Joan Bell lived an extraordinary and rich life that began on December 16, 1927. Her relatives before her traveled across the country in covered wagons and around the Horn by sail to find the riches of the great Northwest. Her parents, Robert and Eileen Swan, made their livelihood on the land in Washington and Oregon and built a successful timber and farming business that included the large scale growing of Easter lilies. They had three children - Janice, Joan, and Robert.
Joan was born in Carnation, Washington, and as a teenager during World War II, she maintained and issued blueprints at a naval shipyard. Her mother, who had a pharmacy degree, instilled in her a love for science, and after high school, Joan went on to receive a degree in botany from Stanford University. She then decided to pursue her Masters degree at the University of Texas at Austin.
Alas, on her first full day in Texas, she happened upon Bryan Bell - a physiology and microbiology student whom she saw teetering on a chair in the hall of the Biology Building. He took her sailing on their first date and dared to wonder if such a wonderful person could be his wife. It was the beginning of an indestructible romance that would continue for 64 years. Bryan and Joan were true companions who were fiercely devoted to each other. Throughout all their years they were always, always together.
Three children were born from their union - Bryan, Stephen, and Susan. They believe she was the best mother anyone could possibly have. She was strong and gentle and wise. She loved to read to them and engage them in projects that encouraged them to think and imagine. For her entire life, she listened to their thoughts, respected their opinions and feelings, showed pride and joy in their every accomplishment, gave them strength to face their fears, and comforted them during sadness. Always, they knew she loved them, and she knew they loved her.
While Joan was an incredible wife and mother, she did so much more. She fervently worked to help children from families of limited means and volunteered untold hours in efforts to register voters, promote civil rights, and empower women. She was honored by the U.S. Coast Guard for her work to enhance marine public education. She was a news and political junkie who was as smart and savvy as they came. She had a rebellious streak and savored a good scrap. Few, if any, could out-do, out-wit, or out-strategize her when she took up a cause. She was persuasive and stubborn and passionate.
When Bryan retired as an immunologist, they decided to start a business. They combined her love of a challenge and natural business acumen with his vast knowledge and passion for sailing. Joan's entrepreneurial spirit soared, and Santana Yacht Sales thrived for 14 years launching boats throughout the country. After selling their business, they moved to Onion Creek and developed a deep appreciation for their neighborhood and neighbors. They took great pleasure compiling and distributing neighborhood directories and organizing annual neighborhood parties.
Joan's favorite pastime was to make beautiful things. She sewed, knitted, crocheted, needlepointed, wove baskets, and hooked rugs. She made colorful Christmas ornaments, decoupaged boxes, and created porcelain containers and statues. She poured her own candles and ground up pulp for her own paper. She was a vociferous and talented watercolor artist.
By far, though, her greatest works of art happened in her gardens. It was as if she had ten green thumbs. Her soul was made of flowers. She was like Yo-Yo Ma with the strings of her instrument the colors and textures of plants. While some women wish for jewels on their birthday, Joan would ask for more dirt for her garden. In the 70's, she went beyond her yard and began to work a plot of land at the community garden by Deep Eddy. A large color picture of her appeared in the newspaper showing her digging in her garden plot alongside a scarecrow she had made and outfitted using her children's old clothes. She produced hundreds of pounds of vegetables for her family and friends. She knew the science of plant growth and the scientific names of every species. She talked about organic gardening, ecosystems, and the use of native plants before many knew about such. She loved plants and nature and made everything around her rich with life.
When Joan was age 45, she discovered she had breast cancer, and in the years that followed, she would also be diagnosed twice with colon cancer. The surgeries and treatments were brutal, but she was unstoppable. She was a warrior with indomitable will, and as she continued to enjoy a vital life well into her 80's, she served as a beacon of hope for others who worried that cancer would prevent them from leading a full and long life.
Her passing on December 8, 2013 has left her family and friends profoundly sad. But, they are so very grateful that she was part of their lives, and she loved them all so dearly. She is survived by her husband Bryan Bell; her son Bryan Bell, his wife Isabel Lesay, his first wife, Madelyn Schumacher, and their son Robert; her son Stephen Bell, his wife Mary Bell, and their three children Laura, Stephen, and Dorothy; her daughter Susan Bell and her husband John Warren; and her brother, Robert Swan and his wife Donna Swan.
To honor Joan, you can make a contribution to the National Wildflower Center; help those who might be less fortunate or need a voice; and, please, take every moment you can to laugh, play, be creative, and love.
Published in Austin American-Statesman from Dec. 29 to Dec. 30, 2013