Pictured above: Barbara displays her favorite desk chair – the one she’s used in her record-keeping in the Clerk-Treasurer’s office for the past 50 years
A heavy, clunky metal chair, with a taped-together padded seat smaller than a throw pillow is tucked underneath a desk, just below where a typewriter rests.
The chair hasn’t so much held Barbara Bell for the past 50 years as it has followed her around. Or, as we’ll see, even delivered her out of the building.
Bell, who turned 70 last November, is the longest-tenured City of Huntsville employee, celebrating her 50th year anniversary last October 5. She is currently the Records Maintenance Supervisor, having previously served as secretary in the City Attorney’s office and secretary to the Clerk-Treasurer.
“She’s a loyal person,” says Gail Phillips, a friend for some 47 years. “She’s loyal to her church, loyal to her family. And she’s very efficient in her work.”
Bell is in charge of all the City Council papers and minutes, ordinances and resolutions. She records deeds for the City, letters of credit to the bank, the recording of annexations and other essential paperwork, some of which require that her typewriter serve as companion to her computer.
I couldn’t tell you how many Council members I’ve gone through.”
The chair, more a souvenir than something regularly used, and typewriter are part of a neatly organized third-floor office with several framed photographs of some smiling, adorable youngsters. Though Bell has no children, her cousin, the former Huntsville Fire Chief Mike Sublett, has grandchildren who are, in turn, her cousins. They’re living now in Hawaii and she’s fighting the temptation and trepidation to take her first her first airplane flight and go visit.
Frequent trips to Gatlinburg satisfy her wanderlust. She’s active at Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Meridianville as an Elder and social director. She loves shopping – “I could go to retail stores every day,” – and scrapbooking, and Chumley, her pet Shih Tzu, keeps her plenty entertained.
The scrapbooking replaced making silk flower arrangements as a hobby. Says Phillips, “She has such an eye and good taste. She can take a lowly little object and put her magic touch on it and it would look 100 times more than what she paid for it.”
Bell is, in Phillips’ words, “a home-spun girl” who graduated from Hazel Green High in 1965 and attended the North Alabama College of Commerce. Frances Chestnutt, the school founder, received a call in 1966 from Charles Younger, then the Huntsville City Attorney. One of the secretaries had become pregnant with twins and as she stepped away, a replacement was needed.
Chestnutt recommended Barbara, who could type 70 words per minute and take shorthand at 120 words per minute. She was hired on the spot.
In 1989, Chuck Hagood, the Clerk-Treasurer, asked Bell to work for him as secretary and she made the move to his office in early 1990, then ultimately to her current post.
In this career that has stretched through seven decades, Bell has seen a city and its government with explosive growth.
She has worked in the administration of five different mayors – Glenn Hearn, Joe Davis, Steve Hettinger, Loretta Spencer and Tommy Battle – and “I couldn’t tell you how many Council members I’ve gone through.” Hearn’s no-nonsense manner sometimes left Bell “shaking in my boots.” She relished how Spencer enlisted her to help as hostess for several events, including the first Alabama Music Hall of Fame induction, where Bell got to meet some famous musicians.
Now, you can’t reach 70 without the occasional health issues. Bell has had a few bouts with kidney stones. Once, when there were no wheelchairs in the building, she was wheeled from her office in that heavy, clunky metal chair to an ambulance. (There are now two wheelchairs available; “They call one of them the Barbara Mobile,” she laughs.)
Bell also had a heart attack years ago. Not long after returning to work, shel was sitting in her car during lunch hour, head down, reading a book. A co-worker saw her and rather than approach the car, she feared the worst and called 9-1-1. Moments later, her break at end, Bell walked into the building only to be told by a guard, “There’s an ambulance looking for you.”
She’s in fine shape now, and has no plans to walk away – or be wheeled away – as long as she’s feeling this healthy.
“These people at City Hall are my chosen family,” she says. “I can’t leave them yet. I’m not ready to do that. I have to know the gossip at City Hall. I want to be a part of that.”
She admits “I don’t like change,” but each work day that “chosen family” awaits. The job has more appeal than “sitting in my gown at home, watching soap operas.” And any adjustment she needs to make, she does so with great spirit and humor.
“You can’t fight city hall,” Bell says. “You just join ‘em.”