David Bell, dean emeritus of the Faculties of Environmental Studies and Graduate Studies, dies at 72

A proponent of sustainability and the power of education to change to change the world, David V. J. Bell, professor emeritus of environmental studies at York University, died on Jan. 10 from pancreatic cancer at the Kensington Hospice in Toronto, Ontario. He was 72 years old.

Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus David Bell

David Bell

Born April 14, 1944, and raised in Toronto, Professor Bell was an Ontario scholar who won the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship after attending Glendon College. He went on to receive his PhD in political science from Harvard University. Bell taught at Michigan State University and then returned to Canada in 1971 to teach at York University. There, he served as Dean of Graduate Studies and later as Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies. An academic and author, he wrote several books and countless articles.

Few people are aware that Bell, in addition to being a professor and a dean, was also the founder of the York University women’s soccer program in 1984 and its head coach until 1997. He guided the team to an Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Association (OWIAA, what is now the Ontario University Athletics) silver medal in 1988 and a bronze in 1990.

Bell was an ardently proud Canadian. He was also an accomplished musician who studied with Ray Brown at Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music. He was an active bassist for both small jazz ensembles as well as big bands and continued to play even in his retirement.

Colleagues at York University describe Bell as being a thoughtful and caring man who was deeply concerned about the environment and this concern underscored much of his career. His work and advocacy impacted policymakers, educators and youth across the globe, and his contributions to sustainability and education will continue to benefit future generations. His altruism was recognized with many awards over his lifetime. Most notably, Bell was the recipient of 2014 Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication Award, The Green Toronto Award for Leadership in Sustainability, The 2016 Harry Jerome Award, Clean50 Award and the Jackie Robinson Fortitude Award.

David Bell with his wife Kaaren

David and Kaaren Bell

After retiring from York University at 61, Bell joked in an article that appeared in The Globe and Mail that retirement meant that he could reduce the number of hours he worked in a week to half or just 48 hours per week. As the Chair of the Board of Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) for the past 11 years, Bell showed no signs of slowing down in retirement as he worked tirelessly, crisscrossing the planet to talk with politicians, policymakers and educators about the importance of sustainability.

“For the last 25 years or so, I have focused my thinking and energy on what I regard as the greatest challenge facing all of the world’s people, whatever their race, skin colour, nationality or ethnic origin: the challenge of sustainability,” said Bell in a story published in YFile in May 2016 to mark the Harry Jerome Award. “The current path of global development appears to be taking us toward environmental and social disaster. The trajectory we are on is unsustainable. We need to green our economy, reduce social inequity, tackle diversity and inclusion, and provide food water, energy, housing, and clean air for more than nine billion people. To do this, we humans must learn to live more sustainably on this planet.”

To achieve this goal, Bell focused his knowledge, passion and purpose squarely on the role of education in helping society learn its way to a more sustainable future. While the planet’s situation is dire, Bell said that he could see the start of green shoots sprouting in what he described as the early signs of a culture shift towards sustainability, something he described a global chorus of hope.

“The current path of global development appears to be taking us toward environmental and social disaster. The trajectory we are on is unsustainable. We need to green our economy, reduce social inequity, tackle diversity and inclusion, and provide food water, energy, housing, and clean air for more than nine billion people. To do this, we humans must learn to live more sustainably on this planet.” – Professor Emeritus David Bell

Bell’s commitment to sustainability was underpinned by the daily inspiration he received from Kaaren, his wife of 50 years, his two children Kristin and Jason, their spouses Scott Doan and Veronica Syrtash, and their three grandchildren Tatam, Kol and Lia. He adored his family and they were the fuel that kept him focused on a future in which those green shoots could grow into a majestic canopy.

In addition to his work for LSF, Bell was also a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy and he was Chair of the Board of Directors of Parc-Downsview-Park. He served as a consultant in the public and private sectors, advising several universities and governments, including Canada, Jamaica and China.

Visitation for David Bell will be at RS Kane Funeral Home in Thornhill, Ontario on Sunday, Jan. 15, from 2 to 5pm. A funeral service will be held on Monday, Jan. 16 at 2pm at the Thornhill Golf & Country Club, 7994 Yonge St., Thornhill, Ontario.

The family requests that donations in David Bell’s name may be made to the Wallace McCain Centre for Pancreatic Cancer through Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, or the Kensington Hospice in Toronto, or Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF). Information on how to make a donation can be found at http://bit.ly/2jsxeHr. LSF has established the Dr. David V.J. Bell Memorial Fund to continue his legacy in support of empowering our children to change the world.

The flags on York University’s Keele and Glendon campuses and at the Passey Residence will be lowered to half-mast from 1pm on Jan. 16 until Jan. 17 in tribute to Bell.

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