Historical Society honors Jeanne K. DeBell as a ‘Hometown Hero’

By Erin Connolly - ReminderNews
Somers - posted Wed., Jul. 24, 2013
Jeanne DeBell was recently honored as a Hometown Hero by the Somers Historical Society. Photos by Erin Connolly.
Jeanne DeBell was recently honored as a Hometown Hero by the Somers Historical Society. Photos by Erin Connolly.

Jeanne K. DeBell’s love of history has fueled the Somers Historical Society for more than 45 years, and she has always been eager to share this passion with others. During the nation’s bicentennial, DeBell visited an elementary school and met 10 boys there who had little interest in history. She found a way to involve them in the parade by dressing them up as soldiers and assigning each boy the part of a specific Somers patriot who fought in Bunker Hill. They instantly took to their roles and started playing war. “They thought it was great fun,” DeBell said.

On July 21, the Somers Historical Society held a reception to honor DeBell by saying goodbye and thank you, before she moves to Washington state to spend more time with her daughter.

“She’s a woman with all kinds of hats. I don’t know how or who is going to fill her shoes, but they have some big shoes to fill,” said Terry Breenan, the society’s secretary. “She will be sorely missed, and I think she’ll miss us.”

DeBell has served as the organization’s president, vice president and most recently as curator for the society – all on a volunteer basis. Under her leadership, the society has organized celebrations like the town’s 250th anniversary in 1984 and the bicentennial parade. She even helped coordinate the 0.8-mile move of the old Somers library to the common, where it now houses the historical museum.

On top of those positions, after learning that books are the best method to keeping old photographs safe, DeBell co-authored two paperbacks devoted to Somers’ history. “It was important to preserve these for future generations so they don’t get thrown out, which often happens,” she said.

In 1988, when DeBell moved to Crescent Lake in Enfield, she published a book about the history there, too. “She has a wealth of knowledge with history, not just of this town, but right across the board. You can discuss with her any history you can imagine,” said the society’s vice president, Barry Moynihan. He even described DeBell’s house as a museum.

“It’s filled with history and antiques like old photographs, daguerreotype: the very first photography ever. And she has family in those pictures,” Moynihan said.

DeBell grew up on a farm in Woodstock then moved to Somers after she got married. There, she worked as an elementary school teacher, where her passion for history grew. “She has the endurance of a farm girl, and she’s always been my right hand here. I just can’t imagine being without her,” said Carole Pyne, president of the society. Pyne, as well as the rest of the members of the society, always seek out DeBell first if they have a question about a specific person in a photograph, or about where a certain artifact came from. “She’s always been here to fill in the blanks. I’ll be calling her a lot,” Pyne said.

To DeBell, history doesn’t belong trapped in the past. “I think before you can make decisions for today, you have to know what happened in the past and why,” she said.

Up on a top shelf overlooking the museum stands an award declaring DeBell the Somers Hometown Hero for making Connecticut “what it was in the past, what it is today, and what it will be in the future.”

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