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Education reformer Bell dies

Robert D. "Bob" Bell, who served in the administrations of several Kentucky governors and is credited with fostering education reforms, died Nov. 28.

Mr. Bell, 83, was involved with the Kentucky Advocates for Higher Education, the Governor's Scholars Program, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and other education-related organizations.

"He was a public servant to the core," said Bob Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee. "He ... understood fully that you can get a lot done if you don't care who gets the credit."

Mr. Bell's son, Larry Bell, said his father was a lifelong Democrat who served under governors Bert Combs, Ned Breathitt, Wendell Ford and Julian Carroll. He was appointed to a number of positions including secretary of natural resources and environmental protection, revenue commissioner, parks commissioner, director of state planning and deputy commissioner of highways.

In the mid-1970s, he joined Ashland Oil Inc., where he encouraged corporate support for programs that aided education.

"That leadership led to the involvement and leadership from other large companies" such as Humana and UPS, Sexton said.

That, in turn, led to a public campaign that eventually resulted in the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Later, Mr. Bell heavily promoted "the idea that Kentucky deserved a research university that was as good as its basketball team," Sexton said. That push fueled a wave of public pressure that resulted in higher education reforms in the late 1990s.

Larry Bell said public education played a big role in helping his father achieve success.

After serving as a navigator in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, Mr. Bell took advantage of the GI Bill and completed graduate studies in public administration at the universities of Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

In addition to his son, Mr. Bell is survived by his wife, Betty Leet Bell; a daughter, Leslie Bell Jaggie; and three grandchildren.

A funeral will be at noon Wednesday at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Main Street.