A Life: Seth Bell ‘had a strong moral compass’

  • Hartford's Seth Bell practices for the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl all-star game with his Vermont teammates at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., on July 30, 2010. (Valley News - Jason Johns) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Seth and Emily Bell on their wedding day in July 2013. They were classmates at Hartford High School, who started dating after they graduated in 2010. They ran into each other at a party, where "we started talking and never really stopped," Emily said. (Family photograph)

  • Seth Bell on a walk last year with the two dogs, Scarlet (left) and Zeus, he and his wife Emily cared for near the house they rented in the village of Vilseck, Germany. (Family photograph)

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/17/2021 8:25:34 PM
Modified: 1/18/2021 7:57:03 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – It was nearing midnight under an overcast December sky when a Knight Funeral Home hearse arrived at Hartford High School with a police escort.

More than 100 people stood in the parking lot or watched from their cars as the hearse crept toward the school’s football field. Floodlights from the field’s four metal towers illuminated the snow-covered turf. In the corner of the south end zone, a No. 55 Hartford High Hurricanes jersey hung from the electronic scoreboard.

Seth Bell was Hartford through and through.

He grew up in the town. (His parents, Chad and Karol, both graduated from Hartford High in 1979. Karol’s maiden name is Johnson.) Bell took up football in elementary school and later played on two Hartford High state championship teams. He represented his hometown in the 2010 Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl Game that features all-star players from Vermont and New Hampshire.

Bell went on to spend six years in the Army. In 2019, he joined the Army’s civilian police force on the same U.S. military base in the southeast corner of Germany, where he had been stationed since 2016.

On Dec. 5, the 29-year-old Bell died unexpectedly in Germany, after being stricken with acute pancreatitis. Four days before Christmas, his body was flown home, accompanied by his wife, Emily.

Arrangements for the nearly 4,000-mile journey were weeks in the making, which spoke to the respect and love that people on two continents had for Bell.

After Bell’s death, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten heard from the Rose Barracks military base in Vilseck, Germany, where Bell worked in law enforcement. Kasten asked Cpl. Sean Fernandes, a Hartford police detective, to handle the logistics of a 130-mile police escort from Boston Logan International Airport to White River Junction.

On the evening of Dec. 21, Fernandes and fellow Hartford police detectives Scott Moody and Tom Howell drove three cruisers to Logan. State troopers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire joined the procession for legs of the trip back to the Upper Valley. A giant American flag dangled from between Hartford and Lebanon fire department ladder trucks as the convoy, which along with Bell’s family had grown to include friends and more police, reached the high school.

With his military service and law enforcement work, Bell had “jumped from one dangerous profession to another,” said Fernandes, a 2008 Hartford graduate who played football with Bell. “He deserved a hero’s welcome home.”

Mike Stone, Hartford High’s head football coach when Bell played for the school, was among the people who showed up at the field last month. “He was a hard-working kid who got the most out of himself,” recalled Stone, now the athletic director at Lebanon High School.

Bell played on the offensive line, which meant his efforts in the so-called trenches often went unnoticed. But that made no difference to him. Football was his passion. Bell, who served as a team captain his senior year, was a regular in the weight room during offseason training sessions. “He liked being around his buddies,” Stone said. “He was a leader.”

Bell and Emily Beneze were Hartford High classmates, but they didn’t know each other well. “We came from different worlds,” she said.

While Bell was playing football on Friday nights and Saturdays, she was hanging out at music concerts. “I was more rebellious,” she said.

After graduating in 2010, they ran into each other at a party. “We started talking and never really stopped,” she said.

In July 2013, they were married on the “knoll,” in his parents’ back yard. By then, Bell was already in Army. (He enlisted after his younger brother, Troy, another standout football player at Hartford, had joined the Marines.)

Will Higgins met Bell during basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks. Later, they served together in the military police in Germany with U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria to which Rose Barracks belongs. (The U.S. has about 36,000 troops in Germany, including several thousand stationed at Rose Barracks with their families.)

“Seth was so charismatic,” said Higgins, who is currently stationed in California. “I don’t think he ever made an enemy.”

Last month, a story in The New York Times about U.S.troop withdrawals in Germany highlighted the strong relationship between Army brass and local officials in Vilseck, where the Army’s military police are frequently called upon to “wrangle soldiers who get carried away on German beer,” the newspaper wrote.

As an MP, Bell could be “pretty lenient,” Higgins said with a laugh. When he stopped a driver for speeding he was much more apt to issue a warning than write a costly ticket.

When a woman jogger, carrying no identification, was struck and killed by a car, police could have easily listed her as a “Jane Doe” and waited for someone to file a missing person’s report.

But Bell, who worked as a desk sergeant as a civilian police officer, wouldn’t hear it. He spent hours, calling businesses and searching the internet to identify the woman, who it turned out had only recently moved to Germany.

“He had a strong moral compass,” Higgins said.

Bell was “caring, thoughtful and loved life,” Robert Beaty, who was his supervisor on the base’s civilian police force, wrote in an email. “Seth was taken from this world way too early,” Beaty said. “We feel his loss here daily, and it is going to take a long time to ‘get over’ him not being in our lives.”

After his discharge in 2019, Bell could have returned home to begin a career as a U.S. police officer. He and his wife, however, decided to stay in Germany so they could continue to travel. Along with exploring the German countryside, they made excursions to London and Budapest.

The couple rented a house surrounded by horse stables and fields of kale in a village of Vilseck, a small Bavarian town near the Czech border.

On what turned out to be their last New Year’s Eve together, Seth and Emily traveled by train with friends to Munich. After waking up in their hotel room on New Year’s Day, they learned that one of their friends who, as Emily puts it, might have been celebrating a bit too much, had “walked into the wrong crowd.”

The friend was found behind a gas station with a gash in his head and missing a shoe. Without hesitating, Bell gave up his shoes to his friend, and walked barefoot to the train station.

At a stop outside of Vilseck, Bell persuaded a stranger to relinquish a pair of flip-flops from his suitcase. Bell handed him $20.

When Emily and their friends got back on the train, however, Bell was nowhere to be found. He’d been helping an older woman with her bags and missed the train.

No problem, though. At the train station, he met an Austrian couple who drove him to Vilseck. “He was a social animal,” Emily said. “He trusted people and people trusted him.”

Shortly before Bell’s death, he and Emily came home for Thanksgiving — their first trip to the U.S. in a couple of years. It was deer hunting season and at first light, Bell and his father headed for Jericho, a rural part of town known for its farmland and sugar bushes.

“It was one of his favorite spots,” Chad Bell said, recalling where his son shot a seven-pointer as a teenager. “He just loved to get up early in the morning and head out there.

“I’ll always have those memories.”

Not long after returning to Germany after the Thanksgiving visit, Bell was suddenly taken ill and his wife rushed him to the hospital that night. He died the next day.

After getting the news, Karol Bell made a promise to herself — and her late son. “He’s not going to come home in a casket and be forgotten,” she said.

At a frozen football field late on a December night, the people who came in droves made sure that didn’t happen.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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