Born in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, on November 11, 1921. Bell spent much of his professional career in Utah. He served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps during World War II and returned to Idaho to get his education. After earning a B.A. at Albion State Normal School in 1946, he started a career as a high school teacher and bus driver.
He earned an M.A. from the University of Idaho in Moscow in 1954, and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in 1961. Bell also served as Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education and the superintendent of Utah’s Weber School District from 1958 to 1962.
Bell served as the United States Commissioner of Education (prior to the creation of the cabinet position) under Presidents Nixon and Ford from 1974 to 1976. Bell was a lifelong educator whose school-improvement message elevated him from obscurity in the Reagan administration to one of its most unlikely stars.
Appointed as the 2nd Secretary of Education, under President Reagan in 1981, Bell was expected to preside over dismantling of the Department of Education, created by previous President Jimmy Carter. Bell ran into the legal requirement that such a dismantling required legislation. On August 26, 1981, Secretary Bell convinced President Reagan to appoint a commission to study excellence in education. Bell released the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, titled A Nation at Risk, started the drive for education reform; claiming that our nation was threatened by “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Secretary Bell’s concern solicited the “support of all who care about our future,” Bell noted that he was establishing the Commission based on his “responsibility to provide leadership, constructive criticism, and effective assistance to schools and universities.”
White House officials were persuaded to hold a ceremony to release the report. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform called for higher academic standards, beefing up teacher credentials, longer school days, and greater community involvement in schools. When the report drew intense national interest, President Reagan soon began championing education reform and recognizing high-performing schools.
Bell served for Reagan’s first term, resigning on December 31, 1984, and was succeeded by Bill Bennett and returned to Salt Lake City to join the faculty at the University of Utah. In 1988, he published his memoir entitled The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir.
Bell published seven other books during his career, covering topics such as improving child intellectual development and reforming the educational process. His last book in 1993, written with his business partner Dr. Donna Elmquist at his nonprofit company T.H. Bell and Associates in Salt Lake City, made new recommendations for improving the U.S. education system.
FAMOUS QUOTE: “There are three things to emphasize in teaching: The first is motivation, the second is motivation, and the third is (you guessed it) motivation.” Terrel H. Bell, U.S. Secretary of Education, 1981–1985 (Bell, 1995)
The Department of Education gives an award named after Secretary Bell to recognize “outstanding school leaders and the vital role they play in overcoming challenging circumstances.”