Obituary: Ralph K. Bell / Greene County farmer and dedicated birder

Jan. 27, 1915 - May 20, 2014


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Ralph K. Bell was mowing fields at the Bell Family Farm in Clarksville, Greene County, one month ago, and on May 17 he welcomed and met with 70 people who had traveled to the farm from Pittsburgh for an annual birding event named in his honor.

Mr. Bell was a college-educated farmer who had been a birder for 87 years. He watched and counted birds, carefully noting their species and entering data in ledgers that kept track of the ups and downs in bird populations. In 1954, he was licensed to capture and band birds for educational and ecological purposes. Banded birds were then carefully released. In his life, Mr. Bell banded more than 142,000 birds. He was paid nothing for his work and research, but he earned many awards.

In 2006, the Pennsylvania Game Commission gave him a Certificate of Appreciation for "exemplary achievement in bird banding, bird research and providing homes for wildlife."

On May 20, a day when he was still telling jokes to family and friends, Mr. Bell died in the farmhouse where he was born 99 years ago. He had not been ill and was active till the end.

"He said he was tired," said his daughter, Joan Bell Pattison of Fort Myers, Fla. "He said, 'Joanie, I have had a wonderful life and I loved every minute of it.' " He had earlier told her that the secret to living a long life is "to keep moving and never retire."

Mr. Bell raised sheep, chickens and Christmas trees on the 120-acre farm that his father, Harry Kennedy Bell, bought around 1900. But his family's roots go much deeper than that -- Bells settled in Greene County shortly after the Revolutionary War, his daughter said, and he was proud to be a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, Fort Jackson Chapter.

He also was a member of Jefferson Presbyterian Church, the National Rifle Association and Greene County Soil Conservation. He belonged to many bird organizations, including Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, Three Rivers Birding Club, Eastern Bird Banding Association and Purple Martin Conservation Society.

Mr. Bell graduated from Penn State University in 1938 with a bachelor's degree in poultry husbandry. In 1939, he married Mary Elizabeth Kern of State College, Pa., and together they operated the Bell Farm until her death in 1995.

Mr. Bell began watching, counting and documenting birds when he was 12. One of his favorite species was the bluebird, and in his lifetime he built hundreds of bluebird houses and encourage others to do the same.

Mr. Bell lectured on birds and nature for more than 65 years, speaking to schoolchildren, civic groups, bird clubs and scouting groups. Marjorie Howard of Waynesburg met him at one of those talks in 1995 and became a birder in her own right.

She accompanied him on many bird walks, noting his ability to identify bird species was especially amazing "because he was colorblind. He said he could identify them by the sounds they made."

In 2006, Mrs. Howard formed the Ralph K. Bell Bird Club, which she still is serving as president.

"He was such an interesting man and a wonderful person," Mrs. Howard said. "He got so many people interested in birds. I will miss him and so will so many people."

Mrs. Howard is not licensed to band birds, but Mr. Bell's daughter is.

Mrs. Pattison is project leader at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory, which Mr. Bell founded in 1958. Located in Dolly Sods, W.Va., it's the oldest continually-running bird-banding station in North America.

Honors awarded to Mr. Bell include the U.S. Department of Forest Service 2003 Volunteer of the Year for a lifetime of service. He contributed research to the first and second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania.

Survivors in addition to his daughter include a son, David Kern Bell of State College, and two grandsons.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Ralph K. Bell Bird Club, in care of Marjorie Howard, 149 Preachers Road, Waynesburg, PA 15370; or Allegheny Front Migration Observatory, in care of Joan Pattison, 10391 Glastonbury Circle 202, Fort Myers, FL 33913.

Funeral arrangements were handled by Behm Funeral Homes. Condolences can also be expressed at www.behm-funeralhomes.com.


Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087.

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