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Melony Bell — Committed to Service

Melony Bell (’08) almost dropped out of Southeastern University before ever setting foot in her first class. 

But she didn’t, and when she entered the next day, her new classmates prayed for her. At that moment, she knew that’s exactly where she should be. “On the first night I was supposed to start, my dad died. He had a heart attack,” said Melony, who was the mayor of Fort Meade at that time. She was also working full time at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles when she started taking night classes to get her bachelor’s degree. “I walked in and the whole class knew. I didn’t know anyone. But Dr. (Ed) Plastow said, ‘Before we get started, we’re going to pray for you.’ That’s when I knew I was in the right place. That was the beginning of my Southeastern experience.”

Melony had political aspirations beyond being the mayor in Fort Meade, a small town in southern Polk County. She wanted a bachelor’s degree before running for a seat on the Polk County Commission. In 2007, she headed to Southeastern, which was starting a cohort class that would allow her to take classes two nights a week and every third Saturday.

“Most everyone in the class were moms and dads going there to get a degree,” said Melony, who studied business and professional leadership. “We got a great education because of the professors there. It prepared me to run for the County Commission, for a leadership role.” She remains friends with many students from the diverse group of people she took classes with. “We went through good and bad times, the struggles of life, loss of family members, children issues, financial issues. Supporting each other and praying together is what I took away.” It wasn’t just students who cared. Professors at Southeastern and even former President Mark Rutland also made sure students were excelling.

Dr. Chris Fairchild had practiced as a certified public accountant before moving to Southeastern as its assistant controller in 2004. Two years later, and shortly before Melony started her classes, he began teaching full time. He is the professor Melony said she remembers the most. “He cared about us and wanted to make sure everyone in the class got it,” Melony said. Fairchild said that accounting class was the only time he taught older adults. “I think the part of my teaching that worked was that I was very interested in their learning as opposed to their grades. I told them not to worry about accuracy on the assignments as we practiced problems, but rather to focus on learning the process and tricky steps so that they could be accurate on their exams,” Fairchild said. “Like all Southeastern professors, I truly do care and want all of my students to be successful.”

Rutland had the same warm, caring side, calling Melony into his office to ask how the new program was going. “They cared about our thoughts, the pros and cons of the program. I’ve gone back several times and talked to students about my experience and being in politics,” said Melony. Her graduation in 2008 was the highlight of her life, she said. When Rutland

handed her the diploma, he said it was the first time he’d ever given a diploma to a sitting mayor.

“My mother always told me that education is one thing you will have the rest of your life. You earned it. No one can take it away. It was one of the most exciting times in my life. I did it. I was determined. It took perseverance, and not only on my part. They worked with us; they held high standards.” 

The early years 

Melony was born in Winter Haven, but moved to Satellite Beach when her father, Ronald Mincey, took a job there. She was elated when they returned to Polk County in 1975, moving to Fort Meade.

In Fort Meade, she met her husband, Robbie Bell, in high school. After graduation, she went to college for a year, but said it wasn’t for her, so she got married in May 1981 and started what turned out to be a 30-year career as an auditor at the DMV. She continued working toward her associate’s degree at South Florida State College in Avon Park. “Education is very important in our household,” said her oldest daughter, Ashley Bell Barnett. “I can remember her taking one class every single semester to get her associate’s degree. And she held down two or three (full and part time) jobs. She’s got grit and a work ethic.”

A local argument over a prison motivated her to go into politics. That turned into a 14-year stint on the Fort Meade City Commission, including four terms as mayor. Then, she wanted more. “I felt like if you are going to run for county office you should have a college degree,” Melony said. Getting one would be difficult, though, until she found Southeastern’s new night classes.

She was first elected to the County Commission in 2010, bringing her conservative views to the five-member board. She was re-elected without opposition in 2014, serving until she resigned to run for the Florida House District 56 seat.

“I always thought in the back of my mind I wanted to be a representative to make policy change. Working for the state, I always saw these crazy things that did not make sense, especially when it comes to budgeting items,” she said. “There was a lot of waste. When I get to the state level, I thought, I’m going to change things.” 

Life in the Legislature

Her ascent to the state Legislature was strong: she defeated her opponent with 75 percent of the vote to his 25 percent. “It was all in God’s timing. If you look at me, this is the American way, the American dream. You set your mind to do something, and you have God in your life, and He will open doors for you and make it happen.”

Melony Bell in legislature swearing in ceremony
Legislature swearing in ceremony

Melony said it’s humbling to be serving in the capital, where she was sworn in on November 20, 2018. She serves Polk, Hardee and DeSoto counties and has mobile office hours, but her main office is in Fort Meade, the same office where she volunteered in the office of a state senator and worked for a certified public accountant. Life in Tallahassee has not been easy. She’s used to dealing with boards, but now she’s adjusting to 119 other representatives.

She rents an apartment a block from the capital, leaves for work at 7 a.m. and doesn’t return until 10 or 11 p.m., after making an appearance at whatever fundraiser or social event is on her schedule. She tries to return home on the weekends, but the five-hour drive gets old fast, she said.

Her first bill was to get the state to approve a license plate for bee keepers, something that failed last year. “The money will go to research to try to find out why bees are dying. The people who presented before weren’t connected. I’m passionate.” She said she never wants to forget who sent her to Tallahassee. “When you get up here they want you to forget about the things at home, but I want to be the best representative that District 56 has ever had.”

Right now she wants to get through her first two years as a legislator. “I’m not going to stay here if I can’t get something accomplished. Having the foundation that I took away from SEU is making the right decisions, moral and ethical. So while I’m here my goals are to make sure there’s policy decisions that are made, but are biblical. I know people have issues with those.”

She’s serving on the K–12 education committee, something she’s passionate about. “If we get education right, we get the whole world right. We wouldn’t have all these other problems. We would have a talent pipeline.”

Melony’s friend, Dennis Ross, who recently joined the Southeastern faculty as a distinguished professor of political science to launch the American Center for Political Leadership, admires her passion for civics. “Since graduating from Southeastern University, Melony has followed her passion of public service and distinguished herself as a shining example of civic engagement, all while exercising her gracious demeanor,” said Ross, a former state legislator and U.S. House member. “Her ability to transcend political partisanship and focus on the greater good is something that has served her well as a leader in this state, and endeared her to her alma mater at SEU. Her ability to be a positive, impactful influence on making her community better is what Southeastern strives to instill in all their students.”

Ashley and her sister, Whitnie, admire their mother for being a positive role model and having the energy to accomplish everything she sets out to do. Ashley envisions her mom going back to school for another degree to “add to the tapestry of her life.”

Whatever she does, she will always serve the community — and so much more, Ashley said. “She’s continuing to shape my life. She inspires and motivates everyone. She would give the shirt off her back. She’s the dream — she came from nothing. It’s never impossible to achieve what you set out to do, even if it’s later in life and you have a lot on your plate.”