MOOR OR LESS

He's one of South Bend's good guys

Ron Bella admits that he wasn’t that good of an athlete while growing up in South Bend. But he had a great example on how to get better and how to make the most of his God-given talent.

That was his older brother Bob, who grew to 6-foot-7 and was the leading scorer on the Riley High School basketball team. “He always looked out for me and led the way,” Ron says. “He was the first one in our family to go to college and I can still remember when he told our mom he was heading off to school instead of working at Studebaker. She almost passed out.”

Bob played football and basketball at Franklin College and then basketball at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Ron, meanwhile, got cut from the baseball team at Riley but kept hanging in there in basketball and became a key contributor on the sectional championship team by his senior year in 1952.

It didn’t hurt that Ron grew about six inches between his junior and senior years.

Then Ron followed Bob to St. Ed’s where he had improved enough to earn a four-year scholarship. “We weren’t a powerhouse but we never had a losing season when I was there,” he proudly says.

And as the years went by, Ron never lost that love for sports or forgot the lessons he learned — lessons he would share with many young athletes as a high school coach and then as the longtime athletic director for the South Bend Community School Corp.

He later was the main force behind the South Bend Alumni Association and the South Bend School Boosters Club. “Those came about when the school system was planning to close School Field,” he says. “But after we raised about $60,000 for bleachers and the field, the school corporation stepped in and financed the rest.”

Until two weeks ago, Ron had served as executive director of the Alumni Association since its inception in 1985, working that job without pay for the first 11 years. But it always was a labor of love and the club has raised several hundred thousand dollars for student scholarships and extracurricular activities while also creating the South Bend Hall of Fame.

But the Alumni Association board of directors recently decided to go in a different direction and Ron, now 78, no longer is employed, marking the end of his more than 50 years of being involved with the school system.

His was a long journey of late-night games and early-morning meetings.

His teaching career began at St. Joseph’s High School where he also coached football under George Kelly, who would later be one of Ara Parseghian’s most respected assistants at Notre Dame.

After serving in the Army for two years, Ron returned for another year at St. Joe while marrying his wife Shirley in 1960. A year at Miami’s Archbishop Curley High School and two years at Edwardsburg followed.

During that time, Ron was also working on his masters at Notre Dame. “One of my professors was Donald Dake (the superintendent for the South Bend schools) and he asked me why I hadn’t applied for a South Bend job,” Ron recalls. “I told him I had been turned down on three occasions. He told me, ‘You apply again.’”

Ron did and was soon teaching at Muessel School. After a year there, Ron spent three years with the South Bend Recreation Department, a program jointly funded by the school system and the city.

He also spent many a winter’s evening officiating high school basketball. “I would travel to places like Fort Wayne, Anderson and Gary and work two games for $17.50,” Ron recalls. “But that was something I really enjoyed.”

When he was 34, he became the school corporation’s assistant athletic director. “I was Bob Jones’ assistant for four years and he really was a bright guy and somebody I learned a lot from,” Ron adds.

Then at age 38, Ron succeeded the retiring Jones and held the athletic director’s position from 1972 until his job was eliminated in 1994. He oversaw some of the city’s finest accomplishments in the sporting arena. In 1973, Washington High became the first playoff state champion in football and Adams was runner-up in basketball after four city teams had been ranked in the Top 10. In Ron’s final year, he watched Tom DeBaets’ Clay team win the basketball state championship.

He also helped make Title IX and the emergence of girls’ sports a smooth transition into the South Bend schools.

“We had a lot of good athletes and good coaches,” Ron says. “Those were good times.”

With a good guy leading them.

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