Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 27, 2011
In 1968, the City cut back its middle school athletic program, and in response a handful of African American community leaders formed an after-school sports league for Evanston youngsters. The league was FAAM, and prominent among the founders was Gene Bell, who headed up the basketball program.
Forty-three years later FAAM basketball is going strong, and so is Mr. Bell, now 80, and known far and wide as FAAM’s “Commissioner for Life.”
“Words can’t describe what his leadership and mentoring have meant to the African American community,” says Nibra White, a FAAM player who later played pro ball overseas and now is lead personal trainer at the Evanston YMCA, when he’s not coaching the FAAM “Lakers” team. “Gene Bell helped a lot of kids, including myself, to get ahead.”
“Gene has been the rock that helped get the program started and has kept it going,” says Bob Reece, one of many people recruited by Mr. Bell over the years to coach.
Originally FAAM, which stands for Fellowship of Afro American Men, was targeted at Evanston black males. In the first year there were 30 players on four teams. Due to strong demand, the league quickly expanded and within a few years white youngsters were admitted, admission was extended to kids from Chicago as well as other suburbs, and girls’ teams (and later a cheerleading program) were introduced.
Today some 350 kids participate annually on 20 teams, with the help of some 80 coaches and other volunteers, playing at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center and Chute Middle School. Thousands of young men and women have been shaped by FAAM’S high-minded principles and touched by Mr. Bell’s quiet but firm leadership, which reflects the challenges and achievements of his life.
Mr. Bell was born in Oak Grove, Oklahoma, and raised on his parents’ 60-acre farm. An only child, he worked in the fields, harvesting cotton and corn and tending the pigs, cows and chickens. He walked a mile every day to a two-room country schoolhouse, “one room for the little kids and one room for the bigger ones,” he recalls.
His mother died when he was five, after which he was raised by his grandparents. When his grandfather died, in 1943, his grandmother sold the farm and moved to Evanston. He started at ETHS in 1946. “For me, there was a lot of adjusting. It was a big school and I had moved from a small town.”
He starred on the school’s basketball and baseball teams. “Athletics opened things up for me,” he recalls. “I was quiet and not particularly outgoing. But I got along with the coaches and my teammates, as well as my teachers and most people.”
He credits much of his success to his grandmother, Leora Bell, who provided a strong foundation of discipline and love. “My grandmother made sure I did the right thing. She was the matriarch of our whole family. She meant everything to me.”
After graduating ETHS in 1950 he went to Upper Iowa University on basketball and baseball scholarships. But in 1952 his grandmother’s second husband died, and he returned home to help out, taking a job in the Evanston warehouse of Row, Peterson Publishing (which later became Harper & Row). When the business moved to Kansas 16 years later, he started his career at ETHS, first on the custodial staff, later in security. He eventually rose to second in command, under Bill Logan, who had been the City’s first African American chief of police. After 27 “good years,” Mr. Bell retired in 1995.
“I knew Gene back when I was a student at ETHS; he was a year ahead of me,” recalls Mr. Logan. “I’ve worked closely with him for more than 40 years. Gene has always given back to this community. He has always cared about the kids, he has always tried to help and mentor them and keep them out of trouble.”
That motivation was central to the creation of FAAM. Mr. Bell, Mr. Logan and the other founders wanted to provide good role models for the kids, and believed in the principles that organized sports instills: teamwork, discipline, respect for the coaches and officials, and giving 100 percent.
Grades count too. The league tracks school performance, requires players to maintain a minimum grade point average, and provides a study program with teachers and tutors on hand after school and on Saturdays to help with homework.
Youngsters from all backgrounds take part. Scholarships are available, enabling kids who can’t pay to work off the fee. And everyone plays, regardless of ability. “I tell my kids the team’s five most important players are the ones on the floor,” says Teel Miller, who has coached girls’ teams for almost 30 years. “It’s about teamwork and supporting each other. ”
Gene Bell, she says, “believes in the program heart and soul. That’s what keeps FAAM going.”
FAAM’s president, Dudley Brown, says the league has a reputation for great coaching and competition, and providing kids with a good experience. “And Gene has been the glue, the one who has held it together.”
More than that, Mr. Logan says, he’s a beacon, “not just to the African American community, but through his work at ETHS and his church and youth programs, to the city as a whole.”
Mr. Bell’s contributions have earned him many honors – his basement is filled with plaques from local churches, the City of Evanston, NAACP, Save Our Children, Evanston Police Department, and more. He says his greatest accomplishment is raising his two daughters, Gina and Renee, with his wife, Barbara, who passed away in 1993, and his second wife, Connie.
But perhaps his greatest thrill, he says, is “when a kid who went through FAAM comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you, Mr. Bell, for helping me.’” His epitaph, he says on reflection, might read: “He worked to save the kids.” Thousands would agree.