Academic Vice President John Bell is retiring after six years at BYU–Hawaii, and said he has many memories he will cherish upon his return to Provo, where he taught at BYU before coming to Laie.
“I’m going to tell you three things that have been very important to me, among many.”
First, he said, “The associations I’ve had with people here has meant so much to me. ... I’ve had the opportunity to serve in various capacities in the temple here ... as an ordinance worker and a sealer. That’s been huge for me.”
He said he also played the bassoon in the campus band and orchestra alongside BYUH students.
“Another thing, which may seem like a small thing but has been really important to me, is I had a chance after a 35-year hiatus to play in a band and orchestra again, to rekindle something left undone for essentially all of my professional career.”
His wife, Rhonda Bell, said some of her most cherished memories from her time on Oahu is feeding and watching the birds every morning on their daily walk to Kahuku. She said they walk with plastic bags picking up litter.
John Bell added, “There’s birds that know us along the way, and they come down to us.”
Former president of BYUH, John Tanner, explained, “The community also knows they ‘plog’ together – meaning to pick up trash where one walks or jogs. They set a quiet example of malama ka aina – care for the land.”
Tanner described John Bell through Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s words, saying he “described some people as ‘high yield and low maintenance.’ That’s John Bell. He’s a work horse, not a show horse. He doesn’t seek recognition, praise or the limelight. He just wants to move the work forward and do what is in the best interest of the University and the Church.”
Current BYUH President John S.K. Kauwe said of John Bell, “John has led our academic programs with wisdom and love. His influence is felt around the world and will impact many generations. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I have had to work with him personally. I am certain he and Rhonda will continue their service-based approach to life and bless many more people and communities. We will miss them dearly and they will always be welcomed as ohana here at BYU–Hawaii.”
He doesn’t seek recognition, praise or the limelight. He just wants to move the work forward and do what is in the best interest of the University and the Church.
Ultimately, John Bell summarized his experience at BYUH and said, “When things have been tough, and they have been sometimes as a natural consequence of serving in this kind of position, I had my associations, the temple, the birds, which is symbolic really of time spent with [my wife], and I had the music.”
John Bell said he learned two main lessons during his time at BYUH.
“One, I feel like I’ve learned more what it means to dedicate one’s life to the service of God. I also feel like I’ve learned the value of living a life that is simpler and a little slower paced.” He cited his long morning walks with his wife as an example of a slower-paced life.
Rhonda Bell said BYUH magnified the importance of friendship for her. “You can find friendships anywhere. … When I first got here, I wondered how long it was going to be until I found friends, but it wasn’t hard. People were friendly and made sure I felt welcome.”
John Bell added, “This is a place where you can come and make connections easily, … even though we were strangers from another place.”
Tanner said John Bell set a great example for others, such as wisdom, devotion, loyalty and modesty. “I don’t know what I would have done without him. He was a key figure in every major decision and often an initiator of some of the most dramatic innovations in my administration. He leaves a remarkable legacy.”
Tanner added he is an example of a leader who is good, wise and honest. “I am so grateful to have served with him. I count him as a dear colleague and friend.”
A living laboratory
During his time at BYUH, John Bell was involved in many positive improvements to the University. These accomplishments include changing the University calendar to its current format, upgrading the academic policy, creating the academic governance policy and a procedure for resolving disputes between employees, being involved in the accreditation reaffirmation in 2017, writing the accreditation interim report in 2021 and creating the Holokai curriculum and the Ho‘okele department. John Bell said he was also involved in writing what he referred to as the “living laboratory document.” He explained in January 1973, when the Aloha Center was built and dedicated, Elder Marrion G. Romney referred to BYUH as a “living laboratory.”
He read from a book with the dedicatory speech and quoted Romney, “Because the student body here is such a marvelous representative group, this college is a living laboratory in which individuals who share the teachings of a master teacher develop appreciation, tolerance and esteem for one another. For what can be done here in a small way is what mankind must do on a large scale if we are ever to have real brotherhood on this earth.”
He said he grasped the concept Romney introduced and translated it to life on campus today, where students experience what it is like to be with others from various backgrounds. He said the goal is to apply the “unifying link of the gospel of Jesus Christ” to the BYUH community.
He recognized what Romney said as “not putting up with, but really loving each other and working together and accomplishing the Lord’s work together” in a “harmonious, productive” and diverse environment.
In fact, he said these principles should be “built into their hearts” so students can take them back to their homeland. He said BYUH is not only a place to receive a good education or become firm in the gospel, but it is also a place to “understand what it takes for the world to work together.”
The document highlighted what the faculty and staff can do to create this kind of environment, he explained. “We don’t want to be the ironic university or the hypocritical university. We want to be what we’re asking the students to become” by having a diverse faculty who foster this kind of environment.
He cited Sister Joy D. Jones in her general conference talk, “Essential Conversations,” by saying change does not happen by chance. “This University can’t be what it needs to be by random chance, it needs to be done intentionally. … You’ve got to work at it.”
He said he wants the students to come and experience this unity so they can export it to their homelands.
Where the journey began
At the end of 2014, John Bell said he was contacted by then BYUH President Steven Wheelwright, who told him he needed a new vice president, and he was on his short list of candidates. He said he asked him if he would be willing to be considered, interviewed him and asked him to write answers to a few questions. “Based on that, he decided I was the person he wanted to recommend to the Board of Trustees,” he said.
Because this all happened during the transition to John Tanner’s presidency, he said Tanner also had a chance to look at the recommended candidates and decided to ask John Bell to be the vice president.
“What we haven’t said is we both felt a spiritual call to this place,” John Bell said, emphasizing during the 25 years he spent as a faculty member at BYU in Provo, he and his wife didn’t know much about BYUH. “As we learned more about it, … we felt prompted this was something we should accept if it was offered to us.”
John Bell said his time here has been an overall blessing to his life. He explained one reason why they may have felt a spiritual call to his place is he can see some circumstances where his personality was a match for what was needed at the time.
Additionally, Rhonda Bell said she can see events in their lives that prepared them for their experience at BYUH.
John Bell explained, “We can actually look back quite far into our past and see things that lead us in this direction without knowing it.”
He said all the way back in his teenage years he developed a love for the ocean and tropical islands when he learned to scuba dive. Additionally, his work as a dean at BYU in Provo led to his understanding of general education, accreditation and “a variety of personal challenges” and helped him develop the ideas he applied during his time at BYUH. He said previous callings in the Church also prepared him spiritually for the position.
“We also made plans to retire when I was at BYU before we were invited to take this job that helped me prepare by shutting down my research program and stop accepting graduate students. When the call came to come here rather suddenly, I was already emotionally and physically prepared to end the research program and come.”
I knew it would be a great adventure, and it was.
Rhonda Bell said she was excited when she heard the news, even though she knew she would miss her family very much.
“I knew it would be a great adventure, and it was.”
Making others happy
During her time at BYUH, Rhonda Bell said she was involved in family history work. Because she worked at the Family History Center in Provo for 20 years, she said she really wanted to continue. Family history work was her most fulfilling work in Hawaii, she said, even though it got partially upset because of the pandemic.
She said she also participated in the BYUH Women’s Organization. She enjoyed her time there saying, “It’s a great service organization. I had a lot of fun being a part of that.”
Members of the organization would get together once per month for a lunch and donated the profits from the lunch to a student book scholarship fund.
Rhonda Bell also cited her time serving in the BYUH Sewing Center as a wonderful experience because she said the students enjoy having that resource.
“I love being able to serve others and make others happy,” she said with a smile.
Tanner described Rhonda Bell as “cheerful and service-oriented” because she looks for new ways to help others. “She is always looking for and finding ways to serve, whether it be in the Sewing Center or in tending triplets for a widowed father or in family history.” He said together, the Bell’s make a great team.
Upon returning to Provo, Rhonda Bell said they are looking forward to seeing their family, who they have missed, traveling, relaxing and not having to be up early for meetings. “We will not be idle … We’re really looking forward to the next stage.”
John Bell added they are looking forward to continue scuba diving together as well.
Tanner said he has been scuba diving with the Bells before. “It was a joy to see how they share a love for the sport and for nature.”