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Former defense intelligence aide appointed to Bend council

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Staff Writer

Being called gullible is a good thing -- just ask Horseshoe Bend Alderman Barbara Bell.

Bell, 60, who began her career as a secretary on a farm for reformed convicts, heard the taunt regularly from inmates.

"Oh, they used to call me Gullible Gernie or Gullible Barb because I grew up on a farm in Iowa and had no idea what was going on in the real world," Bell said with a laugh.

Over the last 40 years, Bell has shown how gullible those inmates were. Bell's lifelong odyssey took her from an Iowa farm to the White House and many points in between.

Bell said her journey began when she took a civil service exam in 1963. After her scores were calculated, the recruiter administering the test offered Bell a job in Washington, D.C.

Bell accepted the job but there were two problems. First, the recruiter didn't tell her what her job was and second she didn't have any money. "I got lucky because my income taxes came back the next week and it covered my train fare with $20 to spare. That's what I started out with on my way to Washington," she said.

When Bell arrived in Washington she worked as an intelligence aide at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Bell said she quickly rose in rank and became a liaison between military personnel and high ranking officers in the agency. She said officers and others came to her with problems and she directed them to the appropriate administrators in the Defense Department.

"My position at DIA made me privy to some sensitive information. My husband and I were not allowed to leave the country for seven years after I stopped working at the DIA," said Bell.

Bell had access to information pertaining to the Amelia Earhart disappearance, the beginnings of the Vietnam War and other covert operations around the world.

For extra money, Bell said she would type documents in the White House at night. She said she had regular conversations with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and met with President Lyndon Johnson on several occasions.

Bell said she admired Johnson's wife "Lady Bird" Johnson. "She was such a big environmentalist and such a nice person and I respected that," she said.

Bell said she was involved in a bizarre incident when a man living in her apartment building was arrested for espionage.

"My friends and I thought he looked like a Russian spy, and we avoided being alone on the elevator or any other place in the building with him because he scared us," Bell said.

She said she was shocked when a picture of him gathering information from an Army sergeant appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. It turned out he was a spy. "I had to go through several days of debriefing after that," she said.

During her stay in Washington, D.C., Bell said she enjoyed an active social life. She said she danced with her girlfriend on the weekends and played basketball and softball for the Army against women in the other armed services.

While working at DIA, Bell met a young air policeman named Norman Bell. "He was the most wonderful man I ever met and the most wonderful man I've ever known," said Bell.

Norman and Barbara were married in 1966.

Two years after their marriage, Barbara and Norman decided to move back to Norman's home town, Dexter, Mich., to raise their newborn daughter, Sherill.

Not long after their arrival, Norman and Barbara welcomed sons Alan and Rick into their family.

Norman worked at the Dexter Post Office and Barbara worked at Townsend and Bowdum, a company that built power plants, among other things.

Bell's position at Townsend and Bowdum required her to fly all over the country numerous times to work on accounts, she said. "Some days I would fly to the West Coast at 7 a.m. to work, be back by five' clock for my kids' baseball games and in the late evening I would work on my garden," she said.

Bell said Townsend and Bowdum closed after the Three Mile Island nuclear plant disaster in 1979. At the time Townsend and Bowdum was working on the MGM sound studios in Florida.

Bell spent the next six years taking care of a woman with dementia. Every year the woman and Barbara would fly to Hawaii to see the woman's son.

"I think everyone should have to look after an elderly person at some point in their life. It gives you a wonderful perspective," she said.

In 1990 Bell was offered a job as a contract writer for the environmental company, Ciesen.

At Ciesen, Bell helped to produce an educational documentary about Alaska.

She said she had to fly to Alaska twice during the filming and it was a great experience. "We went whitewater rafting on the Denali and watched the aurora borealis at night," she said.

The documentary Ciesen produced was shown in schools all over the country, she said.

Ciesen was downsized in the late 1990s after NASA was hit with budget cuts. Ciesen sold their remaining contracts to Columbia University in New York and Bell said she and Norman decided it was time to retire.

In 1999 the couple moved into a newly built house (Barbara designed it) on the golf course in Horseshoe Bend.

The Bells' happy retirement was short lived. Soon after their arrival doctors found cancerous tumors in Norman. He died Sept. 12, 2001.

"Not having Norman here has been tough. He was such a good husband and friend," she said.

Bell's retired life is as busy as her professional life. Besides her recent appointment to the city council, Bell is the president of the Beta Sigma Phi and a board member of the Methodist Church and theater group. She likes to golf, throw horseshoes and visit with her many friends and family. She's also an avid supporter of former president Ronald Reagan and is saddened by his recent passing.

All things considered, her life in Horseshoe Bend is pleasant.

"I love Horseshoe Bend. I think God brought us here. The people of this town are remarkable and they always take care of me," she said.

Being gullible never looked so good.

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