Staff, students remember King Bell

By Peter Wright

For nearly five years King Bell held court over Café Mac. When he unexpectedly passed away last week, he took with him a larger than life personality and a smile that brightened the day of anyone he met.”Whether he was mad or sad or happy, he would always be smiling,” Supervisor Courtney Moore said.

King, who was 43 when he died, started working in Café Mac four and a half years ago, initially working in the dish room. Supervisor Joann Johnson said that every day he would make a point to say, “Hi,” to her and all the other employees and check in on their lives. Within a year the managers moved King into the cafeteria.

“He loved his job,” Johnson said. “He loved the people he worked with, and he loved the students.”

Many students discovered King’s personality in their first year, often when he learned their names. Board Manager Theresa Cianni hired King a few months after she started working at Macalester. King told her that he was going to learn the names of nearly 1000 students. He must have come close to that.

Cianni said that she watched him scanning students in one day, and, just as he claimed, he could remember the names of almost all of them without looking at their IDs, a gesture that helped them settle in when most of them were adjusting to the new college environment.

A few summers ago, a group of Japanese students visited campus. None of them spoke English, but after a couple meals in Café Mac, they had learned one word.

“All they could say in English was, ‘King, King, King, King, King,'” Cianni said.

Johnson said that the students would try to talk to her and other employees, but they would light up as soon as soon as they saw King. That’s a reaction they shared with many Mac students.

Cianni recalled how students would stand in a long line for King to scan them in, even if there was another entrance open with fewer people waiting, just because they wanted to talk to him.

King was a nicknamer. To him, Joann Johnson was “Miss Joann;” Cianni and Moore were “Salt and Pepper;” and Christina Eichorn ’11, who ordered the same sandwich every time she visited the Atrium, became “Plain Jane.”

Beyond nicknames, King would learn bits about individual personalities, sometimes breaking into song from behind his checking counter.

“He would sing,” Johnson said. “He would sing for everybody.”

Employees aren’t allowed to play any music on the cafeteria jukebox, but students would play songs just for him.

“They would be like, ‘King, I’m playing that jukebox for you,'” Moore said.

Moore came to Café Mac after King. She said that when she first arrived she was shy around her new co-workers, but King invited her to eat lunch with the other workers, and helped her get to know everyone.

“He was the one that kind of helped me open up to everybody,” she said.

On the day King died, he was his normal self, joking with students and co-workers, and eating lunch with the staff.

“He was especially happy that day,” Johnson said.

Eichorn and her friend visited King in the Atrium to order her normal BLT a few minutes before he started having breathing problems. He was happy, but as they walked away his final words to them struck a chord.

“The last thing he said to us was ‘pray for me,'” Eichorn said.

One week later, during an interview for this article on the second floor of the Campus Center, Eichorn gazed over a Wednesday night dinner crowd in Café Mac and wondered how many of them missed King’s personality. Even a week after his death, many seem to be coming to grips with the loss.

It still feels like he’s on vacation, Eichorn said, or like the time when he was hospitalized. She said it hasn’t completely hit her that he will not be coming back.

Eichorn is teaming with another student to plan an on-campus memorial for students and everyone else, set to be held at 4:30 on Monday evening in the Chapel.

“I feel like it would help a lot of people to.say goodbye,” Eichorn said.

In addition to the student-led event, a more formal service is occurring today at 10 a.m. in the Progressive Baptist Church at 1505 Burns Ave. in St Paul. Johnson said that most of the Café Mac staff will attend that one, and that Bon Appétit will provide all the catering for the service.

One element of both memorials will be a memorial wall covered in students’ remembrances of King. Student Government President Alison Tray ’09 spearheaded the effort to place the white display boards in Café Mac for two days, encouraging everyone who visited King’s cafeteria to add their thoughts and stories.

“We.wanted to do something [for] students to be actively involved,” Tray said.

Both the memorial wall and the on-campus memorial service were completely organized by students. Many people were upset with the amount of time it took the college to officially announce King’s death, and they started the projects to honor him. Tray said that the college had been waiting to get in touch with King’s Chicago family before they e-mailed an announcement in the Daily Piper.

While his roots were in Chicago, Cianni said that the Café Mac workers became his family in Minnesota. Johnson echoed that, saying that King would even call them that.

Some students have suggested a more permanent memorial to King, writing to Tray that the cafeteria could name a dish after him, or that the Atrium could take his name. Johnson said that she would like to see something like a memorial tree added to the campus in his name.

While students take steps to say goodbye and remember his personality, Cianni summed up the loss in terms that anyone who knew King will understand.

“He was King,” she said, “and no one will ever be King again.