You are hereThomas Cowan Bell

Thomas Cowan Bell

May 14, 1832 to Feb. 3, 1919

Written by Benjamin Piatt Runkle
The Sigma Chi Quarterly, Vol. XV, May, 1896, No. 3, pp. 237-241
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Thomas Cowan Bell
Painted from Life by
Frank A. Werner, Alpha Theta 1899

This soldier of the Republic, founder of Sigma Chi, able educator and genial gentleman, came from sturdy pioneer stock, Virginia on one side. His forefathers were among those strong men who changed the wilderness of the Ohio Valley into a blossoming garden of beauty, and taught their sons that success in life depends on self-reliance and interdependence. He was born on May 14, 1832, at Bellbrook, Greene County, Ohio, not far from where the Hon. Whitelaw Reid first saw the light. In the days of his boyhood he learned what work means, and that it is closely allied to worship, and he drank in with the crisp morning air the fresh, glad spirit which attuned the song of the lark in the rich meadows about his father’s home, and which has been one of his characteristics through life. He came by way of the little log school house, with its backless benches and puncheon floor, through the modest little college of Miami, up to an educated and useful manhood, and is one of those who can say: I have succeeded in that I have accomplished some good among my fellow men.

Thomas C. Bell was, when the writer first met him at Miami, about twenty-one years of age, of medium height, with a frame well knit together and with an expression on his face that made one instinctively reach for his hand. He was one of the kindly and loveable sort, and came into the Sigma Chi movement as naturally as the bee seeks the flowers.

Davis House IIJ1617450113

Brother Bell had an aunt dwelling in Oxford, one Mrs. Davis, with whom he lived. She was one of those women of whom Gen. Lewis Wallace said: When God had more work than he could do he made mothers, and she proved, indeed, a mother to the Sigma Chis. Through invitations to dine with Tom we soon discovered that he lived in clover, and on the fat of the land; and, after some persuasion, Mrs. Davis was induced to open the house and take in the whole fraternity. She did this in a great-hearted old Virginia way. In those days the Ohio River steamers were in the zenith of their glory, and the cuisine thereon was unexcelled, so Mrs. Davis sent to Cincinnati and secured two steamboat cooks. Thus was opened the first Sigma Chi chapter-house. True, it was not called by that name, but it had all the characteristic marks. There is no chapter-house in all this land can excel it, though there were no electric lights and no velvet carpets. The table was furnished with every substantial and all the luxuries, and if any chapter-house to-day has under its roof as much genuine fraternal feeling, that chapter is blessed indeed, for we did eat our meat in thankfulness and had all things in common, even to Will Lockwood’s stylish clothes that came in great boxes from New York. In that house were developed our plans for extension, and there we concocted our schemes to circumvent our enemies among the Greeks. As for the barbarians, they followed our banner with one accord. Much of this was due to Bell’s popularity among the Independents.

There were three literary societies in the college, viz.: The MiamiUnion, Erodelphian and Eccritian. These were all very earnest and active bodies. The Eccritian was small in numbers but strong in the character of its members. Bell chose this society, and stood one of its leading members during his whole college course. To maintain such standing in that day meant more than it does now. Athletics had not yet been made a feature of college life, and more attention was paid to developing brains than muscle, though it may be said that, owing to their early training, no Sigma Chi was deficient in the latter. Boxing was done with naked fists, and black eyes amounted to nothing. Football, though not scientific, was tremendously trying.

Brother Bell was quiet in his ways, though always cheerful and companionable, was very studious, and, while no schemer working for grade, stood well up toward the head of his class, which, for those early years, was very large, numbering about forty. With him, as with the rest of us, the fraternity was a Holy of Holies. If he was ever guilty of any breaches of college law—these at Oxford were frequent, and sometimes startling—such departures from rectitude were kept separate and apart from fraternity life. Under the shadow of the cross there was strict decorum, and business, as well as social affairs was conducted with manly dignity. This spirit prevailed in everything to the end. The first convention of Sigma Chi, which was a mass meeting without a single absentee, was a model for courtly propriety of behaviour; and much of this was due to Brothers Bell, Cooper and Lockwood. As for Brother Bell, he had as much dignity as Daniel Webster.

Having delivered his commencement speech with great fervor and much eloquence, for he was one of the principal orators of the university, Brother Bell began the labor of his life, and in this vocation he has been remarkably successful. He had not, however, long followed his chosen path when the thunder of Sumter’s guns awoke the echoes among the Ohio hills, and the tide of war rolled over the land. Of the seven founders of Sigma Chi, five took up arms: four for the Union, one for the Confederacy. Brother Cooper was a clergyman and brother Jordan served for a time as volunteer aid on the staff of the writer, and in that period proved that he would have made a signal success as a soldier. Thomas C. Bell enlisted as a private in the 74th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. As a matter of course he rose rapidly; in less than a year reached the grade of lieutenant-colonel and commanded his regiment much of the time during his term. He rendered much valuable service, but to have fought and distinguished himself as Colonel Bell did at Stone River when the Confederates doubled up, and rolled back the right wing of Rosencrans’ army, with terrible slaughter, is enough glory to have satisfied the proudest soldier. The Union army had been well-nigh defeated and crushed, when the corps of that incomparable soldier, General George Henry Thomas, checked the tremendous onset of the Confederates with a mighty effort, saved the Union army and changed defeat into victory.

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Colonel Bell’s 74th Ohio was a part of Col. John F. Miller’s Brigade of Negley’s division, which broke through the enemy’s lines at a critical moment. The Confederates had made, as they always did, a magnificent struggle, had fought with stubborn determination and unshrinking courage until at last the fierce combat reached its crisis. Negley’s division was holding a position on the banks of Stone River when Breckenridge’s Confederates advanced with a heavy column in a final effort to overwhelm the Union left. Miller’s Brigade was in front, the 74th Ohio holding the advance. “Col. Bell, let us charge them,” said Miller.Forward! 74th, commanded Bell, and the division charged with the bayonet in splendid style, driving the Confederates in confusion over and through their works, capturing several pieces of artillery, a number of battle flags and a large body of prisoners. This charge insured the Confederate defeat. Col. Bell received honorable mention in the official report of the brigade and division commanders, and as a special mark of honor led the advance column of the victorious army into Murphreysboro. There is no Confederate Sigma Chi who will not all the more gladly grasp the hand of Col. Bell because he was a gallant soldier and worthy foe. He is to-day a friend of everyone of those who upheld the Confederate cause with stainless honor, and valor unexcelled.


His war work finished, Col. Bell went back to his chosen profession and prosecuted his peaceful labors with the same faithful earnestness that characterized his service amid the turmoil of war. As a teacher he has been in line with the foremost men of his day, his aim being to train his pupils to think, to assimilate their mental food, not to stuff them with a mass of undigested facts, as was too much the fashion in the old times. His work has been remarkably productive of good, and many a successful business man bears witness to the fact that his success is largely due to the principles taught, and the training given him by Professor Bell. He was for several years principal of La Creole academy, Dallas, Oregon; then for four years President of the Oregon State Normal School, and afterwards President of Philomath College. All these positions he filled with credit to himself and profit to those who were so fortunate as to come under his instructions. At present he is living quietly at Portland, Oregon.

Lucia Chase Bell IIJ1617450111

Brother Bell has been twice married, and has a family of five boys and two girls. His first wife was Miss Sigourney White, one of the lovely Oxford girls who were the devoted friends and partisans of the Sigma Chis in those dear old days. His second wife was Miss Lucia Chase, who still makes bright and happy a model Sigma Chi home.

In closing this sketch of the life of a gentle hearted, manly man, whom we all loved, I want to say: First, the success which Col. Bell has forged out on life’s anvil is, in large measure, due to the strong, true principles that governed him, even when a boy. The principles were not set rules of conduct, or threadbare moral maxims. They were, and they are to-day, part of the man himself. The fundamental principles of the Sigma Chi fraternity were never painfully thought out and formalized. They flowed naturally from the lives and characters of such young men as Thomas C. Bell. The founders of Sigma Chi adopted the cross as their emblem instinctively, and could not have stated a formal reason for such action if it had been called for; but their lives have been true to these principles. Second, the examples shown forth in the lives of Col. Thomas C. Bell, the farmer boy who brought home the cows as he came from school, labored daily with his hands, and from such beginning developed a manhood sturdy as the oaks that clustered around his father’s cottage, a manhood that has brought forth a harvest of good works, and that of the Hon. Isaac M. Jordan, who, when a boy, paid his way through school with the wages of work wrought by his good right hand, rose to the head of a grand profession, and carved for himself an honorable name among honorable men—these splendid examples of American manhood, I say, are cordially commended to any of the Greek phalanx who think that a spike-tailed coat and a silk hat are the everlasting seals of respectability. The hayseed is insignificant and unattractive, but it contains the possibilities of porterhouse steak and rib roast, with butter and cream. Polish is indeed good; but unless the genuine diamond or the solid granite is the material worked upon the labor of the polisher is in vain. Varnish will not do in this age. There is no veneer on the cross.

Over the thousands of miles which separate us I send earnest greeting to our loyal brother in far-off Oregon, and shall always look forward to the hour when we seven shall meet again under the shelter of the great White Cross in the land of eternal peace and beauty.