'A dream come true'

Alumnus is proof positive there is life after spinal cord injury

January 19, 2012

By Diane Hageman

Bob Bell teaches his First-Year Seminar class during fall semester

Broken necks and paralysis have made major headlines in Minnesota and national media recently due to the life-altering injuries of Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette, two high school students injured this season in hockey games.

Sympathetic cries have echoed across the state, with care and concern about what the future of these two players will be.

Switch gears to the campuses of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University and you'll find Bob Bell, assistant professor of accounting and finance, IS proof positive that there is life after a spinal cord injury.

Bell, who hails from Pensacola, Fla., initially came to SJU as a student in the fall of 1989. Tragedy struck early in his college career. Two days before Thanksgiving, Bell was goofing around in the hallway of his dorm with one of his classmates.  The other student put Bell in a full-Nelson wrestling hold which broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord at the C-5/C-6 level.  In that instant, Bell became a quadriplegic.

Bell returned to Florida but re-enrolled at SJU in the spring 1992 and graduated in 1994, just one year behind his classmates. 

Following graduation, Bell became a certified public accountant, worked in Arthur Andersen's Minneapolis office in its tax department and obtained a law degree from the University of Minnesota. He then moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  Next came New York where he fulfilled his dream of working on Wall Street as a securities lawyer. 

The 10-year plan

But returning to CSB and SJU was always on his mind.  Bell felt a desire to give back to the CSB/SJU community which he says gave so much to him, and "to do something with my life that I feel good about." So during his second summer of law school, "when I was working on 'the Hill' for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), I hatched a 10-year plan to be back here teaching," he said with a smile.

During the long cross-country road trip from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. that summer of 2000, Bell talked through his idea with his caregiver/driving companion.  The 10-year plan would begin when he graduated from law school in 2001.

"I figured it would take me 10 years to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish," Bell explained.  "I wanted to have ample experience to bring to the classroom.  I decided to do public service, government work first with the SEC, and then gained Wall Street experience in New York."

Sure enough, Bell reached his goal in just under 10 years.  In the fall of 2010, he began his teaching career at CSB and SJU.  He teaches corporate finance, corporate financial analysis, financial accounting, and business writing. During the fall 2011, he also taught a first-year seminar (FYS) course, a class designed to help incoming students develop their skills in critical thinking, speaking and writing.

Teaching first-year seminar

Bell looked forward to teaching the FYS class.

"I enjoyed the spirited discussions we were able to have and felt like I really got to know the students better," he said. "It was amazing to teach this class. I put a lot of myself into it." Bell wrote about one of his FYS experiences which was posted on the Christian blog Mockingbird.   

"He's so genuine and was willing to share his experiences and his story," said Sarah Ober, a first-year CSB student from Burnsville, Minn., who was in Bell's FYS class.

While Ober appreciated the fact that Bell taught her how to construct a more effective argument in a paper or speech, she appreciated even more how "he taught me about expectations in college and how to challenge myself now and for the next four years."

"He really offered us insights no other professor could offer, with all the personal and professional experiences he's had," Ober concluded.

Professional background beneficial

Kevin Abbas, a senior accounting and finance major from Eagan, Minn. who took Bell's corporate financial analysis class in fall 2011, enjoyed Bell's "pearls of wisdom," where he shares a personal story or event from his life.

"His class wasn't just focused on the nuts and bolts, analytical stuff. He provided more real-life applications and wisdom. He tells us stories of what he did wrong and right-and how to learn from mistakes," Abbas said.

Abbas remarked that he really no longer "sees" the wheelchair. "Yeah, the wheelchair is there but it doesn't inhibit him or hold him back but it must present challenges to him every day," he said.

Making the most of it

Bell, who is a believer of the Biblical phrase "thy will be done," hasn't looked back since making the decision to leave the corporate world and return to the schools where he was educated.

"In my mind, the CSB/SJU model provides the best of both worlds.  The students definitely receive the full coeducational experience.  But the separate campuses provide ample time and opportunity for men to be men and for women to be women," he said.  "Coming back here to teach only solidifies my view that this is a unique environment that truly brings out the best in men and women."

"I'm very happy with my decision and proud of what I'm doing," Bell said. "I have a strong faith and believe that this is the life I've been given, and I intend to make the most of it."

As for the two high school hockey players, Bell certainly empathizes with them and their families. In fact, Bell shared a letter he recently wrote to Mike and Leslie Jablonski.  In an effort to offer them hope and support, Bell describes to them some of what he's accomplished since his injury.

 In part, it reads, "I detail all of this for you so that you know there is much possibility left for Jabby.  I have traveled to over 40 countries since my injury.  I have amazing family and friends.  .... And finally, a year and a half ago, I returned to Saint Ben's/Saint John's as a professor; a dream come true for me and a job I absolutely love."