hamburgers. I was trying to catch a ride into DC when the club Pro Max Elbin called me to carry the bags of Nixon and Rogers–the rest is history,” Bell says.
In 1959 Coach Brown would convince the legendary coach Clarence ‘Bighouse’ Gaines to give him a football/basketball scholarship to Winston-Salem Teacher’s College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Bell says, “Coach Gaines and the school saved my life.”
Tribute to Clarence ‘Bighouse’ Gaines in Chicago. I was the first ever recipient of the Bighouse Gaines Community Service Award. Minister Louis Farrakhan seated on left.
The summer of 1969 he would have another encounter with Nixon but this time he was President Nixon. Nixon was touring the riot area in Shaw/Cardozo when Petey called to tell him, “Your man is hanging out in the 7th & T Streets corridor.” His response, ‘What man?’ Petey yelled, ‘President Richard Nixon.’
“I ran from Harrison Playground located at 13th & W Streets to 7th & T Streets and there was Nixon walking around with this huge crowd following him. But I could not get anywhere near him because now there were Secret Service Men present guarding his every move very carefully. I remember catching the eye of one of them and yelled to him ‘tell the President, Harold Bell is here I use to caddy for him at the Burning Tree Golf Course.’ The Secret Sevice man looked at me and said, ‘Write him a letter,’ Bell said.
He took the advice and wrote to President Nixon at the White House reminding him of their Burning Tree experience and updating him on his work in the riot area of Shaw/Cardozo with at-risk children and youth gangs.
Two weeks later President Nixon responded to his letter saying, “Your reflections on our late evening golf at Burning Tree brought back wonderful memories, and I well remember our discussions at the time. Like too many youngsters you had to begin your working career early and were forced to bypass the good times and games that most boys and girls your age were able to enjoy. What makes me very proud of you is that you have returned to the young people whose lives today resemble your own early years and that you are dedicated to giving them help along the difficult road of life. They sorely need the inspiration and the example that you are able to give them.”
In August 1969 President Nixon invited Harold and his wife Hattie to the White House for lunch and that invitation led to a Presidential appointment. He left the DC Department of Recreation & Parks to take a job with the Department of Defense (DOD). His new boss Secretary of Defense Melvin Lair assigned him to the office of Domestic Actions. His role was cover to all the military bases in the DMV allowing the community to use the base facilities such as; swimming pools, basketball and tennis courts, and baseball fields.
He established the first-ever half-way house for juvenile delinquents in 1971 on Bolling Air Force Base in SE Washington, DC. The residents were juveniles bussed in from DC’s overcrowded facilities. The facility was a game changer and a feather in Bell’s cap. He negotiated with Bolling AFB Chaplin Charles Rider and DC Mayor Walter Washington while his mentor DC Superior Court Judge Luke C. Moore ran interference. Petey Greene, DC Superior Court Judges and members of the Washington Redskins became mentors to the youth in their new home.
With Bell’s contacts at the White House and his friendships with pro athletes the programs, he administered worked beautifully. Unfortunately, in 1972, Watergate broke and upset the political landscape. Bell had a shaky relationship with the Base Commander Duane Erickson who considered him an ‘Outsider.’ He used the Watergate confusion to abolish Bell’s job.
Bell was not out of work for long he joined the staff of Project Build headed by its dynamic Director Roland Williams. The program was designed to help prepare young men for the world of work using the trades as the vehicle (bricklaying, electric, plumbing, etc). He had also become the first Black sports talk show host in the Nation’s Capitol. He owes thanks to his mentor Petey Greene. His 5 minutes as a sports commentator on the Petey’s Sunday talk show open the door at W-O-O-K Radio. Bell joined childhood friend, DJ John ‘Terrible Turk’ Edwards.
To Bell, the professional athlete is still the most influential man in the black community. It is either them or the pimp and hustler the kids have to emulated. “Athletics are still the main avenue out of the ghetto, Bell said.
“My objective is to let kids use athletics but not let athletics use them. There is education, travel, and all the experiences that broaden a youngster– things that go beyond even athletics.”
“Let’s face it, in athletics, you’re here today and gone tomorrow. I could have done a lot more with my life, I suppose if I had been looking out for me. But that’s not the way I am. I’m also at peace with myself. Peace of mind is not for sale. Success to me is not measured by finances” and kids are really first.