SEATTLE — Not long after Joe Bell’s teenage son killed himself, the 48-year-old with two fake knees set out to walk from Oregon to New York City so he could spread the word about the child he loved, about the evils of bullying, about parents’ responsibility.
Bell figured it would take two years to complete his planned 5,000-mile trek, his memorial to son Jadin, his speaking tour about loving gay children and holding bullies to higher standards.
“If he could save one child’s life,” family friend Bud Hill said Monday in a telephone interview, “it would be worth it to him.”
Bell may not have saved a life on his walk across America. But he certainly changed one last week, just before he was struck and killed on a lonely Colorado highway — 18 months and thousands of miles short of his destination.
The life Bell changed belongs to Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Nestor.
“I only knew him for a very short time,” Nestor said in an email he sent to the Oregonian and later to the Los Angeles Times, “but this man had to of made a huge difference in everyone he met. He made me realize how important basic humanity still is. I will pass his story on to many people.”
Bell’s son Jadin came out about his sexuality when he was a sassy, sunny freshman wearing Elton John glasses. But halfway through his sophomore year at La Grande High School, after what his family described as regular bullying, Jadin hanged himself from the playground equipment at his former elementary school.
A few days later, on Feb. 3, his family took the boy off life support at a Portland hospital. He was 15.
Two months after Jadin’s death, Bell quit his job at a plywood mill and hit the road on what his Facebook page called Joe’s Walk for Change. He started out with a pancake breakfast in La Grande and went on his way, pushing his belongings in a cart: Boise, Salt Lake City, Boulder, Denver, talking to whomever would listen.
“His speech on the walk was that parents, teachers, kids, everyone needed to be educated on the effects of bullying,” said Hill, who helped organize the walk and attended its chilly kickoff. “He was really strong on making sure that parents knew that whatever the kids were doing was a reflection of the parents.”
Last Tuesday, Bell was walking along Highway 40 in Lincoln County, Colo., southeast of Denver, when Sheriff Nestor drove up.
“I generally don’t share personal stories with people I just meet, but Joe was different and (I) could tell right away he was a good man,” Nestor said in his email. “I talked with Joe about my oldest son who is also gay. Joe talked to me about accepting my son without question, because he was born that way and (it) was not a choice.”
Nestor went back to his office, called his department chaplain and told the man they were going for a ride. “You have to meet Joe Bell,” Nestor told him.
The two men invited Bell to talk the next night to local youths about bullying. Bell agreed, but said he needed to walk more first. That night, he made it to the town of Hugo.
On Wednesday, Nestor called Bell to check in and make sure the talk was still on.
“Absolutely,” Bell responded, but said he wanted to walk until 6 p.m. before having Nestor pick him up. So the sheriff headed home and talked with his wife about having Bell spend the night.
“I headed Joe’s way when I got the call of a pedestrian hit in the next county,” Nestor continued. “I checked his GPS online and confirmed Joe was in fact in that area.”
On went the sirens and the lights. Nestor raced to the scene. The first thing he saw was Bell’s cart in the middle of the highway. The medical staff were about to cover Bell’s body.
“I got down on one knee and put my hand on Joe’s head and said a silent prayer,” Nestor wrote. “I then told the ambulance crew who the man was in front of them. ...
“He may not have reached his destination but I feel like he completed his mission.”