Header Image - Gate of Opportunity

Life Lessons

Note: This story was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Berry magazine.

Jimmy (60C) and Luci Hill (60C) Bell learned one of life’s most important lessons from their fathers: You can achieve anything if you’re willing to work hard enough. Now, through giving to Berry’s Gate of Opportunity Scholarship Program, the couple is sharing that lesson with generations of others. 

The Bells grew up in homes where education was valued. Although neither of their fathers pressured them to go to college, both influenced them to do so – each in his own way. 

Jimmy’s father, W.L. Bell, led by example, returning to Mercer University in Macon, Ga., in mid-life to finish his degree and then going on to earn a master’s, all while continuing to operate a 140-acre farm, work as an elementary school principal, and help his wife raise their children. The senior Bell’s drive, hard work and ultimate achievement inspired all five of his children to graduate from college – Berry College to be exact.

For Luci, encouragement was the key. At a time when women were not expected to attend college much less pursue a career in the sciences, Luci’s father, B.B. Hill Jr., taught her that she could do anything. With her parents’ blessing, Luci came to Berry to fulfill her dream of becoming a scientist. 

Irresistible chemistry

Jimmy and Luci were among a small group of students in the late 1950s majoring in chemistry at Berry. The two met in class, became friends and often studied together. At the beginning of their senior year, both were hired to work as chemistry lab assistants, and soon their friendship blossomed into romance. 

By the time the pair had finished their senior year, they regretted committing to different graduate schools. Still, when fall came, Jimmy enrolled at the University of Mississippi, and Luci went to the University of Florida. That arrangement lasted one semester. 

Unable to bear being apart, the couple married in January 1961. Luci joined Jimmy at Ole Miss, where he held an assistantship while working on his doctorate. A year into his program, he was asked to join the teaching staff as an instructor. Jimmy credits his experience in the lab at Berry with preparing him for these roles.

Illustrious careers

Immediately after earning his doctorate, Jimmy was hired as a postdoctoral scholar at the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory. Six months later, he was offered a permanent position and, over the next 31 years, became one of the foremost authorities on nuclear energy. While most of his work focused on the nuclear fuel cycle, he also helped clean up post-Cold War nuclear sites throughout the United States and was among the few U.S. experts sent to survey and evaluate foreign nuclear programs. 

After retiring from the ORNL in 1995 as head of the Chemical Development Section, Jimmy went on to found Bell Consultants, a private company working with national and international clients on projects related to the nuclear fuel cycle and waste management technologies. He received Berry’s 2011 Distinguished Achievement Award for his contributions to nuclear safety and was recognized by his scientific peers with the 2012 Glenn T. Seaborg Actinide Separations Award. Today he maintains some involve­ment in the nuclear field while spending much of his time working on his farm. 

Luci, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee, worked as a hospital medical technologist and high school chemistry teacher before also joining the ORNL. There, she served as a technical editor for two divisions, associate editor of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review and assistant to the director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s research projects. Before retiring in 1994, she worked as a medical waste specialist with the Environmental Compliance Division, helping to establish a chemical exchange website that saved several million dollars in its first year. 

The Bells have two children, Steve Bell and Carol Bell Willborn, and three grandchildren.

‘Gate’ to the future

Both Jimmy and Luci feel blessed in the life they’ve had and credit their fathers with helping them get started on the path to higher education. That’s why, when they learned about the Gate of Opportunity Scholarship Program, they knew it was the perfect way to pay tribute to them. 

The program offers students the opportunity to work their way to graduating debt free. It was the requirement for students to work in support of their education that resonated with the Bells. 

“I have always felt that Berry’s Gate of Opportunity was our admission into the future,” Jimmy said. “We wanted to honor our fathers and give someone else the same kind of opportunity that we had.”

The result is the W.L. Bell and B.B. Hill Jr. Gate of Opportunity Scholarship, which was awarded for the first time in 2013 to a young man willing to work hard enough to achieve his goals. What better way for the Bells to carry their fathers’ legacies into the future?