Gloucester — Peter Bell of Brier Road was surrounded by family members when he died at age 73 on April 4 at Massachusetts General Hospital after a five-month battle with cancer.
Peter once reflected that his work felt more like a “calling” than a career. An internationally-known humanitarian leader, Peter dedicated his life to reducing poverty and protecting human rights. He possessed a profound sense of integrity and compassion that guided his work and inspired others. Despite his familiarity with so many of the world's ills, he was able to maintain and communicate an indomitable optimism.
Peter was born in Gloucester on August 31, 1940, to the late Elizabeth Dexter Bell and Harold Bell. He was the eldest of six children and grew up in the Bass Rocks neighborhood of Gloucester. He graduated from Gloucester public schools and appreciated Gloucester’s rich cultural history, getting to know the sculptor Walker Hancock and the poet Charles Olson, among other artists.
Peter’s interest in the wider world began in high school. He was in the first group of American students to go to Japan after World War II on an American Field Service scholarship. Peter realized that his host family, the Okajimas, were seeking to reconcile with the U.S. by inviting a young American into their family. His host mother’s maxim for living was to “make the world more wonderful.” Peter reflected that his time in Japan and his relationship with the Okajimas was a turning point in his life. The experience strengthened his faith in the oneness of humanity. A diary of his experiences in Japan formed the basis for the book, “Junket to Japan.”
As an undergraduate at Yale, Peter majored in history and reported for the Yale Daily News. The Chaplain and peace activist William Sloane Coffin influenced Peter, a deacon at Battell Chapel, to think more deeply about both spiritual questions and social issues. At Yale, Peter was also shaped by Paul Weiss, a professor of philosophy and the first Jewish full professor at Yale. In concluding Peter’s last class, the professor commanded the students: “Go forth and make the world less miserable.” Peter later remarked that, on his better days, he looked to Mrs. Okajima for inspiration. On his less good days, he looked to Professor Weiss. The summer of 1960, Peter traveled to the Ivory Coast with Operation Crossroads Africa (an inspiration for the Peace Corps) as part of a racially integrated group of American students to build a school. When he returned to New Haven, Peter co-founded the Yale Society for African Affairs. Yale awarded Peter the Hatch Prize, given to a senior “who, motivated by spiritual and ethical considerations, proposes to further his studies of international problems and their peaceful solutions.”