September 16, 2022
The longtime employee worked her way up from a temporary maid to executive assistant in the president’s office.
For decades, Jewel Bell was a staple of King University, a small Christian college in Bristol, Tenn. She was a confidante for students and later a gatekeeper to the president’s office.
She was also a living witness to events big and small at King and the larger world: from the desegregation of Bristol and King and the broader civil rights movement to an expansion of student enrollment and programs at King and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re talking about a person who, more than anyone else, is the thread that runs through the history of King since the middle of the last century,” President Alexander Whitaker said. “Then, it blows one’s mind even more to think that her institutional history is not just her own but what she absorbed from people who’ve been there decades before. So through Jewel, we’re really connected with the school well into the early 20th century, which is amazing.”
Bell retired from the university this month on her 70th work anniversary and a week before her 93rd birthday. King administrators think she’s one of the longest-serving employees in higher education—she’s certainly the university’s longest—and Bell’s tenure surprised even her.
“If anyone had told me I was going to spend 70 years on that campus, I would’ve said, ‘Absolutely not,’ but the kids were so good to me,” she said.
Bell, a Bristol native, had never visited King’s campus before 1952, when she started working as a temporary maid in the women’s dorm. At the time, she was the university’s only Black employee, and the campus was still segregated. Her temporary position eventually became permanent, and she was promoted in 1961 to run the campus telephone switchboard and supervise the new women’s residence hall. She later moved to the president’s office, where she worked as an executive assistant. She’s worked under 10 different presidents during her 70 years.