College life’s a picnic second time around – Student director had a long road back to UCD

By April 15, 2008

Like most college students, Ronald Bell is balancing a lot. In fact, this interview took place by cell phone while he made his way from an evening Picnic Day meeting to the UC Davis library for a late night study session.

But unlike most college students, Bell is 57 years old, making him the oldest Picnic Day student board member in the event’s 94-year history. The annual UCD open house is Saturday.

Bell, who is the entertainment co-director along with UCD student Sandy Tharn, said he didn’t think he would get the position when he applied for it but was pleasantly surprised when he did. Tharn had been on the Picnic Day board in the past, so Bell suggested they co-direct.

But why did he decide to apply? Wasn’t life full enough with nine children — Bell points out that they’re an intact family and the kids “are not from all over the place” — and five grandchildren?

“There’s a lot of division between the various ethnic groups on campus. I wanted to be a part of something that was ethnically diverse,” Bell said.

A re-entering student last year, Bell, a sophomore, had what he called a “33-year planned educational leave.” He began college at CSU Sacramento in 1969 on a football scholarship, but after one year was drafted into the U.S. Army. Vietnam was in full swing, but Bell said he was lucky to be stationed in California. He credits his ability to type with keeping him out of the war.

“I liked girls, so I took typing (in high school). I was the only boy in the class.”

It was rare for military draftees to have typing skills, according to Bell, so he spent his two years at Fort Ord doing paperwork and other administrative duties.

Bell and his wife, Dana, native Sacramentans, wanted to settle near family, so right before his release from the Army, Bell applied and was accepted to UCD.

After one year at UCD as a dramatic arts major, Bell caught the acting bug and moved his family to Los Angeles to become an actor and filmmaker. He had some success as an extra in films and as a co-star in 1983’s “My Brother’s Wedding,” which recently aired during Black History Month on Turner Classic Movies.

But, homesickness brought the Bell family back north. “Sacramento was our home, so we packed up everybody and came back to Sac,” Bell said. His mother and seven sisters were still in the area, and he and Dana got jobs with the state.

Now, 33 years after his first freshman year, he’s a student at UCD again. And this time around, he knows right where he wants to be: law school. Explained Bell, “I’m carrying 20 units because I want to hurry up and get there!”

But he’s not in such a hurry that he doesn’t want to experience some of the extracurricular opportunities.

When he talks about the Picnic Day entertainment director position, the pride in his voice is obvious.

“We (Tharn and Bell) supplied the entire agenda for seven stages on campus.” Their job was to audition acts and listen to CDs of everyone who applied to perform — all 115 of them. And Bell promises they chose the best.

Tharn and Bell also sent out letters to each of the acts, with dress code suggestions and reminders that Picnic Day is a family event, and lyrics and performances should be appropriate.

“We want to make sure those visitors coming to Picnic Day get a good representation of the university,” Bell said.

When asked if Bell would plan to be on the board again in the future, he gives an emphatic “yes!”

He is particularly interested in bringing together more ethnic groups who seem to feel disconnected to the Picnic Day planning. Bell said that, for whatever reasons, African Americans and Hispanics don’t have much involvement in the university’s biggest day of the year.

“That’s where my experience and age come in. I’m not afraid to talk to people face to face about controversial things,” Bell said.

As for being a 57-year-old college student, Bell said it really hasn’t been that difficult. Teachers with podcasts, registering via the Internet and other technological advances have improved much of the college experience. “It makes what you’re doing seem a lot easier. You just have to put the leg work in attending class.”

And, Bell said, “I am so enamored with the whole campus atmosphere. I enjoy the back and forth that goes on between my groups (in class).”

He has especially enjoyed his time on the Picnic Day board. He said it’s not unusual for fellow board members to be carrying 20 units, and they are very academically minded, which has helped motivate him.

“The board welcomed me with open arms. They were there for me if I needed any additional help, and that made me more determined to do the best job I could for entertainment.”

— Reach Tanya Perez at [email protected] Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.net

Tanya Perez

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