Celebration of Life Scheduled for Sunday, March 24
Jeff Bell – the city of Apache Junction’s only parks director until his retirement in 2016 – died on Wednesday, March 13, after an illness. He was 61.
Bell, born on June 28, 1957, grew up in Casa Grande and volunteered with that city’s parks department before he was a teenager. He worked there before and after he attended Arizona State University, where he earned a degree in recreation management. Before that, he attended Mesa Community College, where he played on a tennis team that finished fourth in the nation.
Bell steered the Apache Junction’s parks department for 35 years. He oversaw the development of more than 2,000 acres of park and open space in a thriving operation that now employs more than 100 full and part-time staff, has hundreds of volunteers and serves a community of tens of thousands, winning accolades from peers and citizens alike.
“Jeff was a visionary public servant who found creative methods to deliver world-class facilities and programs to our community,” said current Parks Director Liz Langenbach, who worked with Bell for 20 years. “He worked hard to develop staff that focused on high quality, personal customer experiences. Jeff was a beloved mentor and father-figure to many of us in the department, and will be missed dearly.”
Bell is survived by his wife, Mary; children Scott Bell and Bridgette Bell, children by marriage Heather Basford and Jason Borelli (Michelle); grandchildren Kailey Basford, Michael Basford and Morgan Gonzales and Lydia Borelli; mother Pat Yuhas, siblings John Bell, Kristy Johnson (David), and Vicki Walker. He was preceded in death by his father, Harold Bell, and stepfather, George Yuhas.
Jeff’s Journey will be shared at a Celebration of Life on Sunday, March 24 at 3 p.m. at the Apache Junction Multi-Generational Center.
Please join the family by wearing ASU colors in honor of Jeff. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to support the scholarship program at Apache Junction Parks and Recreation, 1035 N. Idaho Road.
This feature on Jeff Bell was originally published in The News on May 2, 2016. Bell had just announced his full retirement from Apache Junction Parks & Recreation.
By Daniel Dullum
Making the rounds on a Tuesday morning, Jeff Bell drove past the Multi-Generational Center and, looking inside the facility’s gym, noted, “I made the first basket here.
“I was also the first one to swim in the pool at the Aquatic Center,” he continued, noting that the ceremonial dip wasn’t planned. “I was moving some things and I lost my balance and fell in. It was in November. That water was cold!”
That might have been the only misstep Bell had in a successful 35-year run as Apache Junction’s Parks & Recreation director. Bell actually retired from his fulltime duties five years ago, and stayed on part-time since 2011.
Bell also makes it clear he doesn’t care for the term “retirement.” He prefers “graduation.”
“When I was growing up, my parents always told me that when you go to school, you have to work hard so you can graduate,” he explained. “In high school, I worked hard and graduated. In college, I worked hard and graduated, and for 35 years, I worked awfully hard for this community and I felt like this was another graduation!”
Now with more free time, Bell said he has a residence in Pinetop to maintain, and has season tickets for Arizona State University, the Diamondbacks and Nascar.
“I have two places to take care of. I’ve got some grandkids to pick up in the afternoon,” Bell said. “I love my sports. I go to a lot of sporting events and I’m an avid tennis player and play a couple times a week on Sundays and Wednesdays. It’s just enough.
“I’ve only been at graduation for six weeks, but so far, so good!”
Bell said the first day away from the office was “really tough.”
“A buddy asked me to go to a spring training game and that helped a little bit,” Bell said. “Mostly, I miss the relationships with my work family. Now I don’t have that. It’s what I miss the most.
“I told my wife (Mary) that for the first three months, I’m not going to do much of anything. I’m going to go fishing, go hiking, play some tennis, sit back, and let those things sort themselves out,” he continued.
“It’s been emotional and I’m trying to find some closure. But now I get to go out and recreate at some the places I helped build and see other people enjoy it. That’s when I think back that my job was meaningful, and I hope I left a long, lasting impact.”
As the Parks & Rec director, Bell oversaw the creation of a long list of facilities, including Prospector Park, Silly Mountain Park, the Rodeo Event Center, Superstition Shadows Park, Skatepark, the Aquatic Center, the Multi-Generational Center, and more. Bell accomplished this by securing grants and brokering partnerships, like the one with the Apache Junction Unified School District for the Aquatic Center and Skatepark.
He also developed SOAR (Service Over and Above the Rest), an organizational development service.
“When I went to ASU, the common practice across the nation was everybody building a park per square mile, so every kid could walk within a mile to a park system. Right away, I knew Apache Junction wasn’t going to have the resources to do that.
“So I thought of more of a regional and nature type of approach for this community that could be linked together like a trail system.
“I’m certainly proud, and it wasn’t done by just me,” he continued. “I’ve had the support of elected officials over the years, a wonderful staff to work with, great partnerships with the school districts, the Superstition Land Trust, and a variety of local groups.
“There is a sense of pride, and now that I have graduated, I can actually go around and see accomplishments. I can see kids skating, or someone playing tennis, and that brings happiness to me because I was involved in all of that.
“I feel like I tatted the community!”
The list of accolades is just as impressive. Under Bell’s leadership, the AJ Parks & Rec Department won 10 awards, including the 2006 Outstanding Facility Award from APRA and the Innovative Architecture and Design Award from Recreation Magazine for the Multi-Generational Center.
In 2004, Superstition Shadows Park received the Governor’s Excellence in Rural Development Award from the Arizona Department of Commerce.
“People around Apache Junction don’t think our image is very good around the state. In our profession, we’re one of the best in class. Our department has helped raise our image level by what we do,” Bell said. “It means a lot to me, because you’re hearing it from your peers. That’s something I’m very proud of.”
Bell has done more for Apache Junction than just his Park & Rec duties. He was appointed by Gov. Janet Napolitano to serve on the Arizona Outdoor Recreation Coordinating Commission. In 1994, he was named an Honorary Lost Dutchman.
There’s more. Bell also served on the AJ Reach Out Food Bank organizing committee, chaired community blood donation drives, American Cancer Society Jail-A-Thon and Christmas Basket projects, the Salvation Army board of directors, United Way volunteer, the AJ Chamber of Commerce board, the Pina/Gila Child Services board, and committees for the Lost Dutchman Days and Marathon.
In addition, Bell has served on the Pinal County Parks, Recreation and Fairgrounds Advisory Board for 10 years, and served for many years as a youth coach and sports official.
Though not listed as a duty on his official job description, Bell successfully served as a matchmaker, bringing future AJ News Publisher Ed Barker and his wife Robin together 32 years ago.
“Ed was doing a lot of umpiring for me, and Robin was working for the police department at the time,” Bell remembered. “We had a biker toy run for Christmas, and I was scared to go to the bikers by myself, and I had Ed go with me. He had the long hair and the beard at the time, and we went to a biker bar—it’s not around anymore. I had a city truck and we went to the gazebo at Memorial Park where the drive ended. They took the toys on the back of their bikes, and Robin was working that night.
“I introduced them, and next thing I know, they’re dating!”
Casa Grande Native
Bell is a 1975 graduate of Casa Grande Union High School, where he participated in football, basketball, tennis and cross-country. He attended Mesa Community College from 1975 to 1977, where he played on a tennis team that finished fourth in the nation. He graduated from Arizona State with a degree in recreational management.
After a two-year stint as recreation director for the Town of Kearny, Bell came to Apache Junction in 1980.
Chuck Baker, former sports editor of The News, worked for Parks & Rec for 15 years and recalled, “All Jeff had early on was a secretary and they were running all of the programs!”
Doing More With Less
The current Parks & Rec budget is around $4 million. When Bell assumed his duties in Apache Junction, the budget was $75,000.
“Jeff started with nothing and ended up with beautiful parks, a sparkling Multi-Generational Center, and a tremendous staff to boot,” Apache Junction Mayor John Insalaco said. “It’s nothing short of miraculous to see what Jeff has done.”
Looking back, Bell is happy with the open slate he was given to develop the department.
“At least it set the base for the future of the department, and hopefully, there are some facilities and programs that will have long lasting, meaningful uses for years to come.”
Mary March, AJ Parks & Rec secretary for 31 years, said, “Jeff’s management style grew with the department. He laid all of the foundation, knew what it was. There was consistency for 35 years. He was always receptive to adjustments when they’re necessary for the good of the department and the community.”
Liz Langenbach, who succeeded Bell as Parks & Rec director, remembered when she was a child, “Jeff was very involved in using every resource possible in this community to bring recreational opportunities to youth in particular.
“Back then, we didn’t have a pool here in our community. So Jeff made arrangements to provide bus transportation to the Fremont pool in Mesa for our swimming lessons. He did that so our community would have the same advantage as everybody else to learn how to swim.”
Langenbach said that the idea of starting a Youth Advisory Council is nothing new.
On the task of filling Bell’s shoes, Langenbach said, “When he retired from fulltime five years ago, he stayed on part-time because he wasn’t ready to be done yet and we weren’t ready for him to go. We wanted to hold onto him forever.
“Everything I learned about developing relationships and communities, figuring out who had what we needed, and partnering, that’s a Jeff Bell trademark.”
Langenbach said a large part of Bell’s legacy might be the work environment he created.
“Jeff developed a culture in our department that is not rivaled anywhere,” Langenbach said. “We’re very well respected and Jeff set the tone for that.
“He protected our staff during budget cuts. He was always fighting to never lose staff, to find other ways to show we were as valuable as he believed we were. He made sure everybody knew about that.
“When Jeff started, we didn’t have hardly anything in the way of parks and recreation,” Langenbach said. “When you look at what we have now, with very little tax dollar investment and the partnerships we’ve developed, he really established that tone.”
Baker added, “Jeff’s biggest asset was his versatility. He was well-rounded and knowledgeable in a lot of different areas of public education,” Baker said.
Bell lists Silly Mountain Park among his proudest accomplishments, saying, Central Arizona College actually had the lease for 200 acres of federal land out there and they were going to build their Apache Junction campus out there.
“CAC eventually built their campus where it is now and I kept an eye on things. I learned that CAC relinquished their lease, so I hopped on that and submitted the application to lease it. I always thought it would be a great natural reserve type of facility.”
Bell said there are master plans sitting on the shelf for future expansion of the trail system. “One of my proud accomplishments is setting that stage, providing that foundation for future growth.”
As far as unfinished business goes, Bell mentioned a proposed dog park.
“It’s something on the table and still being discussed—an off-leash facility for dogs. I was hoping we’d have that for our community by now. We just weren’t able to accomplish that—yet. The resources just aren’t available to do that yet.
“When we were working, I never thought we were getting much accomplished. I always had to stop and look back. Then I’d say, ‘well, maybe we did ‘tat’ the community with some treasures!”
(above), the Aquatic Center (below), and many other facilities. (The News file photos)