Florence Bell, 72, coach, umpire, sports organizer

May 01, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Florence Bell -- a powerhouse in women's sports who coached field hockey, lacrosse and basketball at nine area schools and helped generations of players earn scholarships and places on U.S. national teams -- died Wednesday at St. Agnes HealthCare after apparent kidney failure.

The Catonsville resident, mother of six and coach of the Seton Keough High School girls lacrosse team was 72.

Mrs. Bell followed an improbable course into the ranks of legendary Baltimore coaches. Upon enrolling her eldest daughter at St. Agnes parochial school in Catonsville in 1963, she told the principal she was dismayed by the lack of physical education.

"Well, I need someone to start a program," the principal told Mrs. Bell, who had little experience as an athletic director. "How about you?"

Recalling the exchange years later, she told a reporter: "I opened my mouth, and here we are today."

She coached almost every major women's sport at one time or another -- swimming, volleyball, tennis, even water aerobics -- at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, St. Paul's School for Girls, Goucher College, Loyola College, Essex Community College, Park School, Gray Manor School and Seton Keough.

"I like them all, so I have tried them all," she once said of her multisport prowess. "You stay employed, too."

"Once mom got involved in anything, she went all out," said her daughter C. Suzanne Greenfeld of St. Petersburg, Fla. "She didn't do anything halfway. It was all or nothing at all."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Florence Boerckel moved to Catonsville when her father was transferred to Maryland by Westinghouse Corp. After graduating from Catonsville High School, where she played tennis, she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

There she met Thomas Victor Bell, whom she married in 1951. He soon took a job as a physical education instructor at Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville, where the couple settled.

Flo Bell did not stay settled long. A Red Cross volunteer for more than 45 years, she began teaching swimming, water safety and cardiopulmonary resuscitation before embarking on a career as a coach, umpire and women's sports organizer that would take her around the nation and the world.

"I don't remember her ever being home for Thanksgiving," said her daughter Nancy K. Levering of Glenwood. "That's a big time of year for field hockey, and she'd always be away in California or Texas or somewhere else with her teams."

To her players, she was always known respectfully as "Mrs. Bell" -- even years later, when they were grown, with families of their own.

"I taught with her for nine years at St. Paul's, and I never called her anything else but Mrs. Bell," said Nancy Gross, a goalie on the school's class of 1973 lacrosse team and now a multisport coach at Parkville High School in Baltimore County. "She started us out with `Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' But in reality, she was very laid back.

"I don't remember her ever getting too worked up about anything. If you won, great. If you lost, well, that's life. I think it's the reason so many of us went on to become coaches ourselves. She taught us to love the game, respect ourselves and to always do our best. Lessons for life, you know?"

In Mrs. Bell's world, success was best measured off the field -- all six of her children graduated from college.

After years of battling it out in finals and semifinals and regional round-robins, she had high hopes for her Seton Keough Gators girls lacrosse team to win the forthcoming Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference games.

"I just sent her a letter not too long ago, saying this could be the year," Gross said. "They're really a good-looking team."

In addition to coaching the Gators, Mrs. Bell was active in the Maryland/Washington College Lacrosse Association; the Baltimore Field Hockey Association; USA Lacrosse; the Olympic Field Hockey Training Center; and many national referee and umpires groups.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. today at St. Agnes Church in Catonsville. Interment will be private.

Mrs. Bell's husband of 44 years died in 1995. She is survived by another daughter, Christine A. Bell of Key West, Fla.; three sons, John T. Bell and Robert B. Bell, both of Catonsville, and James P. Bell of Timonium; and six grandchildren.

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