David Bell was Russia's first and best ambassador to La Crosse, said Chuck Hanson, founding president of the La Crosse Dubna Friendship Association.
Bell, a former teacher and Russian soldier born in Texas, guided the La Crosse-Dubna sister city relationship for 18 years and promoted peace, cooperation and friendship among people from two Cold War enemies.
"Dave was the inspiration for the sister city relationship that brought La Crosse and Dubna together," Hanson said. "His enthusiasm, energy, drive and persistence made it all happened. He touched a lot of people in Dubna and La Crosse."
Bell died Friday at age 84 in Dubna. He had Parkinson's disease, but a month ago was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer.
Bill Hoel, who has been involved in the sister city friendship association from the start, said hundreds of La Crosse area residents visited Russia as part of exchanges.
"Not in our wildest dreams did we ever think of going to Russia, because we grew up with the idea of the 'Evil Empire,'" Hoel said. "We made many friends in Russia and Dave made it possible. He's a great example of one person making a difference."
Bell played a major role with in the International Peace Lantern Exchange Project with Dr. James Baumgaertner of La Crosse. In 1991, Bell received Viterbo University's Pope John XXIII award for distinguished service for the lantern project and the La Crosse Dubna Friendship Association.
Bell was born in Houston, Texas, and went to the Soviet Union at age 10 because his father believed in communism. His father later was arrested on a fake charge of distributing anti-Soviet propaganda and died in exile, Bell said.
As a Soviet Army soldier, Bell was wounded three times in World War II. "I was lucky to have not perished," he said in 1996. "Only 3 percent of my age group survived the war."
Bell said he was a typical Russian kid and believed in communism. But he learned to despise it. "I am proud that I didn't apply to enter the Communist Party," Bell said.
After living 56 years in Russia, Bell returned to America during the first visit of the Russian sister-city delegation to La Crosse.
"He inspired people to do what others thought impossible, like the Hands Across the Heartland effort, a true humanitarian crisis in Russia when Dubna needed our food and our help," Hanson said. "He always made ideas and projects happen and mobilized key leadership in Dubna."
Bell was a visionary whose networking ability was unbelievable, Hoel said, and he would "nudge and budge" until the job was done.
"He was a good shepherd," Hoel said.
Terry Rindfleisch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (608) 791-8227.
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