Sarah Bell, a persistent watchdog of local government and mainstay of community affairs and politics, died Dec. 28 at the age of 65 following a short battle with pancreatic cancer.
For the past 10 years, Bell helped journalist Lee Becker with his blog by recording video of government meetings.
“She was a strong advocate of transparency and citizen engagement, and in that we found a common bond,” said Becker. “Above all, she was caring. Empathy, warmth and understanding defined Sarah.”
The city of Watkinsville is planting a commemorative tree at Harris Shoals Park in honor of her legacy.
Councilman Brian Brodrick said Bell was a paragon of citizenship that makes community work.
“She was a mighty oak,” he said, describing her sense of civic responsibility.
“Sarah was always asking the hard questions and persisted until she got answers,” said Vicki Soutar of the environmental coalition Oconeewaters. “She stood up for what she thought was right and what she believed in.”
Former Planning Commission Chairwoman Maria Caudill admired Bell for her leadership in the Oconee Republican Party. As chairwoman of the GOP, Bell arranged for a number of high-profile guest speakers, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
When Brian Kemp was running for governor, Bell was camped out at his headquarters, writing letters and making phone calls for days on end. After Oconee GOP Chairman Steven Strickland lost his bid for Georgia House District 119, she came by his house and told him to not be discouraged.
“She felt strongly that if you lose, you should attempt to run again,” he said.
Indeed, Bell was quite persistent when it came to local elections. Throughout the last 15 years, Bell ran multiple times for seats on the Board of Commissioners and for a seat on the Georgia House of Representatives. Although she never claimed victory, Bell came within 100 votes of defeating former BOC Chairman Melvin Davis.
Bell served as president of the Oconee Historical Society and chaplain of the Watkinsville Garden Club.
“What I admired is that when she prayed, you felt like she was talking directly to God,” said garden club member Pam Hendrix. “She was always working to make things better.She quietly helped a lot of people, and she had a big place in her heart for the needy.”
For 25 years, Bell ran We Care Animal Haven, a no-kill animal shelter.
“My goal is not to have these animals put to sleep,” she told The Oconee Enterprise in 2014. “They deserve life and a home.”
With a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia, Bell taught in both public and private schools for three decades. She was the former chair of the English Department at Prince Avenue Christian School and was a professor at Gainesville State College from 2006 to 2012.
Former Oconee Enterprise Editor Blake Giles described Bell as a “guardian of grammar.”
“I used to enjoy sitting with her in community meetings, and when people would say something that wasn’t quite right, I could feel her tense up,” said Penny Mills, former chief education officer for Gainesville State College’s Oconee campus. “She never said anything, but you could tell what she was thinking.”
Watkinsville resident Tracy Winters considered dropping out of Bell’s college English course due to its difficulty but had a change of heart after Bell motivated her to do better.
“She was very involved and invested in her students,” said Winters. “One day, she was shopping at CVS where I worked, and she told me to get my butt back into class. I never forgot about how much she cared and the expectations she had for her students.”
Bell edited resumés and manuscripts through a small business she founded called Doctors of English. She even edited the regional magazine Southern Farm & Garden.
Bell volunteered with the American Red Cross and was also a trainer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“To know Sarah is to be in the presence of a big-hearted, caring soul, a keen mind and an unforgettable sense of humor,” said long-time friend Emily Archer, who attended Furman University with Bell. “She has served unflaggingly as a volunteer, combining her passions for music, literature, history and politics with an inspiring work ethic, always leaving the world better than she found it.”
Archer wrote Bell’s obituary, found on page A6 of this week’s The Oconee Enterprise.
Archer wrote about how Bell was an accomplished musician, having played the piano for worship in numerous churches and singing in the 250-voice Jubalheirs.
“Sarah’s musical legacy is perhaps most rich and indelible in the life of the Furman Singers, Furman University’s nationally recognized collegiate choir,” said Archer. “Singers on tour in 1976 will never forget that moment in the middle of Salzburg, Austria, when Sarah suddenly twirled like Julie Andrews and burst into ‘The hills are alive!’”
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