When it comes to the question of who is the most beloved physician in Williams County, everyone will have an opinion, and those opinions will, more than likely be diverse. One name however, will be a frequent flyer near or at the top of the list: the one they call, ‘Butch’…Dr. Clarence Bell. As a supposedly objective and unbiased member of the media (a rarity these days), I can be honest with you that in the aforementioned category, my opinion would indeed be biased. For almost the last quarter century, Dr. Bell has been the man tasked with keeping me on the visitor’s list at the local cemetery, and off the resident’s list. Those of you who know me and my adventures know that is, at best, a difficult undertaking.
Undertakings like that are nothing new for the Detroit native and member of the North Central Class of 1970. Why would a Motor City man find himself in an area that is far from being urban? It’s all about family, and family influences. “I grew up in Detroit, and moved to Pioneer in 1966 when I was a freshman in high school,” he said. “My uncle was a veterinarian in Pioneer, Gene Sellers. We would come down to visit him, and that’s how we first discovered Pioneer. Both of my grandparents, maternal and paternal, were rural people and lived on farms. I spent a lot of time on the farms in the summer, so it wasn’t as much culture shock as it sounds. It WAS culture shock in terms of reality. Where I went to junior high…there were two junior highs in that town. My class had 1,200 kids at the one that I went to…I graduated with 55 at North Central.”
The familial influences carried forward to the next step, that being career selection; this time including the family physician. Once again, it was his uncle that provided a positive direction. “For a long time, I wanted to go into veterinary medicine, but at the time, they were still doing large animal practice, and stripping down to my tee shirt at ten degrees below zero in a field didn’t really turn me on. I ended up starting in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Toledo, with the very strong possibility of switching to medicine at some point. My family doctor, Doctor Lenin Rivera, was really encouraging me to go into medicine, so if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be a doctor today. He not only encouraged me, he helped me financially…that’s how I ended up going into medicine.”
When big practices, and big hospitals in big cities now available, what brought Dr. Bell back to Williams County to hang his shingle? “It was pretty much 100 percent from the get-go of medical school that I wanted to practice in a rural community. With Dr. Rivera’s encouragement and financial assistance, it ultimately led to me being converted over to a program at the medical school called ‘Preferred Placement’. Montpelier became involved at that point, loaning me money to go to school with the supposition that I would return to this community, which was very much where I wanted to come anyway. It was a win-win.”
Dr. Bell arrived back in Montpelier in 1980, and founded what we know today as the Family Medical Center. Dr. Robert Kanney, who was two years behind Dr. Bell in the same residency program, answered the call from Dr. Bell to come to Montpelier where, in just two years time, he had become completely overwhelmed with new patients. Dr. Kanney had not been there long before the realization came that they were still a physician short. “At that point,” Dr. Bell explained, “…we called Dr. (Carl Nicholas) Walz, who was still teaching in the program at Toledo where we all trained at, and asked if he had any good residents that would be interested. His comment was, ‘What about me?’ We said, ‘Oh…that would be wonderful!’ So then the practice became Bell, Kanney and Walz.” With the retirement of Dr. Bell, and Dr, Walz moving on to take the VP/CMO position at CHWC Bryan, all that remains from the triumvirate foundation is Dr. Kanney. A practice like this is not depleted though, as Family Medical Center is currently a practice consisting of four family doctors, two nurse practitioners, with a fifth physician joining the practice in the fall of 2015.
Anyone that has seen Dr. Bell, Kanney or Walz will more than attest to the fact that there is a completely different atmosphere at the Family Medical Center, profoundly different than in any other facility in the area. That is no accident. In fact, it’s by design. “I think that’s due to a couple of reasons,” Dr. Bell explained with his trademark smile. “Number one – the physicians that we recruited…we were very specific. We had some prerequisites on what personality would fit with us. And then, we have the advantage of being smaller. We are much smaller than the Bryan office, and I think that really lends itself to a different atmosphere, just by sheer size.” The right personality for the right place, according to Dr. Bell, means, “The ability to be comfortable with your physician as a person, as well as a health care provider is very important. That’s a huge reason that we’ve been as selective as we’ve been, and will continue to be. I’m no longer a part of the Montpelier Medical Center since I’ve retired, but I still feel a great deal of pride in the Montpelier Medical Center, and want to continue to thrive the way it has.”
Dr. Bell was never one to walk into your examining room and go straight to work without a beaming greeting and either a handshake or a hug…and sometimes both. If he ever tried to hide his love for his patients, he did a lousy job of it, as every former patient of his with whom I have spoken agrees. Physicians like Dr. Bell are, at best, a rarity, and he believes that he understands why. “The system that we now exist in is so very, very different,” he said. “It is forcing doctors into a different pattern. The computer is being mandated on us by the government. We must document on the computer, more, and more, and more. This potentially takes away from the patient-physician interaction, which is very sad. It’s coming…it’s here, and I don’t see it going away. It’s not so much ‘Obamacare’, but that’s certainly contributing to it. This was well underway before he got into office. There is some good in it. There truly is some good in terms of the final product of the computer, which I thought was good.” He also noted that with computer interconnectivity, local, regional and national tracking of trends and geographic concentrations of diseases like diabetes, hypertension and emphysema is possible, which should prevent anyone falling through the cracks.
Retirement affords Dr. Bell more time with Montgomery, Michigan native Ellen, his wife of almost 42 years. Dr. Bell can also enjoy the extra time working with his son, Adam, who is currently in Chicago after finishing his Masters Degree at Northwestern University. Adam is an accomplished musician who plays the accordion, but his true passion is the trombone, and his goal is to land a professional orchestral seat with the trombone. What exactly is that ‘work’ mentioned earlier? Maybe that was a poor choice of words on my part, as Dr. Bell explained, “Next week, we will be taking him to an audition in Jacksonville, Florida for the Jacksonville Symphony. He has another audition on February 17 in Detroit, and two in March. One will be in Tampa Bay – St. Petersburg, and the other in Cincinnati.” The post he is auditioning for in Detroit is second chair trombone in the DSO…a world-class position.
He may have hung up his stethoscope at the clinic, but Dr. Bell is still keeping busy, and doing so in a way that carried forward his love for those he cares for. He is working on a part-time basis at the CHWC-Montpelier facility. “I am the Medical Director of the Swing Bed Unit,” he said. “Those are patients who have been in the hospital with medical problems, common ones being pneumonia or congestive heart failure, and just aren’t strong enough or well enough to go home. This is a facility where they can come, and we provide medical care, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and social services, to build them up physically, as well as emotionally and asset-wise to help them get back to their homes. It’s a bridge between the acute hospital, and going home.” The goal of the unit is to keep these patients out of a nursing home. It is a little more care intensive, but if there is one commodity that Dr. Bell has proven to have a surplus in over the years, it is care.
In parting, Dr. Bell said, “I am very grateful for the practice that this community allowed me to establish.” Of his former patients, he added, “The privilege of taking care of them for over 34 years was one that I will cherish and remember, always. I do miss them very much, but I’m definitely at a phase in life that I’m ready to slow down. Hence, that’s where I am at today.”
He’s retired, but that’s the only thing about Clarence M. Bell Jr., MD that has changed. The atmosphere of outgoing Christian love that he spreads around him has not diminished. His enthusiasm has yet to be overshadowed, and the beaming smile that for decades has been his personal and professional calling card has not dimmed in the least.
Where others retire and run away, Dr. Bell has retired and retargeted all of his aforementioned attributes to an even more deserving sector of the population. Although their circumstances may not be the brightest, considering who it is that is in their corner, these are indeed some very fortunate folks.
Timothy Kays can be reached at
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