By Jaclyn Mika (RSJ ’08)
Delmar (Del) Bell knew just how hard it could be to budget as a first-year, Ryerson journalism student.
“To support himself, he looked after six children under 10 years of age after school. Somehow, he managed to finish his first year of Ryerson,” Margaret Bell, his wife, said.
During his summer break after that first year, Del made deliveries for Coca Cola during the day. At night, he worked painting street lines. He often slept on the bags of sugar in the Coca Cola warehouse.
“When he returned to Ryerson in September he was surprised with the offer of either $500 or free accommodation, with no strings attached, in the home of a generous couple,” Margaret said. “He, of course, snatched the latter.”
It made perfect sense that an award in his memory would go to a first-year student.
The Del Bell Memorial Award was established when Del died 11 months after returning to work in journalism as an associate editor of the Toronto Sun after a stint as Communications Director for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities. It is given annually to a first-year student with a demonstrated flair for news and feature writing and demonstrated financial need.
“Del drew great pride from the fact he took to babysitting to help cover his tuition costs at Ryerson,” said George Hutchison, his friend and former colleague from the London Free Press. “But he also carried a lingering memory of the hardship of a tight budget.”
“The fact that it continues to recognize the promise of young journalists, especially when print journalism is under such a technological and shoddy political assault, gives the family and Del’s former colleagues great satisfaction,” said Hutchison.
Before getting into journalism, Del worked making collections for a finance company in Windsor. After they met, he told Margaret over and over that he wished he had gone into journalism instead.
Margaret heard the complaint once too often and finally told him: “Do it! Apply to Ryerson. Sell your car and use the money to pay for your tuition.”
To her surprise, he did. After that tough, first-year summer, he landed a job with the Windsor Star, who would often send him to cover its small, out-of-town bureaus. In the autumn of 1959, he applied to the London Free Press.
He stayed for 27 years.
“He fell in love with the business, the staff, the camaraderie and newspaper life,” Margaret said.
Bosses and colleagues from the Free Press described him as “the stuff of which newspaper legends are made” and “one of the outstanding newspaper characters in the country.”
“I remember a city editor of the day said never in all his years had he met a more gung-ho newsman,” Hutchison said. “He was driven to seek out the truth and place it before the public in his inimitable style. He was a force within the Free Press newsroom and the community at large. In these days, such models are sorely needed.”
Del won numerous Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and a 1973 National Newspaper Award for feature writing. He covered Queen’s Park for the Free Press for two years and when he returned to the London office, he began writing a thrice-weekly column.
“Del gained a lot of attention as a reporter who constantly broke the news. He had a beautiful way with words that shaped his many feature articles,” Hutchison said. “But I think he was at the top of his game when he was given a daily column under the gawdawful title of Del Bell’s Pealings. He effectively became a celebrity and he loved it.”
Margaret and their children, often the subject of his column, were not always as enthused as his readers. The Free Press gave at least one of them the chance to even the score. Allen Bell, Del’s son, shared this story:
“My Dad was a political ‘geek’ all his life. He loved politics – municipal, provincial and federal, and he covered elections with the gusto of a dog with a juicy bone. My father also dearly loved his family and my brothers and I were often the subject of our dad’s weekly column, Del Bell’s Pealings. (Still, love that title!) Our angst, shenanigans, adolescent woes – were all fair game in Dad’s books and readers loved it! Not so much my brothers and me. It was entirely humiliating. Until one day when Mom and Dad went off on a jolly holiday to England and I received a request from the London Free Press to write a ‘guest column’ in Dad’s place. (I think this may have been Mom’s idea, but who knows?!) They even slipped in a picture of me instead of Dad and, I I believe, the caption read something like: Take that Dad! Mom was with Dad when he eagerly bought a copy of his beloved paper on the way home from the airport. The results were, apparently, unprintable! My brothers and I were thrilled. Gotcha Dad!”
Many of his readers and colleagues donated to the award when plans for it were announced. It is one of the longest-running awards at the Ryerson School of Journalism and has benefitted at least 27 students since it was created.
“The Del Bell Memorial Award was the first award I won at Ryerson. Before that, I’d never been to an award ceremony in my life, much less received one,” said Declan Keogh, who won the award in 2016 and this year won the Ryerson Gold Medal during convocation.
“Meeting the Bell family was definitely not what I expected. The crew came, Margaret, his wife, and Cassie and Douglas, his kids. Their grandchildren also came. It was a humbling and wholesome experience––they definitely made me feel good about coming to Ryerson and the work I’ve done,” Keogh said. “I’ve been to a few award ceremonies since and the Bell family is always there, smiling and making the next generation of journalists feel supported and valuable.”
Subhanghi Anandarajah, who won the award in 2017, said that she when she started at Ryerson, she was surprised by how many of her fellow students shared her fears about whether they could succeed in journalism. For her, winning the Del Bell Memorial Award boosted her confidence.
“When I found out I won the Del Bell Memorial Award, my self-esteem improved, and I became confident that I could also become a successful graduate and reporter. It reinforced my determination to become a journalist who motivates people,” Anandarajah said. “For first-year students who are transitioning into post-secondary and learning more about their program and possible career choices, such awards offer them hope that they are able to have an incredible impact through their work if they have the passion and perseverance.”
Seeing the Bell family at the annual RSJ awards ceremony has become a welcome tradition for RSJ staff and faculty as well.
“We look forward to seeing them every year,” said Janice Neil, RSJ Chair. “We’ve gotten to see their grandchildren grow up. They’ve given students a wonderful legacy of support.”
“Seeing the enthusiasm in these young people can only make us hope that Del’s story will be an inspiration to them and show them that hard work, dedication and passion will fuel their success,” said Margaret. “Each year we get a thank-you note from the recipient, many saying that the bursary will make it possible for them to pursue their dream. Wouldn’t Del be proud!”