Dr. Thaddeus John Bell speaks at annual SCSU banquet
by The Press and Standard | June 8, 2019 5:00 am
Last Updated: June 5, 2019 at 1:48 pm
By ANNA STEPHENS BRIGHT
The Colleton County Alumni Chapter of South Carolina State University National Alumni Association held its fourth annual scholarship banquet on Saturday May 25 at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church on Coolers Dairy Road in Round O. The keynote speaker was Dr. Thaddeus John Bell, distinguished physician, educator, trailblazer, leader, athlete and humanitarian. Leila Williams (1986) served as the mistress of ceremony. Patricia A. Williams (1985), secretary, welcomed the banquet attendees.
After the introduction of the head table by the mistress of ceremony, Esther Black (1961), co-chaplain, gave the invocation. Sylvia Williams (2007) introduced Miss South Carolina State University, Kayla Hasty (2020), a native of Robertville. Hasty is the 2016 valedictorian of Jasper County Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School. Presently, she is a senior at South Carolina State University. As the 82nd Miss South Carolina State University, Kayla stands on the platform of “building Bulldog tenacity by building yourself which tackles mental health and promotes community service and self-care.” She is an active member of the Honors College, the Golden Key International Honor Society, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Upon graduation, Kayla aspires to pursue a career as a doctor of osteopathic medicine.
After a buffet dinner was served, Central Williams (1976), president, introduced the keynote speaker.
Founder and CEO of Closing the Gap in Health Care Inc., Dr. T.J. Bell graduated from South Carolina State University. His early career led him to the classroom in Gaffney where he became the first African American to teach in an all-white high school in South Carolina. When he moved to Charleston, he taught at Charleston High School, another all-white school. He later graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina and began practicing family medicine.
Bell is also a graduate of Atlanta University and the U.S. School of Aerospace Medicine. He served his country as a flight surgeon at the rank of major in the Air Force Reserve and also served on active duty in Operation Desert Storm. In 1980 he co-founded the Cross-Family Health Center, a free clinic for the underserved citizens in a rural community. Bell has also served as an attending staff physician at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Hospital in Charleston.
Although Bell never participated in organized sports in college, at the age of 43, he began to use his gift of running and competed at the international level in Masters Track and Field. He won the world championship in many events and age groups. He has been voted as one of South Carolina’s Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century. In memory of his son, Thaddeus John Bell II, he started the Bell/Schlau Track and Field Seminar for Lowcountry Students in collaboration with Charleston Southern University. The program was recognized as one of the best in the state of South Carolina. Bell served as the chairman of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness under three governors.
In 1993, Bell joined the faculty of the Medical University of South Carolina and served as associate dean for minority affairs in the College of Medicine for 17 years. He was appointed as director of the University’s Office of Diversity by MUSC President Dr. James B. Edwards. In this position, Bell created many programs to improve the recruitment, retention and graduation rates of minority students at MUSC.
After attending a 2005 conference focused on health disparities, Bell was inspired to address the issue in S.C. by concentration on health literacy in the African-American community. This led to the founding of “Closing the Gap in Health Care” (CGHC), which aims to decrease health disparities for African Americans and other underserved populations by providing health education through seminars, lectures and health fairs. To reach a larger audience, several radio stations broadcast his health tips. Bell’s radio health tips, television show and CGHC website reach over 300,000 people each week, and CGHC has been recognized several times as one of the country’s best consumer health information programs. The newly opened Thaddeus J. Bell, M.D. Family Health Center in Summerville is named in his honor.
The focus of Bell’s banquet message was his “journey” from where he began to where he is now. These are some highlights of his message:
He reflected upon some people who influenced him on his journey: a former president of S.C. State University, Dr. Maceo Nance, who was the school’s administrator while he was enrolled there. Bell’s father was a barber, so Nance would travel to Columbia every week to have his father cut his hair, and give Bell’s father a report on how his son was doing.
While at S.C. State, he worked for Dr. Adelle W. Stewart’s wife, and he said that he absolutely “hated her!” However, after he graduated from medical school, he went back to thank her for the positive influence she had in his life. (She was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Clemson University.)
The dean of men at South Carolina State, Dean Vincent, played a major role in Bell’s selection as a park ranger for three years at Yosemite National Park.
One day his mother told him that he had received a call from Edith Vaughn. He remembered her walking down the graduation line at S.C. State University to pull out students who owed fees, thus not being able to march. When he heard that he had gotten the call from her, he wondered what it could be. When he returned the call, she told him that he had recommended to teach at an all-white school in Gaffney. (He would be the first African American to do this in S.C.) He told her that he was a professional biology major and had not taken any education courses or the NTE. However, he accepted the position, and “it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences I ever had.” With a chuckle, he mentioned that students tried to get out of his class.
When Bell first applied to MUSC, he was interviewed by four white doctors. They told him that they would accept him as a student at MUSC, but he had to maintain a 4.0 average. Humorously, he said, “I couldn’t maintain a 4.0 at S.C. State, so I know I won’t maintain that at MUSC!” So, he turned it down the first time around.
He was a part of “the movement” when black LPNs protested and started a strike in 1969 at MUSC because of the way they were treated. He felt it was the right thing to do. In 1972, he began studying medicine at MUSC. However, he and the other five black students in his class “suffered the wrath of having the audacity to want to become doctors.”
Two of the most difficult times on Bell’s journey involved the loss of two of his children: first, his son to a pulmonary embolism two months after graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then his daughter, to one of the deadliest forms of cancer a young person can have. After the death of his son, the president of MUSC offered him a job, because the black students needed a role model there. Bell turned it down at first; however, the job was held for him for six months. He accepted the position and was at MUSC for 25 years.
Bell said that his mother was his greatest influence in his life. He couldn’t figure out why she did so much for others. Therefore, he promised God that if He let him finish medical school, he would give back. Another doctor recommended he go back to his community and educate them on health issues and disparities in health care. “Closing the Gap” has received over a $1 million dollars in grants. Within two weeks, Bell will be on CNN, BET, and the NBA finals giving health tips.
Bell worked at Colleton Regional Hospital for about a year. At first, they did not want to hire him because he was black. But after they checked his credentials, they hired him. He chuckled and said, “I had some interesting experiences there!”
He shared information on a report from DHEC — the top four cancers among African Americans: lung, prostate, breast and gynecological. He mentioned that trying to get African Americans to believe and trust in medicine remains an issue.
Bell took questions from the floor after his message. One of them was “What can we do as a community to help you complete your journey?” He said, “Help this young lady (Miss S.C. State University) while she is in medical school.” He went on to explain that those we help do not have to be doctors.
Bell said one of the greatest challenges on his journey has been dealing with racism.
He has been a practicing physician for 44 years and plans to make it 50.
After Bell’s impactful message, Beverly Haynes (1980) introduced this year’s scholarship recipient, Elijah Robinson, a member of the 2019 graduating class of Colleton County High School. His awards include perfect attendance, good citizenship, honor roll, principal’s list and scholarship awards via Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., CTS/CHS Alumni Association Inc., and the Arthur L. Williams Scholarship. He is a teacher assistant in his drafting class. He will study at S.C. State University in the fall.
Celia S. Price, a retired teacher from Colleton County School District, received the S.C. State University Distinguished Alumni Award. She was introduced and given red roses by her sister, Esther Black. She was also presented a trophy.
Central Williams (1976) gave closing remarks and recognized other special guests: Past National Alumni President Vernell Brown, Van Gaffney of the Orangeburg Alumni Chapter, and members of the Jasper County Alumni Chapter.
In his closing remarks, the banquet chairman, Art Williams (1992) shared greetings from S.C. Sen. Margie Bright Matthews (District 45), who could not be present due to her daughter’s graduation celebration. He mentioned that she said we can always be assured that she is on S.C. State University’s side.
The banquet closed with the alma mater and the benediction by the Rev. Marvin Jones, pastor of Jericho U.M. Church.