Dr. Fred Johnson shares his immense gratitude for Dr. Albert Bell, who is retiring next year after having served at Hope College for 42 years.

Dr. Albert Bell

On Wednesday, May 6, 2020, Dr. Albert Bell submitted grades for his students to the Hope College Registrar’s office for the very last time. Without fanfare, without celebration, and without notice, he did it with the same consistent, methodical excellence that had been the foundation of his forty-two-year career. Like other parts of life that had been disrupted by the COVID-19 global pandemic, the History Department’s plan to have a fond farewell gathering for our colleague was canceled. The missed opportunity to wish Al “All the best” as he strode into the next phase of his life added to the heartbreak being caused by the hyper-contagious viral killer. The rapid pace and scale of change signaled that, in many ways, nothing would ever be the same — or would it?

From one perspective, Al Bell’s final sabbatical and retirement from Hope’s History Department magnify the certainty that we’re in a new normal. Then again, as a result of the same consistent, methodical excellence that he always shared with his students, the History Department’s functional “new” normal will be much like the “old.” Because this is the House that Albert Bell built.

Every history faculty member currently serving in the department was either hired when Al was Department Chair, or, had the honor of getting his vote to join its ranks. During that process, Al drew from the deep well of his wisdom to assess candidates as the department added women and people of color. Working with his Master Historian colleagues, Marc Baer, Larry Penrose, Bill Cohen, Neal Sobania, and Earl Curry, they collectively prepared the department for a fast approaching and increasingly different demographic future. While others made loud, boisterous noises about the virtues of diversity, Al, Marc, Larry, Bill, Neal, and Earl accomplished the goal rather than talk it to death.

I still shake my head in wonder at the beautiful cosmic judgment of having Al shepherd into existence such gender and racial change. As a native South Carolinian and a southerner, a region still burdened by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, he understood the corrosive insanity of racial bigotry. As a proud, loving father of daughters in a country that still devalues a woman’s work even when she does the same job as a man, Al didn’t need schooling about the urgency for gender pay gap justice. I can’t say for certain the degree to which those factors motivated Al, but the results of women outnumbering men and people of color being more than tokens in the history department speaks loud and clear.

During spring 2000, Earl Curry rode off into retirement. Larry Penrose followed shortly thereafter. Then Bill Cohen announced he’d be doing the same. Neal Sobania moved on to become a Dean at Pacific Lutheran University. By then, Al had passed on the duties of Department Chair to Janis Gibbs then Marc Baer both of whom added their own brand of spectacular proficiency and leadership to a difficult job. Moving with the effortless grace of water shaping itself to a new reality, Al now led informally, generously sharing his storehouse of knowledge as we navigated the increasing complexities confronting higher education, the humanities, and historians.  

Soft-spoken and that rare person whose “No” really means “No!” and his “Yesses” the same, Al’s spare “Cut to the chase” style of conversation left no doubt that if and when he chose to share his perspective, we were getting a jewel that had been polished many times over.

Another shock came when Marc Baer announced his retirement. In a department meeting, I offered to grovel if it’d help change his mind. People laughed and so did I, until I got back to my office and wept. Why? Because you don’t come to cherish someone like I did, and do, Marc Baer and not dread the terrible emptiness you know you’ll feel from not seeing them every day.

Al was now the last of the full professor historians who’d been on the faculty when I arrived in August 2000. He reveled in his role as the department’s elder statesman, laughing good-naturedly on one occasion, when during a student visit day, I introduced him as Hope’s ancient historian. Such a faux pas Al didn’t mind, but he’d speak up quick when someone encroached upon his territory as the department’s self-proclaimed curmudgeon.

On that subject, Al brooked no competition. He also liked to remind us young whippersnappers, usually with a smirk, that only he had earned the right, through time and dedicated service, to grouse about whatever he d****d well pleased! 

Beneath the curmudgeonly exterior there existed a gifted teacher, writer, and artist from whom there’s still much to learn. Because along with his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, an M.A. from Duke University, and his MDiv. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Bell is a profound scholar of the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds. Most intriguing of all, he’s a gifted storyteller who, in addition to his scholarly work, has produced a prolific body of mysteries set in ancient Rome.

In the years (too many) that I’ve been slogging to get my dissertation revamped for publication, Al published All Roads Lead to Murder: A Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, The Blood of Caesar: A Second Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, The Corpus Conundrum: A Third Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, Death in the Ashes: A Fourth Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, The Eyes of Aurora: A Fifth Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, Fortune’s Fool: A Sixth Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, The Gods Help Those: A Seventh Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, Hiding from the Past: An Eighth Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger, The Flute Player and, well, you get the picture.

As of this writing, I remain in awe of the unwavering discipline that Al brings to his work, and I’ve challenged myself to be similarly dedicated. Rather than explaining how he cranks out his books he simply does the work. Anyone with eyes to see who’s willing to look will discover that there’s no complex magic behind Al’s publishing success. I imagine that if he were to explain his methodology he’d say: “Turn off the TV. Put your keister in a chair. Place your fingers on a keyboard and, type.”

There’s so much that’s been lost in this season of COVID-19 chaos. My frustrations with those losses are compounded by feeling helpless to do nothing but watch the world get stood on its head. Because I can’t hasten the production of a vaccine. I can’t stop the economy from spinning further out of control. I can’t explain people who believe that sacrificing seniors is a lesser evil than sacrificed profits. I absolutely cannot comprehend the bizarre logic that advocates household disinfectants for a cure. But I’m not totally helpless.

I still have the power to say thank you to my friend and colleague, Dr. Albert Bell, Professor Emeritus, of the Hope College History Department. Thank you, Al, and Marc Baer, Larry Penrose, Bill Cohen, Neal Sobania, and Earl Curry for building a department whose commitment to rigorous research and critical-thinking, superb teaching, and proficient writing never ceases challenging me to be better. Thank you, Al, for picking me up at Gerald R. Ford airport when I flew in for my campus interviews. Thank you for inviting me to participate in the West Michigan Writers’ Workshop because that’s one of your sacred spaces and you chose to share it with me. Thank you for cutting me off when I was berating myself for the stupidity of running for Congress as a Democrat in West Michigan and you said: “You were just a decent guy, trying to do a good thing.”

For the care and attention to detail; the passion for teaching and guiding our students; the diligent dedication to the craft, scholarship, and art of history; the determination to ensure that the house you built would be stewarded by capable hands when you departed, thanks a million times over, Al. 

Dr. Albert Bell came to Hope in 1978, when he split his time between classics and history. In 1994 he moved full-time to the Department of History and became chair of the department for the next 10 years. He has served on various committees and was chair of the Academic Affairs Board for a year. Most of Dr. Bell’s current research focuses on the Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who lived in the late first century AD. The entire History Department will miss him and his vital contributions as he steps into this new chapter next year!

Dr. Bell’s primary field is Roman history, especially the early Roman Empire. He has a strong interest in the development of the early church in the context of the Roman Empire. In addition, he has taught Latin and Greek and still enjoys the study of those languages. Since 2001 he have been writing a series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome.

Ph.D., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 1977
M.Div., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1973
M.A. Duke University, 1969
B. A., Carson-Newman College, 1966

Woodrow Wilson Fellow (1966)
Evelyn Thurman Young Readers Award, Western Kentucky University Libraries (2008)
5 Best Mysteries of 2008 by Library Journal for The Blood of Caesar (2008)
Dr. Bell has had numerous articles, reviews and stories published, along with 10 books.

In his free time, Dr. Bell enjoys working in his flower beds and collecting old baseball cards.

Join the Conversation


  1. Such a beautiful tribute, Fred. While I was not a student of Albert Bell, I was of several of the men you mentioned who lead and formed the department from the 1970s forward – Penrose, Curry, and Cohen. I am proud to have been trained in the History Department at Hope College.
    Tara Leigh Tappert, Ph.D.
    Class of 1973

  2. Thank you, Fred. What an eloquent tribute. And even if I never knew Al, I would be grateful that I read this piece because the writing is so engaging, the rhythms beautiful–a joy to read masterful writing.
    Thank ye.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *