For 66 years, King University in Bristol, Tennessee, has had a treasure in its crown. Fittingly, her name is Jewel.
Enter through the front door of the King Building, which houses the library and administrative offices, and you’ll find Jewel Bell peering over her desk, likely smiling. Don’t be deceived. Come to see the president without an appointment? She’ll be pleased as punch to make a first-time acquaintance, or thoroughly delighted to see you if you’re an old friend — but nobody gets into the president’s office without her approval.
In truth, not much gets past this 88-year-old executive administrative assistant for communications. Throughout her life, she has navigated personal and professional challenges with a generous and dignified heart, the kind of spirit often recognized by the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award. Jewel was nominated for and received the award in 1980, and since then, has continued to exemplify its principles by constantly uplifting others.
Last year, King University celebrated its 150th anniversary, along with the inauguration of a new president, Alexander Whitaker. Whitaker is the ninth president Jewel has welcomed to campus, and so far she notes, “He says I’m like sunshine to him.”
In true Jewel form, however, she has made it known that the present location of her desk — a spot she’s occupied since 1990, following some contentious moving around — is where she’d like it to stay. “I said if you all move me again, I’m just going to roll on out of here like a basketball.”
From Maid to Matriarch
Jewel’s strong work ethic was instilled in her by her mother, Hattie Howard, who worked for 89 of her 95 years. Jewel herself started her first job at age 11, babysitting. She began her career at King in September of 1952 as a temporary maid in Bristol Hall, which at the time was a women’s dormitory.
That initial, two-week job became permanent, following an offer by then-president R.T.L. Liston. When a new telephone switchboard was installed on the campus in 1961 — in the midst of that era’s civil rights movement — Jewel was asked to take charge of it.
“In 1961, several men came to campus to oversee the finalization of the switchboard,” she said. “When they finished, their supervisor asked the dean of women who would be operating it. She told him I would. He looked over at me in surprise and said, ‘We don’t have negroes operating switchboards.’ She told him, ‘Mrs. Bell will not only be an operator, she will be a supervisor. We are a private Christian institution, so we do as we please.’ And that was that!”
After training on the switchboard with the United Telephone Company, Jewel moved to Parks Hall, the university’s new women’s dorm, where she served as the supervisor for both the switchboard and the building. Her understanding of King and the Bristol community, as well as her prime location in the dorm’s lobby, offered her the opportunity to interact with — and keep an eye on — King’s students. At the same time, as she worked to raise her own young children, she became mother and mentor to dozens more, offering comfort and guidance where needed.
Throughout her tenure, the world has seen numerous changes and upheavals. But Jewel’s steadfast attitude and loving heart has remained steady. Today, she has three grown children, seven grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. She can also claim thousands of students who have come to her for advice, assistance, support and encouragement.
The stories are all consistent: graduates from all King eras come back to celebrate Jewel. Rarely does a day pass by without her receiving a visit or a call from an alumnus eager to share news, seek counsel, get a hug, or simply hear her voice.
“Last year, the students who graduated in 1958 returned for Dogwood Weekend and invited me to attend the dinner with them,” she said. “They felt like I was a part of their class. Although I couldn’t attend classes in those days, the girls who worked for me on the switchboard and the kids all treated me as if I was the same. One precious young man who’s now a lawyer came back and gave me a hug. He told me, ‘I wanted you to go to class with us.’ I didn’t know that. You never know what’s in someone’s heart.”
Although Jewel never participated in classes at King, in 1966 her son, Lawrence Jr., became the first African-American student to attend.
“Whatever problems the students have had over the years, I’ve tried to help them,” she said. “One girl locked her keys in her car and called me at midnight. I took care of that. Another young woman who worked for me became pregnant and needed maternity clothes. I took care of that. A brand-new freshman took the bus all the way from Florida to come to King. He arrived at midnight with no way to get to campus and called our answering service. The call came to me and I took care of that, too. He told me, ‘I’d never been to Bristol and I don’t know if I’d have made it here without you!’
“Today, I was on the phone with a young lady who was just calling to talk. When she graduated a couple years ago, she wrote in bold letters on her cap: ‘Mom, Dad and Jewel,’ and her parents sent me a letter thanking me for taking care of their daughter … I think it’s important to give back to your community and be a mother to other kids, not just your own. I’ve tried to make a difference in the lives of others.”
A Lifetime of Service from a Tennessee Colonel
The King community, along with residents of the region, can attest to the positive difference Jewel makes. For decades she has devoted her time and efforts to the American Red Cross, the Slater Community Center, and has worked at Healing Hands Health Center since the clinic first opened its doors. She has served on the YWCA Bristol’s board of directors since the 1960s, lending her voice and the strength of her experience to the empowerment of women and the elimination of racism. While her children were in school she served on the PTA, and also served as the first African-American PTA council president. She continues to volunteer at the American Red Cross, and is a longtime member of Lee Street Baptist Church.
Her unwavering dedication to King’s students, along with her longstanding devotion to her work, have earned her multiple awards. In addition to the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award, she is an honoree of the YWCA’s Tribute to Women Program, has a lane on the King campus named after her, and was honored with the establishment of the Jewel H. Bell scholarship in 2007. The fund goes to help students who, as she describes it, “have fallen through the cracks and need a little extra help to stay in school,” a purpose that’s dear to her heart.
Most recently, she received the university’s first-ever Lifetime Service Award, presented during alumni weekend in spring 2017. At the same time she was also declared an Aide-de-Camp by Governor Bill Haslam, an honor that carries with it the title of Tennessee Colonel.
President Whitaker, who before his career in higher education was an active-duty Navy captain, says Jewel outranks him. “She is senior to us all in years and stature and in the affection with which she is held,” he said. “Jewel Bell is the one person who more than any other—including the president—represents the university to its students, alumni, faculty, staff and members of the community.”
A Legacy of Love
As King enters its 151st year, Jewel continues to serve as a guiding voice for the students, faculty and administration alike.
“To see where this school started and where we are today, it’s mesmerizing,” she said. “We have had so many moments of rich history and we are truly blessed to have come this far.”
Her mission of caring for others remains as strong as ever, and she’s grateful for the community that cares for her in return. “My husband, Lawrence, and I were married for 50 years until his death,” Jewel said. “My own children left years ago to pursue their careers, but this is still my home and the students are my family. Some of my family call me Gran, some call me GG, JB, Miss Jewel, plain Jewel, Mrs. Bell or Ma Bell. I prefer the young people and I love them. I feel like God has enabled me to be here so long because of them, and I believe I’ve made an impact.”