Mary M. Bell, founding mother of NIU women’s athletics, dies at 98

Dr. Mary M. Bell throws out the first pitch in this undated file photo provided by NIU. Bell dies on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

A pioneer in women’s athletics at Northern Illinois University, Dr. Mary M. Bell died Thursday at the age of 98.

Bell, a member of the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame, is considered the founding mother of women’s athletics at NIU, having coached six different sports during her tenure, while also working as an official and administrator during the early growth of intercollegiate women’s athletics.

Bell was one of the first four female inductees in the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986, along with Patty Delp, Ruth Fender and Jean Pankonin, and NIU’s softball facility was named in her honor in 1998.

“It’s hard to put into words what a true pioneer in the world of women’s athletics Mary M. Bell was,” NIU softball head coach Christina Sutcliffe said. “She had an indomitable spirit, unwavering dedication and relentless pursuit of excellence that has left an indelible mark on NIU Athletics and in particular the softball program.

“Mary Bell shattered countless barriers through her career as the founder of our program by dreaming beyond the boundaries set by society. She was a true trailblazer, a visionary and a role model for generations of women. She always reminded our ladies to be grateful for those that paved the path prior but at the same time challenged them to grow the game by never settling. Mary Bell recognized the power of sports as a means of empowerment and personal growth while demonstrating unwavering determination throughout her years. Her journey was one of sacrifice and perseverance and her accomplishments on the field were nothing short of extraordinary. Her feistiness will always be a beacon of light within the history of our program.”

Born in Kansas City, Bell’s association with NIU Athletics began in 1957 as an assistant professor in physical education and the director of the Women’s Recreation Association. At one time or another over the next 20 years, Bell would coach badminton, basketball, field hockey, softball, swimming and volleyball at NIU.

As head coach of the softball program for 14 seasons (1959-72), Bell posted a 71-24 record, including three undefeated seasons, and her 74.7 winning percentage remains the best in program history. Bell led the women’s basketball program from 1957-77, reaching the Elite Eight in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women National Tournament in 1972 while posting a 15-3 record. In 1968, Bell guided the Huskies field hockey team to an undefeated 10-0-3 record.

Along with coaching, Bell was the Director of Women’s Intercollegiate Sports at NIU from 1971-76. She was instrumental in the formation of the Illinois State AIAW, serving on the board from its inception in 1970 through 1976. Bell also served as the organization’s chair for two years and represented the state on the Midwest AIAW board for three years.

A national official in basketball, softball and volleyball, Bell also trained and rated student officials and served as the national president of the Officiating Services Area. She was a sectional field hockey umpire and created the student association affiliation with the United States Field Hockey Association.

“Dr. Bell was an amazing pioneer whose career started from a physical education background that she always cherished but she was willing to invest some of her energies into nurturing athletic opportunities for women to begin closing the gap of what male students enjoyed,” said former NIU softball head coach and administrator Dee Abrahamson. “She created play day opportunities that grew into practices and competitions that set the foundation for what are now opportunities we never even dreamed of. We are forever in her debt for starting the wonderful journey we enjoy.”

A memorial service will be held for Bell at 11 a.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, 317 North Fourth Street, in DeKalb.

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