Selma “Sally” Bell, a beloved teacher and inspiration for generations of Cape Ann families, died at home, in Gloucester, on Friday, August 25, 2023, surrounded by her devoted family. She was 96.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., she graduated from Lesley College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 1948. She worked as a second-grade teacher for the Lexington Public Schools until 1950 when she met and married Bradley Bell, manager of Mighty-Mac out of Gloucester. The couple raised their three daughters there.
She resumed her teaching career in 1966 in the Rockport Public Schools as both first-grade teacher and principal of Pigeon Cove Elementary School. One of her students, six-year-old Lily Ruchman, was so moved by how passionately “Mrs. Bell,” her teacher, spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that she decided “to do something,” namely organize a local march in Gloucester in 1988 to honor the slain civil rights leader – the first of its kind in the region and it is continued today.
“There’s something poetic about the fact that “Mrs. Bell,” who inspired Lily to organize that first march, was named Selma because the name recalls the famous Alabama marches King led in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama,” according to a Gloucester Times article published earlier this year.
At the time “Mrs. Bell” retired from teaching in 1993, that same newspaper referred to her as “arguably the town’s most beloved teacher” because she knew how to ease parents’ anxieties when they left their children at school for the first time. “You felt good leaving them with her,” a school committee member recalled.
Having received a fellowship from Tufts University, she was awarded a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood-Special Needs Education in 1976. In addition to serving on the boards of the Cape Ann Interfaith Commission and the Rose Baker Senior Center, she worked as an associate at the Cape Ann Museum and a volunteer at Temple Ahavat Achim. A champion for social justice and Democratic causes, she also worked tirelessly to fight for the right of people with learning challenges.
An avid golfer and tennis player, she also was a lifelong swimmer. Friends wondered if her sunny disposition and longevity might be connected to how much she loved to take dips in the cold waters of Rockport’s Steel Derrick Quarry. Clearly, she was ahead of her time as a proponent of the health benefits – the anti-inflammatory and mental health boosts – of cold plunges, a current wellness fad.
From celebrating Gloucester’s Feast of St. Joseph with the fishermen’s wives to enjoying opera in Rockport, Selma was a great lover of every kind of cultural event. She also was an amazing chef, known far and wide for her Thanksgiving feasts and Passover Seders, including her brisket.
After the death of her husband in 1994, she often traveled to Los Angeles to enjoy time with her grandchildren. She also traveled extensively with her companion of 12 years, Mort Rubin of Newton and Rockport, and after Mort’s death, she enjoyed great companionship with Charles Steiner of Gloucester.
She is survived by her daughters JoAnn Bell and husband Marvin Tighe of Gloucester, Karen Bell and husband Robert Cox of Los Angeles, Leslie Bell of Gloucester, and grandchildren Molly Bell Cox of New York City and William Bradley Cox of Gloucester. In addition, she leaves behind many beloved nieces and nephews who have always been there for her.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to a local Cape Ann charity of your choice.