Obituary: Jessica Gay Bell

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Jessica Gay Bell, beloved wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend, born August 20, 1922 in Lexington, Kentucky, passed away on March 14 in Naples, Florida, after a brief illness.

She was preceded in death by her parents James Gatewood Gay and Harriet McCreary Gay, three siblings Elva G. Gay, Robert M. Gay, and Elizabeth Gay Lewis, as well as her husband of 60 years, John A. Bell III. 

Mrs. Bell graduated from University of Kentucky with a degree in Journalism and worked in Louisville for WHAS writing the news. She then moved to New York for a job as a showroom model, later returned to Lexington where she met John Bell, whom she married in 1947.

Mrs. Bell and her husband established a Thoroughbred farm, Jonabell Farm, first on a leased portion of Hamburg Place, where they raised champion Battlefield and also Never Say Die, first American-bred to win the English Derby in the 20th century.  After relocating Jonabell to property on Bowman’s Mill Road, the Bells continued to breed, race, and sell Thoroughbreds while boarding breeding stock for clients. Damascus, the 1967 Horse of the Year, was raised there, and stallions which stood at Jonabell included 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Jonabell bred some 50 stakes winners individually and in partnership, among them the homebred champion Epitome, winner of the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Additionally, they won twice Keeneland’s Spinster S. with homebreds Try Something New and Hail A Cab.  The farm was sold to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, in 2001, and is now known as Darley at Jonabell.

Mrs. Bell was active in many charities and other organizations. Along with Juliette Combs Trapp, Helen LeBus Mayes, and Carey Ellis, she helped establish  The Blue Grass Ball to benefit the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky.  Named after the prestigious stakes race at Keeneland, this was the predecessor of The Lexington Ball, which continues to be one of the premiere annual charity events in Central Kentucky.

As a member of a Lexington Directions committee, Mrs. Bell worked with Carolyn Murray-Wooley of the Dry Stone Conservancy, to initiate ongoing restoration and training programs with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to preserve and raise awareness of the historical stone walls along rural roads and farmland. The special markers located next to significant rock walls throughout the area are a result of this effort.

Mrs. Bell was an accomplished gardener and spent countless hours with Garden Club of Lexington at Ashland Garden. She was an avid golfer, and her keen interest in people, places, and history spurred travel around the world. She maintained the philosophy that “one should never let schooling interfere with one’s education.”

Some of the organizations to which Mrs. Bell belonged included Bluegrass Tomorrow, Lexington Directions, and McConnell Springs, and she served on several boards including of The Lexington School, Blue Grass Airport, Chrysalis House, and the YWCA. She was also a Life Trustee of The Lexington School.

Mrs. Bell and her husband established the Bell Alcohol and Addictions Endowed Chair at the University of Kentucky.  Recently, The Bell Chair with the Chrysalis House and with support from other individuals initiated the Mentoring Angel Program which was developed to help patients transition from UK Healthcare to the community.  

Mrs. Bell is survived by four children: Jessica Bell Nicholson (Joe Browne); John A. Bell IV (Nancy); James G. Bell (Wende); Bennett Bell Williams (John); eight grandchildren, James C. Nicholson (Maegan); Kelsey M. Nicholson; James Gatewood Bell, Jr. (Lauren); Tyler Bell Jones (Bret); Shelby Bell Gressett (Drew); John A. Bell V (Beth); Rhodes P. Bell; Laura R. Bell, and five great-grandchildren.  The pallbearers will be her six grandsons.

Contributions are suggested to the Bell Endowed Chair at the University of Kentucky, Office of Development,  Sturgill Building, 120 Rose Street, Lexington, Ky. 40504, or to the charity of one’s choice. Friends may call at home, 96 Chinoe Road in Lexington on Tuesday from 3 – 8 p.m.  Graveside services at Lexington Cemetery at 11 a.m. on Wednesday.  Kerr Brothers Funeral Home, Main Street,  is in charge of the arrangements.