He’s a poet and philosopher, an eloquent speaker and great storyteller. He’s made his mark in business and politics, following a half-century career in the dry-cleaning business and a dozen years as a Buffalo Common Council member.
But Clifford Bell, being honored this weekend for 60 years of service to his church, has carved out an even larger reputation.
“Brother Bell,” as virtually everyone calls him, has become a community treasure on Buffalo’s East Side – as a role model, mentor and unabashed supporter of his community.
He has used his money, his business savvy and his community connections to help younger people, whether they’re trying to start a business, plot a career path or chase some personal dream.
Bell is 85, but he doesn’t act his age. He has a ponytail, an earring in his left ear and an impressive memory, especially as he spouts his own poetic verses.
In his spare time – if he’s had any – he’s held basically every top position at the Lutheran Church of Our Savior since 1955. The church is honoring him with an appreciation dinner at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Grapevine Banquet Center on Dick Road in Depew.
“He has fed, led and cared for the Lutheran Church of Our Savior for over 60 years,” congregation President Barbara D. Glover said. “He’s an amazing man of God. He’s a role model. And he’s everything that’s good about Buffalo.”
Bell attributes his sense of giving back to his parents, who held top posts at the First Shiloh Baptist Church.
“They always told us, ‘When you can help somebody, do it,’ ” he said inside his home not far from Humboldt Parkway. “That’s our purpose here, to serve somebody. That’s the reputation of the Bell family. We will help you if we can.”
Bell works as a senior business adviser for the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State.
“Can you imagine how blessed I am, to be this old, in this condition, and still be able to help people?” he asked.
Bell comes across much younger than his 85 years. Part of that may be traced to his earring and short ponytail.
“I tried for a horse, but I wound up with a pony,” he said.
About 15 years ago, he saw other men with ponytails and told himself that was something he’d like to have. At first, he feared some negative reaction, but that hasn’t happened.
How about the earring?
That came at roughly the same time, and Bell slid easily into storytelling.
He and his family were in Atlanta, visiting relatives. As they walked through a mall, his cousin, Pat Goss, suggested they both get their ears pierced. Bell declined, but his cousin persisted, saying that she’d do it if he would.
Bell agreed, and he went first.
“OK, Pat, it’s your turn,” he remembered saying, before she replied, “No way I’m going to get my ear pierced.”
Bell told the story with a big smile.
“I guess I like to be noticed in a way, without being overbearing,” he explained. “I want to be a presence, and I want to exude happiness and friendship.”
Of all his titles, Bell seems to like “role model” and “mentor” the most.
“No matter when you call on him, he always has words of wisdom,” Glover said. “They just seem to flow from him.
“I told him, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like you.’ ”
Bell has touched a lot of people in his native Buffalo. His Bell Brothers Cleaners was a fixture on Fillmore Avenue for almost 55 years, and he also operated a sporting-goods store in the 1970s and ’80s. He’s been a Cub Scout master, a little-league football president and a longtime business adviser.
As a Common Council member from 1984 to 1996, he chaired the Economic Development Committee, overseeing the distribution of more than $150 million in block-grant funds, and he wrote the city’s original No Smoking ordinance in 1986.
His most cherished accomplishment, though, may have been chairing Buffalo’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration for 30 years, starting in 1979.
Bell has been married to the former Helaine Tucker for 60 years. They have two children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
He’s looking forward to Saturday’s dinner, catching up with people who have been active in the community and know him well. And he’s touched by the honor.
“It’s special coming from the church, because that’s where my head and heart have been since I joined the church,” he said.
Everyone who knows Bell realizes that he might even take the occasion Saturday night to say a word – or two – about the honor.
As he said, “Speechless I am not.”