John Joseph Bell
March 27, 1939 – April 27, 2019
John Joseph Bell, a builder, a craftsman, and a beloved father, grandfather, brother and uncle, left this world peacefully at the home of his daughter, Andrea Bell-Gaschke, in Poughkeepsie on Saturday, April 27, 2019. He was 80 years old. John was a man who was happiest with a hands-on mechanical project, whether it was constructing the family homestead, driving “modifieds” on race tracks in Long Island, or showing his 8 year old grandson, Cole, how to operate a backhoe. He worked in fields as various as computer programming to excavation, had a great love of theater, opera and auto racing , and while seemingly shy and quiet, could tell a you a funny story that would leave everyone crying they laughed so hard. He made dear friends all through his life – people he could count on, and who had full confidence that they could count on him.
John Joseph Bell was born March 27, 1939 in Brooklyn, NY to German immigrants Joseph Bell and Anna Marie Bell nee Ebert. He had 3 sisters, 2 elder sisters, Katherine and Frances, who were born in Germany, and one younger, Margaret Anne, who like John, was also born in the US. When he was young, the family relocated to the wilds of East Yaphank in Suffolk County, NY, to a home with no electricity, a well with a manual pump, and an outhouse – it was heaven – and served as forge for self-reliance and creativity. As a kid he learned carpentry from his father, and at a very young age worked on and later oversaw construction projects. He learned to appreciate opera and classical music that his mother introduced him to. He had a great aptitude for all things mechanical, and a need for speed, which propelled him to build equipment for and drive modifieds, especially car #51, on race tracks on Long Island and throughout the Northeast. He became interested in computers in the 1960's and worked on early Univac machines, writing programs guided by his precise flow chart logic and executed with punch cards, and worked for Suffolk county automating the municipal payroll and accounting functions. He met Ninfa Joan Fontana (who always went by Joan) while working in Riverhead at the county center, and the “Mutt and Jeff” looking couple’s beautiful relationship was born. They were married on September 11, 1966 (back when it was just known as a beautiful fall day), and they were happily married for 43 years. They moved to 20 Adams Avenue in Sound Beach, building an extension onto Joan’s parents’, Joseph and Agatha Fontana’s home. On that block, surrounded by their big, warm extended family who owned nearly all the adjacent homes, is where they welcomed daughter Andrea Marie Bell in November 1970. Wanting to get back to his hands-on mechanical roots, John opened up Miller Place Excavating and, partnered with Melo’s Construction, worked on residential and commercial construction projects all over the county. He could masterfully run and repair any piece of heavy equipment in his yard, and enjoyed an excellent reputation among his professional peers and customers. He worked with people who became lifelong friends – people he could count on, and who had full confidence that they could count on him. In the winter he’d use the equipment to plow snow for the Town of Brookhaven – and many frigid nights he’d have his ace laborer – Joan – ride shotgun with him in his pickup. They had a great tradition that no matter how cold and blustery it was, they’d stop for ice cream.
John was a doting and encouraging father, never too tired, even after 6 days of construction work and the ensuing required maintenance and repairs, to play board games, go out for Carvel, to take Andrea out for beloved pony rides or to the park, to teach her how to ride a bicycle (though she was not a quick learner, and much jogging alongside was required), and spend happy time with his daughter. In the early 80’s, the family delighted in preparations to build a new home at 29 White Birch Circle in Miller Place. With John’s expertise and industry connections, the building process felt like a family affair – he personally worked on or was friends with everyone who contributed to its construction and landscaping. At that point, Andrea was old enough to help, so John and Joan included her in finishing work like painting and trim and allowed her a vote in interior selections, which gave her great pride. At home, Christmas time became an extravaganza, as the two-story family room and surrounding catwalk just begged for a statement piece. Each year at the house, Ging’s nursery would come through, with a ridiculously large evergreen that typically took Dad and 4 burly friends to heave/ho into place. Once they had set it in a huge bucket and guy wired it the walls, the netting was cut off and the neat bundle would explode open, some years scraping the second floor ceiling and the family room walls, leaving Joan, the good sport, to deal with decorations.
John and Joan weren’t big travelers, outside of a family trip to Sicily in 1977 (where John made a big splash as the tallest person in all of Villa Bate) but they did enjoy a number of delightful excursions, notably those with family – visiting Joan’s brother Jack and his wife AnnMarie Fontana in Waverly NY, and using that as jumping off point for visits to the wineries of the Finger Lakes and Niagara Falls and around the Mohawk valley . They also traveled the Northeast on wonderful jaunts with John’s sister Katherine (Ina), and brother in-law Eddie, to Washington, Baltimore, Boston and Pennsylvania Dutch country and to see his niece Chrissy in Maryland. Locally, it was always a treat to get out to visit John’s nephews Eddie and John their families out on the beaches of the East end, as long as no one expected John to wear shorts or take off his shoes and socks or get wet.
As Andrea grew up, John was her biggest fan and proudest supporter of her school endeavors and academic accomplishments. When she joined her high school drama club stage crew - he took a noted interest. This interest (some say mania) turned into an over 20 year volunteer commitment to the school- during which time he designed and constructed elaborate mechanical set pieces that where renowned throughout the area, including a drivable scaled down Model T Ford (for "Ragtime") that was featured in productions as far away as Nevada, Maryland and Pennsylvania. He expanded his circle of dear friends through these thespian endeavors, and enjoyed each opportunity to bring surprising, beautiful work to the Panther Players stage. Some of the friends, who were at the time Andrea’s male classmates and friends, learned quickly that John was really the far more interesting member of the Bell family, and he would treasure their camaraderie and good humor all throughout his life. John was proud to see Andrea graduate as Salutatorian from Miller Place High School and then Cum Laude from Rutgers College (to where he would never miss sending encouraging cards with pizza money tucked into to her PO Box) and start work for the Public Buildings Service in New York City. The strong, silent type, he got awfully choked up walking her down the aisle in 2001 when she married Paul Matthew Gaschke, a kind, modest, and talented IBM engineer (hum, sound familiar?) John and Joan enjoyed visiting the newlyweds upstate and exploring the delights of the Hudson Valley – like Minnewaska, Mohonk and Lime Rock Park. While his vintage 1969 Corvette Stingray (which had an unfortunate altercation with a salt sand spreader, in the driveway of the house on Adams Avenue) remains a restoration project still to get to, encouraged by several friends, John bought a used Jeep Wrangler, and proceeded to make custom modifications to it so that it could outperform fancy newly purchased models on off-road trail adventures with the Long Island Off-Road Club - much to his satisfaction!
After experiencing the great loss of Joan’s unexpected passing in 2009, John took solace learning of the arrival his new grandson. Cole Joseph Gaschke was the apple of his eye - for Cole's first Christmas, he built him a model vintage airplane, not from a kit, but custom, by hand, from sheets of balsa wood, which he lovingly shaped and contoured, and finished with great mechanical accuracy. Cole showed early signs of inheriting a lot from John – causing Paul’s father Marcel to remark to him once “How come my Grandson looks so much like you?” For as much as he was a devoted father, he surpassed all expectations as Pop Pop to Cole – and the two were rather inseparable. Cole gave him a real reason to relocate closer to the Poughkeepsie area, but instead of just buying a little house and moving, he launched into a family project to find a big piece of land Ancramdale, about 35 miles away in Columbia country and build a rustic cabin on it, that when completed, would look like it had been standing there for 100 years. Working together as a family on this endeavor helped see John through his medical challenges and gave him great personal satisfaction, especially that he could teach Cole so much about tools, wood and metal working machines and heavy equipment operation. Cole was a quick study and extremely comfortable and confident in his new found expertise, and reveled in serving as his Pop Pop’s right hand man. Cole often slept over with John once he established himself in a camper on the site, which served as construction headquarters and temporary homestead. Finding himself lacking an additional operator one day, John had Cole use the backhoe to help dig the foundation of the house, so he himself could pile the dirt using the pay loader. Imagine the boy’s pride when he told his 2nd grade teacher what he did over the weekend…Progress was supported by helping hands from talented local folks whom Dad again amassed as trusted friends, and he was able to move into the house in September 2018, and for a short time, could bask in the peaceful, bucolic setting enjoying the wildlife, caring neighbors and new friends. He was immensely proud of the craftsmanly attention to detail, and loved to give tours to show guests each little distinguishing feature. John and his family enjoyed their time working and relaxing together at the home. He was blessed to be surrounded by the dear companionship of both old and new friends, and a devoted family who cherish his loving kindness, quick wit, and myriad talents.
Funeral services will be at St. Louis de Montfort RC Church in Sound Beach on Thursday, May 2nd at 10am followed by interment at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Columbia Land Conservancy, which preserves and protects the rural character of Dad’s beloved adopted new community in Ancramdale, NY. clctrust.org
Fond memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.obdavismillerplace.com for the Bell family.
- Visitation Wednesday, May 1, 2019
- Funeral Mass Thursday, May 2, 2019
- Interment Thursday, May 2, 2019
John Joseph Bell
May 23, 2019
Andrea and family
I am greatly saddened to learn about Johns passing Although I only knew him for a short time, I will miss him very much.
I am glad he got to spend some time in his dream house.
He was a kind soul and good neighbor.
My thoughts and prayers are with you all.
May 10, 2019
Hi Andrea. Rich called to let me know of your father's passing. Hilary and I were saddened to hear the news. He was incredibly talented and a "giver" to many. Since we were going to be out of state for his wake, I sent you a Facebook message. I hope you received it. To you and your family, May his memory be a blessing. Love, David and Hilary
May 9, 2019
So Sorry to hear about the death of JOHN BELL.we worked many years together.He was a very kind man and always so calm even when things didn’t go right.He will be missed
May 2, 2019
Andrea, Paul and Cole, Through all the years in NMHS Drama Club, we could always count on the kindness and expertise of Mr. Bell. Always with a welcoming smile, he was willing to patiently teach/show us kids his magical craft. I feel so blessed to have known him and to have worked with him. There will never be anyone like him. My heart goes to your family. I speak for myself but also for his "kids" from the Panther Players to say that he was a loved and amazing man.
May 1, 2019
Andrea, Paul, and Cole--We are so sorry for your loss. Our heartfelt sympathy and prayers to all of you. Everyone at EFK would love to hear the daily updates regarding the Columbia County land excavation, and the Ancramdale home building process. Paul would keep us updated on Cole's heavy equipment certifications too! John was a very special and incredible man. Thank you for the beautiful obituary, it gave true credence and tribute to a live well lived by John. He is resting easy now, and looking down on all of you. Peace be with you-- Jeanie Jones
April 30, 2019
A true gentleman who inspired so many! His memory will certainly live on between his stories and crafts. I’ll never forget coming home from work seeing his blue hood up in the backyard speaking with Glen as he delivered a wooden handcrafted trellis. Ivy securely wraps this structure today and will be there for years to come.
Lucky to also have one of he and your mom’s “Aviary Architecture” birdhouses in our home.
I remember him frequenting Gings Nursery for the many years working there, hearing the order over the phone for the tallest tree we could get to adorn the Bell’s great room. Also the times your parents would round up a group of many hands to raise her up and secure the tree on WBC’s closest Interior Rockefeller.
Thinking of you Andrea and look forward to seeing you toward the end of the week. Beth
April 29, 2019
Loss of a truly great man. Have never met someone so selfless. I knew Mr. Bell in high school through numerous drama productions. He introduced me to my favorite sandwich- Virginia ham on a salt bagel with cream cheese. And I’ll never forget the late nights working on sets only to get a shake with ants- vanilla fribble with chocolate sprinkles!!
He taught me how to work in a group to come to a common goal. Been thinking of him lately. I’m sorry I never got to see him again after high school. He had such a great influence on me at that time. I will NEVER forget him or the things he taught me. You will be sorely missed by all...
Andrea- I’m so sorry for your loss....