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Dr. James Isaac Bell

Dr. James Bell, a pioneering college administrator, died peacefully, surrounded by loving family and caregivers, on March 23, 2016. He was 90.

He was born October 2, 1925 in Jersey City, New Jersey to Fleta Mae Pickron and Herman Bell. He attended Matawan High School and upon graduation joined the US Marine Corps. Returning as a sergeant from World War II, he played semi-professional football for the Jersey City Vikings.

He married Edna Mae Greene and together they had three children, Fulani (nee Valerie), James and Elena. Jim attended Lincoln University near Philadelphia and, after graduation, worked at Historically Black Universities in Columbia, South Carolina, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Norfolk, Virginia. During that time, he received his Doctorate of Education from Columbia University in New York City. In 1969, Dr. Bell moved his family to California and began working at California State Polytechnic University Pomona.

While at Cal Poly, Dr. Bell immediately made his mark at the university and in the community. He was the first African-American to hold an assistant dean’s and then a vice president’s position in the entire California State University system. He was rapidly promoted to vice president of student affairs and served as interim president before retiring in 1989. His influence on campus continued when the James Bell internship for students continued for more than 10 years after his retirement.

While making a difference for thousands of students at Cal Poly, Dr. Bell was also involved in the greater Pomona Valley community. He was the first African-American elected to the Pomona Unified School Board, served on the boards of several organizations, was a diversity consultant for Chaffey College and worked for community empowerment and social justice. His contributions and awards are too numerous to mention. He was committed to and believed deeply in quality education. It was his passion and he practiced what he preached by being a lifelong learner, teacher and positive force for all those that knew him.

Dr. Bell and his partner, Dr. Sonia Blackman, traveled extensively and loved enjoying cultures from all over the globe. Jim and Sonia continued these pursuits until the very end. Jim had a favorite saying, “Never say no when you can say yes.” He exemplified this philosophy, enjoying good music, good food, a good laugh and a good story.

He was preceded in death by his brothers, Harold, Herman and Barney, wife Edna and daughter Fulani. He is survived by his two children, Elena and James, his loving partner of 31 years, Sonia, and his grandchildren Thembisa, Sumiyah, Ahmed, Jabril and Michael. He also leaves five great-grandchildren; Mecca, Umi, Sarah, Jennah and Musa, and a host of nieces, nephews, extended family members and friends. The family would like to thank his devoted caregivers, Marie Willingham and Estella Castanedes.

Jim will be interred in Fresno, California next to his beloved mother, Fleta Mae, and brother Barney. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bell/ Blackman endowed scholarship at Cal Poly University’s Foundation, 3801 W. Temple Ave., Pomona, CA 91768.  A celebration of Dr. Bell’s life will be held at Cal Poly Pomona’s Kellogg West Conference Center on April 30, from 1 to 4 p.m.


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