Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Sarah Virginia Bell Honored A Year After Death With Ceremony At Harris Shoals Park In Watkinville

***Sisters Say Tree Planting A Fitting Remembrance***

Twenty people turned out at Watkinsville's Harris Shoals Park on Sunday to participate in the unveiling of a plaque to honor Sarah Virginia Bell, who passed away just less than a year ago after a fight with pancreatic cancer.

The plaque is at the base of a Flame Red Maple tree, which, even in the cold and overcast day late in the season, showed the color for which it is named.

Watkinsville Mayor Brian Brodrick, who presided, noted Bell's fondness for the color red in his comments at the ceremony. Bell often attended meetings in clothes trimmed in that color.

"Sarah was just, you know, part of the bed rock of our civic community," Brodrick said. "We miss her every single day in Oconee County."

Friends teamed up to plant the tree on Dec. 3 of last year so they could tell Bell, then obviously in the final stages of her fight with the disease, before she passed.

The tree is planted on the former site of a large oak tree, undercut due to soil erosion, and is now part of a stream bank stabilization project in the park that included the removal of invasive plants and their replacement with native species.

Selection Of A Tree

Bell's two sisters, Glenda Bell Chastain of Dunwoody and Marie Bell Davis of Woodstock, attended the brief ceremony, and thanked those gathered for planting the tree.

Chastain, Davis, Brodrick (L-R)

Their parents were in the nursery business, they noted, "And the fact that it's a tree," Davis said, pausing.

"We all grew up loving being outside," she continued. "We grew up playing in the dirt. This is so appropriate for Sarah. We just really, really thank you for it."

Bell, who was 65 at her death, had served as chair of the Oconee County Republican Party, was engaged in animal rescue, and had taught at what is now the University of North Georgia.

Sharyn Dickerson, city manager of Watkinsville, said that the old oak tree on the bank of Calls Creek fell a few months before Bell was diagnosed in late 2020.

"After we cleaned it up, we were thinking about replacing it but had not yet decided when or with what," she said in an email message on Monday.

Calls Creek flows through the park and over the shoals that give the park its name.

Brodrick's Comments

"Sarah was everywhere in our community," Brodrick said. "She was tireless."

Brodrick noted that Bell video recorded Council meetings for use on this blog for many years, pointing out that it was a big time investment and that the meetings were "not exciting."

Bell "was a true civic warrior and was always looking out for the best in her community," Brodrick said.

"Sarah was active in the arts. She was active in our history," he continued. "We did not have a civic event where Sarah was in town where she did not show up, but didn't just show up, but kind of showed out and was an active participant in it."

"Her legacy lives on in so many ways," Brodrick said. "And this tree, I love that it's this flaming red maple. And of all of the trees to hold onto its leaves. You look around. You don't see anything else like this.

"I think this is a little bit of God's providence with this tree that it still shining and that these red leaves are still here, because that's very much how we talk about Sarah," he said.

The plaque ends with the words "Archiving The Past While Shaping The Future." Bell was president of the Oconee County Historical Society when she died.

"I'm not sure there's a better way to describe what she was all about," Brodrick said. 

Honoring Bell

Several people were discussing doing something to honor Bell, Dickerson said in explaining the origins of the ceremony on Sunday.

Plaque Unveiled

"I think one of them said something about planting a tree," Dickerson continued, "and I suggested the spot at Harris Shoals."

Vicki Soutar, then head of Oconeewaters, a committee of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, was one of those who approached Dickerson.

"I told Sharyn I wanted to do this quickly and in time to tell Sarah about it before she passed," Soutar said in an email on Monday.

"And I was able to do that when I visited her at her home," Soutar continued.

"Sharyn thought it a great idea, so I contacted Lisa (Douglas), and Jane Bath suggested the native Florida Flame Red Maple tree," Soutar said.

Stream Bank And Bell

Bell did not live in Watkinsville but was involved in many city activities.

Flame Red Maple

Bell and Soutar served on a Harris Shoals Park Advisory Committee that former Mayor Dave Shearon had appointed to help develop a master plan for the park.

The Stream Bank Stabilization and Stormwater Educational Outreach Demonstration Project is a collaborative of Oconeewaters Committee of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, the City of Watkinsville, and Oconee County.

Oconeewaters received a subgrant as part of the Environmental Protection Agency Grant received by faculty from the Institute for Environmental and Spatial Analysis at the University of North Georgia.

The project is designed to raise awareness about the negative effects of stormwater runoff on local water resources and address streambank erosion problems affecting a segment of Calls Creek in Harris Shoals Park.

Soutar said that Bell was not involved in the stream bank stabilization project, but "she was a big advocate for protecting the natural environment and improving storm water management."


The initial part of the video below was recorded by Penny Mills.

I was one of the 20 people who attended the ceremony on Sunday, but I stayed back from the crowd for health reasons.

I wrote a tribute to Sarah on this blog at the time of her death, saying that I missed her already and that the community lost a "dedicated citizen activist who cared immensely" about its political and social life.

I still miss her greatly and am convinced that the loss to the community has been immense.

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