Laird Bell: Lawyer, Statesman and Father of Skokie School

Gazette Article by: Duff Peterson
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2009

Bell Lane and Bell Woods were once the property of Laird and Nathalie Bell, who built a house at 1350 Tower Road in 1912. A man of many talents, Laird Bell (1883-1965) was a lawyer in the firm now called Bell, Boyd & Lloyd, but spent considerable time away from the law.

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Bell grew up in Winona, Minnesota, where his family had become wealthy in the Minnesota lumber boom. His grandfather founded Laird Norton Company, which invested in vast timberlands in the Pacific Northwest with another Minnesotan, Frederick Weyerhaeuser. Bell had longstanding ties with Weyerhaeuser Company, serving as its chairman in the 1950’s.

Bell graduated from Harvard in 1904 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1907. He came to Winnetka in 1909 to marry Nathalie Fairbank, who had been living with a sister here after the death of her mother. The Bells raised four daughters in the house on Tower Road.

Bell was on the board of trustees of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1965, serving as its chairman from 1949 to 1953. Soon after he became a trustee, the board appointed the 30-year-old dean of the Yale Law School, Robert Maynard Hutchins, as the university’s president. Hutchins was one of the nation’s youngest college presidents at the time, and became one of the most innovative figures in American higher education. His early initiatives included taking Chicago out of the Big Ten, abolishing football and fraternities as unnecessary distractions, and introducing the Great Books curriculum. (Football was reinstated in 1969, and the Maroons now square off in NCAA Division III against schools like Macalester and Denison.) Bell was Hutchins’ friend and confidant throughout his years in Hyde Park. As chairman in 1951, Bell was faced with the task of replacing Hutchins when he left the university to become an associate director of the Ford Foundation. In 1959 the university built a new law school complex, designed by Eero Saarinen, and it is now known as the Laird Bell Law Quadrangle.

Bell was also on the boards of Carleton College from 1943 to 1955 and Harvard from 1948 to 1954. He was a staunch defender of academic freedom, speaking out against the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose targets included the country’s universities.

Harvard has a Laird Bell Chair in Economics and Carleton a Laird Bell Chair in History and a Laird Bell Scholarship.

In the late 1930s Bell publicly urged greater responsibility for the U.S. in world affairs, a view unpopular in Chicago as war clouds gathered in Europe. A Hutchins biographer calls him “the city’s foremost interventionist.” Before Pearl Harbor, he worked tirelessly to raise money for the British War Relief Society; after the war, Britain showed its gratitude by appointing him as a Knight Commander of the British Empire. (As a KBE, he would have been referred to as Sir Laird Bell if he had been a citizen of the British Commonwealth.) In 1945, Bell served in the postwar occupation of Germany. A few years later, President Eisenhower appointed him as a delegate to the United Nations.

Bell is best remembered in Winnetka, however, as the father of Skokie School. He was president of the Board of Education from 1919-1923, when the campaign to create a junior high school consumed the Village. His presidency coincided with the appointment as Superintendent of Schools of another innovative educator, the 29-year-old Carleton W. Washburne.

Both Bell and Washburne advocated building a new school on Glendale Avenue in what was then the sparsely inhabited western fringe of the Village. The site was unpopular with many people, who deemed it a potential swamp too far from the center of town and too close to the Skokie wetlands, though the village engineers, Windes & Marsh, assured the community that site was “three feet above the high water mark.”

Many wanted instead to enlarge the Horace Mann School on Chestnut Street by acquiring property behind it — much of the present Dwyer Park — and constructing a grandiose new building connected to the existing school. In the spring of 1920 each side took out screaming full-page ads in the Winnetka Talk. The matter went to a referendum and the Glendale site won by 144 votes. Bell led the campaign to raise funds for the new school, enlisting more than a thousand volunteers to solicit door to door. Bell’s legions collected more than $300,000 (about $3.5 million in today’s dollars), and Skokie School was completed in 1922, funded entirely through public subscription.

Finally, Bell is credited with naming Tower Road. Known as North Avenue until 1924, the street was renamed after his neighbor Anita Willets Burnham, owner of the Log House (then located on Tower just west of Vernon), circulated a petition requesting a “more artistic and distinctive” name for the street. Bell suggested Tower Road, since the street began at the water tower on Lake Michigan, and Tower Road it became.

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