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Carolyn Shaw Bell, at 85; economist was mentor to many women

Fresh from Mount Holyoke College, where she had studied economics, Carolyn Shaw Bell told her parents she was leaving to get a job. Unbeknownst to Dr. Bell, her father hid a little cash in her suitcase to cover the cost of returning home to Framingham if things didn't work out.

She didn't find the money until a few years later, when she was packing her bags to get a doctorate at the London School of Economics. By then, she had spent four years helping legendary economist John Kenneth Galbraith run the federal Office of Price Administration, which was in charge of tamping down inflation during World War II.

In the decades that followed, she was at various times a single mother, an adviser to Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, and a Wellesley College professor and mentor to generations of economics majors who helped establish women as a force in areas that had been male bastions.

``Carolyn clearly made a difference," said Marshall Goldman, professor emeritus at Wellesley and a colleague for 31 years. ``The world was different before Carolyn than it now has become after Carolyn, and you cannot say that about everybody."

Dr. Bell, who in retirement wrote a column for The Boston Globe, died of a degenerative neurological illness on May 13. She was 85 and had moved late last year to Arlington, Va., after living in Dover and Lexington for more than a half-century.

``She was a very real role model to us, because here was someone who was a very, very successful person in her field, who had a very successful family life, and who was engaged in a very wonderful marriage," said Lois Juliber, a former vice chairwoman and chief operating officer of Colgate-Palmolive who studied under Dr. Bell at Wellesley. ``Back in the '60s, when it wasn't common for women to pursue careers, she was there, she was practicing it, she was loving it, and she really did share her exuberance. It wasn't like she was making choices in her life -- she really was doing it all."

Initially drawn to philosophy, Dr. Bell switched to economics at Mount Holyoke and ``fell hook, line, and sinker," said her daughter, Toba Maria Solo, of Arlington, Va.

``Economics raises a reaction in me," Dr. Bell told a Wellesley alumna publication several years ago. ``I'm a data freak; I like to look at raw data and see the relationships between things."

She eagerly awaited the arrival of figures from federal agencies the way some turn to box scores each morning.

``What gave Carolyn her kicks was her mastery of data," Goldman said. ``Nothing gave her greater pleasure than to go through the data prepared by the Department of Commerce."

While studying in London, Dr. Bell gave birth to her daughter. Within a couple of years she was divorced and looking for a job. She began teaching economics at Wellesley in 1950 and stayed until 1989, when a hearing loss prompted her to give up classroom work. Twice she was chairwoman of the economics department. Students remembered her as a teacher who preferred dialogue to lectures and who made dry material exciting.

Eleven years ago, The New York Times reported on the disproportionate presence of Wellesley graduates among women who succeed in the male-dominated fields of business and finance. Many of those interviewed credited Dr. Bell for creating the ``Wellesley factor."

``She made it legitimate even during the anti-business period, the hippie period, for Wellesley women to get involved with economics and business," the late Margaret Hennig, then dean of Simmons College School of Management, told the Times in 1995.

``It was a personal value that any woman should be able to support herself and her children, whether or not she has to," Dr. Bell said for the article.

She encouraged networking before it became a word and a trend. Dr. Bell started a newsletter that was sent to graduates she called FEMS, for former economics majors.

``She was this force saying women could do anything," said Alicia Munnell, a former student who is now a professor of management sciences at Boston College's business school and served as assistant secretary of the Treasury for economic policy in the Clinton administration. ``She was there cheerleading, clapping, telling us to boast about what we could do. She followed you after you left Wellesley. If you did anything good, you'd get a note from her saying, `Terrific!' "

Dr. Bell helped found the American Economic Association's Committee on Status of Women in the Economics Profession. The committee created the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award in 1953.

In 1953, she married Nelson Bell, who owned The Music Box store in Wellesley. The couple entertained frequently, often inviting Dr. Bell's Wellesley students. Always an Anglophile, she was fond of preparing roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

``She put as much into poaching a salmon with green sauce as writing a column for The Boston Globe," Munnell said. ``She was a terrific cook . . . and she didn't set up a false choice between having a family and having a career."

In 1977, Dr. Bell wrote a letter to Business Week criticizing a cover story on welfare and was later featured in a Sylvia Porter's syndicated column for doing so. The magazine's cover illustration had included a painting of a black mother with two children.

``Poor white families outnumber blacks by more than two to one," she wrote, adding, ``It follows that the bulk of aid to dependent children recipients are white."

After her letter appeared in the magazine, she received more than 100 letters, many sprinkled with vulgarities.

``I'm quite used to getting mail in response to articles, but not like this," she told The Boston Herald.

``I think she liked coming to the fore for a good fight," her daughter said.

In later years, she and her husband moved to Brookhaven, a retirement community in Lexington. He died in 1991. Dr. Bell had two dogs to assist her after the hearing loss, first Robin , then Lawry .

Ten years ago, she told the Globe she still considered herself a working economist.

``I retired from teaching but not from being an economist," she said. ``I can't retire from that because people keep asking me to do things."

A memorial service will be held later this year for Dr. Bell, who also leaves a grandson.

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