Former Van Buren Mayor Robert 'Gene' Bell dies at 89

Ty Thompson
Press Argus-Courier
Robert "Gene" Bell's portrait in Van Buren's Municipal Complex. Bell served as mayor for 12 years from 1978 to 1990.

Robert "Gene" Bell, who served as Van Buren mayor for 12 years died Feb. 20 at the age of 89. Serving as mayor from 1978-1990 Bell has a long history in Van Buren.

Bell graduated high school in 1949 and attended Fort Smith Community College until joining the Navy in 1951. After serving in the Korean war, he worked as an accountant for Evans Coal Company in Fort Smith and went on to start Robinson-Bell, Inc., a Real Estate Firm in Van Buren, with his friend Earl Robinson. He was also Vice-President of People's Bank. 

"I remember Mayor Bell visiting King Elementary School while I was a student there," said Joe Hurst, the current mayor of Van Buren. "He seemed more like the president back then and we were in awe of him. It made us feel very special when he came to speak, and we were all so impressed."

Hurst said that Bell's reputation looms large not only in Van Buren but across the state as he served as president of the Arkansas Municipal League from 1984-1985.

"When I attend Arkansas Municipal League conventions, someone I don't know will hear that I am the mayor of Van Buren and immediately come over and start telling me how much they admired Mayor Bell," Hurst said. 

Bell was also on the executive board at Arkansas Baptist State Convention, served as the Van Buren School Board treasurer for five years, president of the Lion’s Club, the board of directors, and Department District Governor of Lion’s Club, as well as serving as the chairman of the board for Crawford Memorial Hospital Board and Van Buren United Way.

Bell was awarded Van Buren's Living Legend of Crawford County in 1995 and was inducted into Van Buren School's Hall of Honor in 2002. 

Bell's obituary states that of all the honors he was given his greatest honor was being a husband to his wife Betty Jo Bell and father to his four daughters. 

"Gene was probably the most giving and generous man, and if you ever saw him in a restaurant, he probably picked up your ticket a time or two. He loved his country, his city, his many “adopted” sons and daughters, friends, colleagues, and most of all his family," said the obituary. "He has set the standard high by showing us what true integrity, leadership, and sacrifice look like. He always took care of others first! But most importantly, he modeled what it looked like to walk by faith in Jesus Christ every day."

Former Van Buren Councilman, Alan Swaim, was Bell's nephew and said he was a wonderful man of God and lived his life serving him to the fullest.

"My greatest memories of him is that he is the one that got me started collecting baseball cards," Swaim said. "I was infatuated with the shiny cards and the stick of bubble gum in each package."

In 1959 Bell bought Swaim his first pack of cards that started his collection.

"(Bell was) cooler than the other side of the pillow when it came to pressure shots," Swain said about their golf games growing up.

According to Bell's obituary, the one piece of advice he shared in his last days was, "If you can do something for someone, do it."

Bell spent his life helping the community in any way he can from serving on the Van Buren Boys Club board to his 25 years spent on the Civil Service Commission.

"Van Buren has lost a true leader and servant with the passing of Mayor Gene Bell," Hurst said. "His contributions to First Baptist Van Buren and our entire community are immeasurable, leaving an indelible mark on both."