Dr. M. Langley Bell, Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps to become an outstanding supporter of 4-H in Escambia County. The Bell family has supported 4-H programs in Escambia County and its surrounding counties since 1943, with the donation of the 400 acres for the Langley Bell 4-H Center. Prior to 1943, the property was known as the Escambia County 4-H Timber, Grazing and Game Demonstration Camp. Dr. Bell’s father, M. Langley Bell, a retired Clerk of the Circuit Court, made the donation.
Mr. Bell envisioned the camp as a place to provide opportunities for personal growth, leadership and citizenship development through the Escambia County 4-H clubs. His strong belief in youth fueled his desire for 4-H members to develop skills and attitudes, to strengthen personal standards and philosophies, and to work well with others. He wanted for young people to discover, develop, and wisely use their individual abilities and talents.
The center has been used for 4-H camps, retreats, timber projects, livestock projects, and as a meeting site for extension agents. The Langley Bell 4-H Center comprises about 240 acres of the original 400 acres. Four cabins, a kitchen, meeting hall, nature trails, forestry and livestock educational areas, barns, pastures, a 5-acre lake, and a campfire circle made the camp an ideal place to learn.
When a meeting house was added to the property in the 1950s, Dr. M.O. Watkins, dean of the Florida Agricultural Extension Service at the University of Florida, said that the building and camp facility are proof that the people of Escambia County have an interest in young people. He hailed the facility as a “dream come true” and said that it would impact thousands of lives.
Since its establishment in 1943, the Langley Bell 4-H Center Board of Trustees has sold portions of the property to obtain funding to enhance the Center’s facilities and 4-H programs. The sale of 70 acres of property from the Langley Bell 4-H Center resulted in a profit of one million dollars for the Escambia County 4-H Foundation. In 2001, the Escambia County 4-H Foundation endowed $750,000 from that sale in the University of Florida Foundation to establish a sustained source of 4-H program funds for years to come.
“It’s been real exciting to get to see over 4,000 children reap the benefits and add to their education from 4-H programs,” said Dr. M. Langley Bell, Jr. He has volunteered countless hours with the 4-H program in Escambia County. “I’m like a real grandpa,” said Bell, when talking with the Pensacola News Journal in 1991. “You see so many headlines because of crime and shoot-ups. We have kids that are learning about doing….they need role models.”
In September 2004, the Langley Bell 4-H Center was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan. More than 2,000 trees were uprooted and destroyed. The roof was lifted off the auditorium and several buildings on the property were destroyed. Even when faced with such devastation, the Escambia County 4-H program did not give up. A portable saw mill was purchased to try to salvage some of the timber so the barns at the Langley Bell 4-H Center could be rebuilt. After much hard work, the Langley Bell 4-H Center is again today being used for 4-H programs and supporting young people.
The Bell family also supports 4-H in other ways. The Bell family began the tradition of the Senior Langley Bell Ring Award for two outstanding 4-H members. These 4-H members are presented with a gold Langley Bell ring at the annual end of the year ceremony.
Dr. Bell was instrumental in the development of the Escambia County 4-H Foundation, which provides financial support for 4-H programs. He served as the first president for the foundation and is now its president emeritus. He notes that his activities center around helping young people develop the skills they need. “Youths need perseverance and determination to make them succeed in life,” he said.
He grew up in Pensacola and graduated from Pensacola High School in 1940. He attended the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina, where he majored in physics and engineering. During the Second World War, Bell served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a designated aviator. He flew B-24 bombers in North Africa and Italy. After the war, Bell enrolled in the University of Florida pre-dental program. He attended Northwestern University School of Dentistry and graduated in 1949 with his doctorate.
As a doctor of dental surgery and a dental surgeon at Escambia County Hospital, Dr. Bell was well-known in the medical community in Pensacola. He served as president of the Escambia County Dental Society. Before and after his retirement, he volunteered his services for the Pensacola Naval Hospital and the Escambia County Health Department. He also donated services to help handicapped children at Baptist Hospital and continues to volunteer in his retirement. He served on the Pensacola City Council for two years.
In discussing his commitment to volunteerism, Dr. Bell said, “I like the adventure. Saying I do this for purely humanitarian purposes sounds a little overzealous, doesn’t it?” Dr. Bell sold his medical practice in 1987 and now enjoys spending time with 4-H members and his grandchildren.