People making a difference: Ellington Bell
Drill-team discipline saved his life. Now this one-time school-bus driver drums a sense of purpose into Kansas City youths.
Kansas City, Mo.
It is said that music can change lives. Ellington Bell says the same might be said for back flips. As a troubled 12-year-old in the late 1970s, Mr. Bell lived with his single mother and three younger siblings in a housing project in Kansas City, Mo. He was, in his own words, "out of control" when Willie Arthur Smith happened to drive by a playground where Bell was practicing his back-flipping skills.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Smith was the founder and leader of the Kansas City-based Marching Cobras, an internationally acclaimed drill team, and always on the lookout for talent.
After seeing Bell's acrobatic moves, Smith spoke with his mother and arranged for him to join the Marching Cobras. Bell spent the next 27 years with the group. He worked his way up from flipper to junior instructor to assistant drillmaster. He traveled widely, performing at the Cotton Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, and two inaugural parades. He also found a father figure in Smith.
"It saved my life," Bell says.
Now he's determined to make a difference in the lives of a new generation of young people. Last fall Bell started a drill team at Blenheim Elementary School, where he works as the Parent Involvement Representative. One of many needy public schools in Kansas City's urban core, Blenheim serves students from prekindergarten through seventh grade. An eighth grade will be added next school year.
"When I got to Blenheim, there were no extracurricular activities," he says in an interview during a rare quiet moment. "No basketball. No football. No gymnastics. Nothing."
Rebecca McKeel, the school's principal, enthusiastically agreed to let Bell start an after-school drill team. Blenheim had once had a drill team, years before, and Ms. McKeel was eager to have more activities available, especially for the older, middle-school-age students.
When Bell talked up his idea with students and parents, the response was immediate, almost overwhelming. Since last October, some 35 students from across all grades have attended weekly practices after school, where they work on their dancing, flipping, drumming, and cheerleading skills.
Bell is built like an Olympic gymnast and can, at an age slightly north of 40, still turn a back flip, even after a long day at school. "Firm, but fair," is the way one of his colleagues describes him. He clearly commanded both affection and respect during a recent two-hour practice in the school gymnasium. After calisthenics, he worked with the dancers and cheerleaders, while the flippers practiced on mats nearby.
For 18 years, Bell drove a school bus in Kansas City. His exceptional rapport with children and his ability to keep order on his bus, even on routes that other drivers couldn’t handle, landed him a job with the Kansas City School District four years ago.