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Thursday, December 7, 2023

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Mary Bell (second from left) posed outside Bell Pavilion with her children (from left) Karen Shirley, Roslyn Bell and Charles B. Bell III. (Photo: Rachel Crawford) Mary Bell (second from left) posed outside Bell Pavilion with her children (from left) Karen Shirley, Roslyn Bell and Charles B. Bell III. (Photo: Rachel Crawford)

Building’s New Name is a Slice of SDSU History

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Charles B. Bell Jr. Pavilion, attended by his widow and three children, underscored the importance of access and opportunity.
By SDSU News Team

The family of a noted San Diego State University mathematics and statistics professor gathered Monday for the dedication of Charles B. Bell Jr. Pavilion, honoring a man who was described as a symbol of access and opportunity.

Bell, who taught at San Diego State College from 1958 to 1966 and at SDSU from 1981 until his retirement in 1992, was the second Black faculty member and the first to achieve tenure. He died in 2010.

“All the years away from here he always talked about ‘the guys at San Diego State,” said his widow, Mary Bell, at a mid-afternoon ceremony in front of the pavilion, formerly known as East Commons. “He just loved every moment that he was here.”

Their son, Charles B. Bell III, and daughters Roslyn Bell and Karen Shirley participated in a ribbon-cutting at the pavilion with university officials.

“Dr. Bell demonstrated early in his life what can happen when ambition meets access,” said Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Salvador Hector Ochoa, referencing his education at Xavier University of Louisiana and the University of Notre Dame.

“Earning a bachelor’s degree at 18 and a doctorate at 24 was an extraordinary accomplishment for any era, much less the America of the 1940s and 50s,” Ochoa added. “His achievements as a student should serve as an inspiration to the SDSU students who will see his name each day on this pavilion, and as a reminder to all of us of why it is so important that our university maintain and grow its commitment to providing access and opportunity for future students with ambition like Dr. Bell’s.”

In a teaching career that spanned four decades, Bell taught mathematics in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe. He retired in 1992; a faculty scholar position was created in his name.

In an interview following the ceremony, Mary Bell said her husband started his college education as a chemistry major but switched to mathematics at the urging of one of his instructors at Xavier. “His father was delighted because it was the purest science,” she said.

His interest in statistics, and specifically biostatistics, began at Notre Dame, Mary Bell said.

Shirley said the subjects appealed to her father because “it wasn’t particularly touchy-feely, it was really practical.” An innocent comment about sushi, she said, might turn into an impromptu lesson on the number of microbes and germs in each bite and the probability of becoming sick from eating it.

Charles Bell was multilingual and “he spoke Spanish to the children from the minute they were born,” Mary Bell said.

“We learned to read in Spanish before we learned to read in English,” said Shirley.

Role as trailblazer

The family said Charles Bell never talked about the historic importance of his presence at San Diego State College.

“He was more interested in the people before him and his family, other families and their history,” Mary Bell said.

“We would hear about our great-great-grandparents who were slaves,” Shirley added. “He would map it out for us and how they came to freedom.”

The newly renamed, two-story structure comprises a food court, an Aztec Market store and the business offices for Aztec Shops, an SDSU auxiliary.

Also attending the dedication ceremony were Mary Bell’s brother, Arthur Drye; a son-in-law, Jensen Shirley; a granddaughter, Jesseca Shirley; great-granddaughter Tiana Shirley; a cousin, Charlotte Lyles; Mary Bell’s goddaughter, Carol Jupiter Garibaldi, and her husband, Antoine Garibaldi.

Before the dedication, a tour of campus included a stop at the Black Resource Center and the University Library, where a mural depicts Charles Bell and other prominent Black figures from SDSU’s past and present.

Monday’s dedication is the first of two renamings of SDSU buildings this spring. On May 5, a ceremony is scheduled at the Ellen Ochoa Pavilion (formerly West Commons) in honor of the veteran astronaut, who completed her undergraduate physics degree at SDSU in 1980. Ochoa is scheduled to attend the 11 a.m. ceremony; an RSVP form to attend can be found at the University Events website.