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Attorney, former legislator has served so many years, everyone has lost count

By NICOLE CLARK

Staff writer

Ernie Bell’s law office is filled with campaign bumper stickers, awards, photographs, old letters and knickknacks. They’re tacked on, framed up and spread out like a veneer on every surface.

They’re not just there for decoration, or lack of organization. They’re references. And, Bell readily pulls them off, down or out, to illustrate nearly 50 years of his life.

He’s spent more than half of that time in Leonardtown as the town’s election judge. But he won’t divulge the stories that come along with that role.

“I figure the fewer words I say, the fewer I have to eat,” he said.

“He’s a natural for that job,” Town Administrator Laschelle McKay said by phone earlier this week. “He has so much history in his head.” Besides that, he knows most of the 401 voters who turned out for the last election. He knows the law. He knows Leonardtown. It’s a bonus that “he’s a lot of fun,” she said.

At its last meeting, the town council named Bell to fill the post again. He’ll take time during the next three months to answer voters’ inquiries by mail, greet them at the door on election night — May 6 — and at the end of the evening, count ballots as voters decide if council members Leslie Roberts, Tom Collier and Roger Mattingly will stay in their roles.

Mayor Dan Burris said it was good to have Bell around for the last election. “There was some controversy as to whether one of the candidates actually lived in town,” he said. “Ernie helped sort that out” did some research and decided that person could stay on the ballot, Burris said.

When asked, no one — not McKay or Burris, or even Bell, seemed to know how long he’s served as election judge.

Thirty years, Bell said. Maybe 35.

He thumbed through old files, lifted up the glass protector on his desk to pull out old documents, all the while searching for clues. Since May 1981? It was right after he resigned as town attorney, he said, looking at a draft of the resignation letter.

Page after page unveiled details of his tenure. “Please describe additional requirements for the room arrangement,” Bell read in one dated April 1984. Another showed a voter who “wants to know if you can register by mail.”

“Here’s an opinion I wrote,” Bell said. “I go into great detail to explain how we go about appointing someone.”

He seems so comfortable, sitting in an office, relishing a career that has centered around the town but also led him to a long stint helping craft the state’s laws in Annapolis.

Bell grew up in Leonardtown during the 1950s when, he said, Leonardtown was “a Tom Sawyer world.” People knew one another. They played baseball, went fishing and crabbing and returned to enjoy what they’d caught at picnics and oyster scalds.

The family had lived in Pearson, before the Navy came and the area became what’s now Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Around 1942, the Bells moved to Leonardtown.

His father, Thomas Webster Bell, owned Bell Motor Co., but never gave his sons free vehicles.

“He thought if you want a car, you buy one,” Bell said. And he felt that people who were blessed with a lot, had obligations. The elder Bell served Leonardtown 20 years, Ernie Bell said, looking at an old newspaper clipping retrieved from his three-dimensional archive. Town records say Thomas Webster Bell served five years as a commissioner and 15 years as mayor.

Service and success weren’t celebrated in his family, Bell said. “I think it was expected.”

Around 1966, Ernie Bell moved to the Washington, D.C., area and joined the Marine Corps, married a girl, Anne, “pretty as a button,” from the Seventh District, earned his law degree from Catholic University, and started a family.

By 1970, he made it back home and his uncle, William Sterling, was soon appointed to serve as the first St. Mary’s County District Court judge. Bell was working for Sterling at the time. “My office was right in that room,” he said, pointing left.

“My uncle came in here one day and said, ‘Ernie, this law practice is yours. Just do the best you can.’ And he walked out that door.’”

Over time, Bell has practiced family and real estate law. He’s served as town attorney and county attorney, and took on so many other roles that the Maryland State Archives has a page just for him on its website.

“Whatever walks in that door, if you can handle it” take it, Bell said, nodding toward the entrance that opens toward the courthouse off the town square.

By 1982, he ran for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates to represent St. Mary’s and Calvert counties, “and won.”

He served three terms, 12 years, “a tremendous honor.” After that, Bell said, “it was time to come home.”

One of his sons was in the first grade when Bell started in the legislature. When he stepped down, that same child was graduating high school in 1994.

Seven grandchildren later, with one great-grandchild and another on the way, Bell said, “I’ve been here ever since.” That’s a total of 44 years in that law office, serving the state and serving Leonardtown, he said, smiling like he’s in the middle of a daydream. “My God,” he said, “I didn’t realize it had been that long.”

nclark@somdnews.com