Her employment with the University, which originally began in September 1952 as a temporary, two-week engagement, now spans nearly half of the institution’s 152-year history. She is believed to be the longest-serving active employee in U.S. academia.
As part of the celebration, King alumnus Jerry Caldwell (’97), executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS), arrived to chauffeur Bell in the track’s signature pace car, taking a leisurely lap around King’s Oval before providing a front-door drop-off to the festivities inside Maclellan Hall.
True to form, Bell insisted on working during her own party, serving as greeter and a host to the hundreds of students, faculty and staff who came to celebrate her.
Bell is familiar to many alumni and friends of King as the literal voice of the university. Since 1961, she has operated the campus switchboard, answering calls and monitoring traffic in and out of the president’s office. While her title is executive administrative assistant for communications, she’s better known as Ma Bell, and her role throughout the decades has been one of advocate, sage, comforter and guide.
“Those who understand the culture and commitment of our campus often mention Jewel Bell in the same breath as King,” said Alexander Whitaker, president of King. “Her care for our students and her longtime devotion to the university present the model by which we are all now measured. We are grateful for her many years of service, and for the grace and humor she continues to bring to every interaction. She is indeed the Jewel in King’s crown.”
Bell’s sense of dedication is also reflected in her enduring service to community, which includes decades of support provided to organizations such as the American Red Cross, Slater Community Center, Healing Hands Health Center, YWCA of Northeast Tennessee/Southwest Virginia, and the Bristol City PTA Council.
Her service has garnered her a number of accolades, including the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award and recognition from the YWCA’s Tribute to Women program. In 2007, in appreciation for her guidance to students, King established the Jewel H. Bell scholarship. She is also the recipient of the university’s first-ever Lifetime Service Award and has been honored with a namesake lane on the Bristol campus. In 2017, she was declared an Aide-de-Camp by Governor Bill Haslam, a distinction that carried with it the title of Tennessee Colonel.
For her birthday, a number of organizations and personalities sent gifts and well-wishes, including the key to the city from the City of Bristol, Tennessee; a brass state line marker from the Bristol Chamber; a proclamation from the Tennessee State Senate, accompanied by a flag flown over the capital; birthday cards from academic organizations affiliated with King — even an autographed 90th birthday greeting from Dolly Parton.
Bell and her late husband, Lawrence, raised three children. Since then, her family has expanded to include numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, plus one great-great-grandchild. Her mission of caring for others remains as strong as ever, and she’s thankful 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; the students are my family and I love them. Some of my family call me Gran, some call me GG, JB, Miss Jewel, plain Jewel, Mrs. Bell or Ma Bell. I feel like God has enabled me to be here so long because of them, and I believe I’ve made an impact.”