Lobdell: Owing love of journalism to Bell

January 06, 2011|By William Lobdell

Here's my favorite Joe Bell story: As editor of the Pilot in the '90s, I arranged for Joe, our star columnist, to hit some tennis balls with Lindsay Davenport, an up-and-coming Newport Beach pro who would later earn the No. 1 ranking on the women's tour and win an Olympic gold medal.

Joe, at the time an avid tennis player in his early 70s, badly wanted to test his skills against one of the best female players in the world. As I recall, after some rallying, Bell asked if he could try to return one of her booming serves.

"I thought I might have had a chance," Joe told me afterward, "until I started sweating so much that I short circuited my damn hearing aids."


That's Joe — curious, competitive and never losing his sense of humor. I probably don't have to note this, but he wrote a hell of a column about the experience.

Joe wrote scores of great pieces. Like Ted Williams with a baseball bat, if you put a keyboard in front of Joe, chances were he'd hit the column out of the park. Joe was — and still is — a natural.

My friendship with Joe goes back nearly 30 years when I became editor of the New University, UC Irvine's student newspaper. At the time, we were a ragtag bunch of wannabe journalists dying to learn how to report and write the news. The one problem? The university offered no newspaper journalism classes.

So we looked under the cushions of the New University's meager budget and found enough coins to pay Joe — a nationally renowned journalist who taught magazine writing at UCI — to instruct us on how to be real reporters.

He took it as seriously as a Marine drill sergeant training a class of new recruits. And at times, he was just about as subtle.

For Joe, journalism was a noble profession, the only one in America important enough to be mentioned in the Bill of Rights. And he seemed to take personal offense at anyone — even a college student — who dirtied the Fourth Estate through sloppy reporting, flabby writing or careless errors.

Ted Newland, UCI's legendary water polo coach, once told me that his biggest frustration was how long it took for his players to learn.

"If I could hook electrodes to their [private parts] and shock them each time they make a mistake, we'd shorten the learning curve quite a bit," he said, smiling in amusement.

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