For the first time in half a century, Brian Bell’s late-summer routine will change.
He won’t be in school.
“I’ve went to school every August since 1971,” explained Bell, a principal for the Seymour R-II School District for 26 years, including the past 21 years at the Seymour Middle School, a building he christened as its first and only administrator in the fall of 2000.
This fall, Bell officially will be retired, closing a 32-year career in education that began in the small Missouri Bootheel community of Cooter near the Arkansas border.
Beginning his career as a varsity boys’ baseball and basketball coach at Cooter, where he stayed for three years, his next stop was Plato as its boys’ basketball coach for a year before coming to Seymour prior to the 1993-94 school year.
“I was hired to do several things that first year in Seymour,” Bell said, smiling.
“I taught eighth- and ninth-grade history. I was the volleyball coach, and I also was the assistant boys’ basketball coach.”
Born and raised in Summersville, about an hour’s drive east of Webster County, Bell immediately felt at home in Seymour, where he and his wife of 33 years, Jill, moved once he was hired.
“When I came to Seymour, I wasn’t looking to leave,” he said. “I was hired near the end of the Dane Allen era here. In fact, at the meeting I was hired, there were 150 people at the (school-board) meeting over the closure of the old rock building.”
Once Bell appeared before the school board, Mick Pool, then the group’s president, asked him if he would sign a contract if one was offered.
“I told him that I’d sign it right there,” Bell responded.
And he was hired.
It was the beginning of a 28-year relationship — 26 of them in administration.
“Back then, I appreciate Mick and Kirk (Penner) being on the board, giving me a chance as a teacher and later as an administrator,” Bell said. “You remember people who give you an opportunity, even those little ones. And I’ll always remember those two. They stick out as people who were willing to give me a chance.”
For two years, Bell was a coach and teacher.
Then came his next opportunity.
“One afternoon, I guess it was sometime in the spring of 1995, Dan Ray, who was the superintendent at the time, knocks on my classroom door, asking for me to come to his office,” he explained. “I really didn’t know what to think, if I needed to find a new job ... I just wasn’t sure.
“But in that meeting, he asked if I would be interested in being a principal over at the elementary. It was K-7 at that time on that side of the road, and I told him that I was, so that spring I was hired as the principal for grades three to seven.”
His first contract was for $37,000.
“That was big money,” Bell said with a laugh.
He worked as an administrator at the elementary for five years, from the fall of 1995 until the spring of 2000, when he moved to the new middle school, supervising grades six to eight. For the past 21 school years, Bell has led the building.
In the interim, there have been four superintendents and nearly a dozen administrators at other district buildings.
“I like to think this building, if nothing else, has been pretty stable over the years,” he said.
“But I’ve always enjoyed this job. Every day. To me, it’s fun to get up and go to school every day. I enjoy being with and around the kids. In this building, you get to see kids at a time in their life when they’re changing. And that’s why when August arrives, I’ll probably have a hard time adjusting to (retirement). I’ve had this routine for 50 years.”
Success in Seymour
In today’s world of public education, long-term administrators are rare.
Long-term administrators at the same school are especially hard to find.
Yet Bell has served Seymour for 28 of his 32 years in public education, including 26 as an administrator.
The secret to his success?
“The first thing is to enjoy your job,” he said. “It’s that simple. You need to like kids.
“I’ve also been blessed to work with great people. Over the last three decades, I’ve watched a lot of people come through here who later became leaders in other districts. I had the opportunity to work with them.”
Low staff turnover has been a staple in his building.
“Part of that, I believe, has to do with being proactive in hiring,” Bell said. “If you see someone who is good, go get them. Let them know you want them in your building.”
Then once they’re hired, let them succeed.
“I support my teachers and always have,” he noted. “Let them do their job and enjoy their job.
“Work should be fun. If it is (for teachers), then it will be fun for the students. It’s not complicated. Life is too short.”
Bell said he also was fortunate to have many outstanding mentors throughout his career.
“On the (school) board, I previously mentioned a couple of them with Kirk (Penner) and Mick (Pool),” he said. “They were successful in life, but they also were excellent members of our school board. It was evident they cared.”
In a school setting, Bell pointed to Dan Ray, who was the district’s superintendent until the end of the 1995-96 school year.
“Dan was a little gruff, but he was a leader,” he said.
Another mentor was Alan Stauffacher, who coached the boys’ basketball team for a decade and rebuilt the program into a perennial winner.
“He was a great example of netting results through a lot of hard work,” Bell said.
From the teaching ranks, Bell pointed out Jerry Cox and Mike Hardy.
“Jerry was our moral compass,” he said. “Just a super human being ... not a better person out there.”
He cited Hardy as a epitome of a great teacher.
“I don’t think I’ll ever see a better one,” Bell said of Hardy in the classroom. “He’s a best example I’ve seen of what a teacher should be in every facet.”
Bell said that before his first semester ended as a Seymour teacher, he knew the community was one he wanted to call home and that the district was one where he wanted to finish his career.
“I knew that pretty quick,” he said. “Within a year or two, Jill and I bought the lot for our home on Highway C at the (Forrest) Lynch auction, and that’s where we still live today after building our home.”
There are no regrets.
“My kids were born and raised here,” Bell reminisced.
“I brought my kids to school every day until they graduated.
I’ve enjoyed hundreds, if not thousands, of ballgames in every sport, as well as hundreds of community events, everything from auctions to fundraisers.
“I’ve been blessed here in Seymour. This is my home.”
Bell said that over the past 28 years in the Seymour R-II School District, there have been many memories.
“I’m proud to say I’ve been here for all three of our school’s ‘Final Four’ runs — twice in girls’ basketball and once in baseball,” he said. “I got to see and be part of our first district championship in boys’ basketball, which was exciting.”
Wife Jill also enjoyed many of the sports memories either as a spectator or as a scorekeeper.
“We’ve got to do a lot of things together, and that’s been great,” he said.
“In school administration, you need a patient and supporting wife. There’s a lot of time involved. And I’m very fortunate there. Jill always has been willing to be there at my side. Our interests are very similar.”
Bell said he’s also been blessed with a pair of outstanding secretaries at his job.
First was Carol Denney, who was with him for six years.
Next was Shelley Wingo, who’s been at his side for the past two decades.
“I couldn’t have made it the first five years without Carol there,” Bell said. “Over the past 20 years, Shelley has been invaluable. She’s my right hand.”
He’s also enjoyed sleeping where he works.
“I never have had the desire to work somewhere where I didn’t live,” Bell explained. “There’s just so much more of a benefit to living where you work, especially in a school setting. Because I lived here, I was able to coach my kids’ baseball and basketball teams. For many years, we ran a youth basketball league here in Seymour.
“I’ve worked in the chicken shack at the Seymour Apple Festival for 28 years, minus one, when I had a heart attack. For many years, I was on YMCA boards. I’ve driven a bus on and off my entire time here and often got to drive my own kids to games.”
Both of his sons are Seymour High School graduates.
Logan, 28, is a teacher at Cabool. He and his new wife live in a home they built in Seymour.
Landon, 23, graduates in May from the University of Missouri Science & Technology in Rolla with a degree in environmental engineering. He starts his new job at GBA Engineering in Kansas City on July 1.
Regarding Seymour, Bell said it simply is home.
“I’ve lived here for more than half of my life,” he said.
“And I’m proud of Seymour, proud to be from Seymour. You can’t find a town of our size that offers what our town offers. It just can’t be done. This is a special community for a lot of reasons.”
In retirement, the 54-year-old Bell said he doesn’t plan to leave Seymour.
“I hope that there still will be some sort of role that I can fill with the school,” he said. “For the past 20-plus years, I’ve been the transportation director, so there are skills that I feel the district still can utilize from me. I don’t just want to go to the house and disconnect from a place where I’ve worked for almost 30 years.”
Above that, Bell has a distinction that no other administrator in school history can claim.
“I think I’m the only person here to be a principal in all three buildings,” he noted, as Bell was the interim high-school principal for a short tenure after the removal two years ago of Brian Wilbanks.
In the future, he’ll still remain involved in the community and, hopefully, the school district.
“I’ve got really nothing but positive to say about my time in Seymour,” Bell concluded.
“It’s been a fun ride the past 28 years.”