Former head of CARE inspired many

Under the leadership of Peter Bell, many say, CARE became a bolder, more activist global aid agency.

“As president and CEO from 1995 to 2006, Peter presided over CARE’s transition from its traditional humanitarian mission to one that went beyond treating symptoms of global poverty to dealing with underlying causes,” said Helene Gayle, Bell’s successor as head of the Atlanta-based CARE. “He was outspoken in urging governments to wipe out discrimination in all forms and to take greater responsibility for improving the lives of all their citizens.”

Former CARE staffer Sherine Jayawickrama of New York City said Bell was a transformational leader who instilled in CARE a commitment to human rights and the dignity of every human being.

Jayawickrama accompanied Bell to several strife-torn countries. “I remember how much he enjoyed and learned from the people he met in the poorest communities and how courageously he spoke up for them when he met with their government leaders,” she said.

CARE’s former board chairman Lincoln Chen said the only ongoing difference he had with Bell was over the latter’s refusal to accept a salary increase despite repeated board pleas. “Peter refused because of his inner ethics as a leader of a humanitarian organization,” said Chen, who now lives in Brookline, Mass., and heads the China Medical Board USA.

“In the midst of a crisis, Peter exhibited a calm and thoughtful confidence that engendered trust among us all,” Chen added.

Marilyn Grist, a former CARE senior vice president, said, “As I talk with people the world over in governments and non-governmental agencies, I am struck by how many say they were inspired by Peter to devote their lives to public service.”

Peter Dexter Bell, 73, of Gloucester, Mass., died of cancer April 4 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. His memorial service will be at 11 a.m., April 23, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Gloucester.

Bell’s fascination with faraway places began in the late 1950s when he was a teen on an American Field Service-sponsored trip to Japan. There, he stayed with a welcoming host family and learned to appreciate what he later described as “the oneness of humanity.”

After earning degrees at Yale and Princeton, Bell worked for the Ford Foundation’s Latin American program in Brazil and Chile, among other things helping to protect academicians in both countries from arrest or forced exile sought by their military rulers.

He went on to serve in the Carter administration as a deputy undersecretary of what is now the Department of Health and Human Services and as an executive for several foundations before coming to Atlanta in 1995 as head of CARE.

Colleagues admired Bell greatly.

“Peter was a kind of invisible statesman who could eat breakfast with peasants, lunch with presidents and dine in the evening with human rights activists,” said Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “He moved fluidly across these boundaries while achieving tremendous impact by imparting wisdom gleaned from each of these unique worlds. Ever the gentleman, he brought a unique respectability to the vocation of activist.”

Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity, said Bell was a great friend and mentor. “When I moved to Atlanta to join Habitat,” he continued, “Peter was generous with his wisdom. He was such a winsome combination of gentle humility and a steely resolve for the rights of the marginalized in our world.”

Bill Schultz, former president of Amnesty International, said Bell was a seminal figure in the world of development and relief, “and yet you would never know it from Peter’s totally modest demeanor.”

Leaving CARE after 10½ years as president, Bell was a visiting fellow at the Carter Center for nearly two years before returning to his hometown of Gloucester and becoming a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Of the 90 countries Bell visited during his life, he was fondest of Brazil, where he worked for 4½ years during the 1960s, said his daughter, Emily Bell of New York City. Residing in Rio de Janeiro, he learned to do the samba — the one dance he ever mastered, his daughter said — and claimed to have lived on the same block as the girl from Ipanema.

While living in Atlanta, Bell took delight, his daughter said, in the High Museum, the Atlanta History Center, the Georgia Aquarium and the abundance of good-quality public tennis courts.

Other than his daughter, Bell is survived by his wife of 43 years, Karen Bell; their son, Jonathan Bell of London, England; a sister, Diana Bell of Palo Alto, Calif.; and three brothers, John Bell, David Bell and Timothy Bell, all of Gloucester.

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