Carrie Rengers

Bailis Fenton Bell savored every day with his love of people, Kansas and aviation

Bailis Bell, shown in a file photo from 1999, the year some members of the Wichita Airport Advisory Board tried to oust him. Mr. Bell prevailed, and the board lost much of its power. On Feb. 4, Mr. Bell died following a five-year battle with a rare form of dementia.
Bailis Bell, shown in a file photo from 1999, the year some members of the Wichita Airport Advisory Board tried to oust him. Mr. Bell prevailed, and the board lost much of its power. On Feb. 4, Mr. Bell died following a five-year battle with a rare form of dementia. File photo

With an even countenance and a playful mischievousness, Bailis Bell oversaw operations at Wichita’s two airports for decades, creating an indelible legacy and a lot of laughs.

“He had 1,000 anecdotes and 100 million silly jokes and would use those to put people at ease, defuse a situation (and) help put things in perspective,” former airports spokeswoman Angie Prather said.

When her son, Garret, heard that Mr. Bell, 73, died on Feb. 4, he told his mother, “You know, I’ll just never forget his booming laugh.”

At a well-fed 6 foot 2, Mr. Bell could be physically imposing.

“If Bailis ever walked into a room, he did not go unnoticed,” said Brad Christopher, who now is assistant director of airports.

He remembers being intimidated when interviewing with Mr. Bell before he was hired in 1993. He later learned that Bell “was rather a gentle giant” who was the gregarious life of the party.

“Everybody thought of himself as Bailis’ friend. He always made people feel that way.”

Bailis Fenton Bell was born in Portsmouth, Va., in 1945.

His mother’s father co-founded the well-known Fenton Art Glass Co. in Ohio in 1905. The business moved to West Virginia in 1907, which is the area where Mr. Bell grew up. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Abilene, Kan., when his father, a surgeon, took a job there.

“His heart really was in Kansas,” said Mr. Bell’s widow, Barbara.

She said her husband loved the people here and aviation, too. His father was a pilot and had his own plane.

“He flew with his dad all the time, even as a young boy.”

That included once landing in Cuba with engine trouble during Fidel Castro’s revolution.

“Bailis considered it to be a great adventure,” Barbara Bell said.

Mr. Bell became a pilot while earning a business administration degree at Emporia State University, which is where he met his wife. Early on, she said, she learned what life with him would entail.

“Anytime we would be going down a highway or a small backwoods road, if he saw a wind sock, he would just pull in. He had to get out of the car and take pictures,” she said. “I have thousands of pictures of airport runways. . . . It was part of his DNA or something. It was a bonus if there was somebody out there — a pilot or an operator or someone he could talk to.”

After school, Mr. Bell took a job as a budget analyst for the city of Wichita in 1969 with the goal of eventually working at the airport, which he did two years later when he became assistant manager.

“It was like his dream come true,” Barbara Bell said.

There years later, he became airport manager, and a decade later he was named director of airports.

What was then known as Wichita Mid-Continent Airport was much smaller than Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport is today, and the city hadn’t yet purchased what would become Colonel James Jabara Airport.

“He started so young, and I think he kind of just grew with it,” Barbara Bell said.

Mr. Bell insisted that they move from east to west Wichita so he could be near the airport to let in fire trucks if there were emergencies since there wasn’t a station on site at that time.

Former airport properties and contracts manager Sandy Coykendall said it was with tremendous pride that Mr. Bell was the first person to test Jabara’s new 5,000-foot runway in 1984 by taking off and landing there.

During inclement weather, Mr. Bell would take his car onto a runway, slam on his brakes and do doughnuts to test if the pavement was safe for planes.

“He was always Johnny-on-the-spot,” former Ryan Aviation owner Ron Ryan said of Mr. Bell’s willingness to get something done.

Ryan had a fixed-base operation at Mid-Continent — one of the many business leases there, the wrangling of which was a big part of Mr. Bell’s job.

“He kept us all in order,” Ryan said. “I admired him for his ability to not play favorites. . . . He just took the high road in every case. He earned a really incredible reputation.”

It was an far-reaching reputation since Mr. Bell belonged to all kinds of national and international aviation boards and associations and regularly testified to the FAA on the condition of airports, too.

“Which I think really helped the airport in getting grants and things like that,” Coykendall said.

“Everybody in the industry knew Bailis Bell,” Christopher said.

Consequently, everybody knew of Wichita and its airports — something that airports of similar sizes couldn’t boast, Prather said.

“He was a big-picture person for sure,” she said. “He was looking at it from 30,000 feet . . . but he also noticed and appreciated details.”

That could be checking on plants around a fountain or on how clean the terminal was.

“He emphasized over and over again we’re the front door to the community,” Prather said.

To be able to do the small and big things well is “a pretty rare combination,” she said.

Not everyone always appreciated Mr. Bell, however. In 1999, some members of the Wichita Airport Advisory Board wanted to oust him.

“He was very committed to what was best for the airport, and sometimes there are influences outside that are more interested in their own agendas,” Prather said. “He was very ethical and really stuck to his guns.”

She said it was a painful time, but Mr. Bell prevailed, and the board lost much of its power.

As Mr. Bell put it when he announced plans to retire in 2004, “We had a difference in philosophy. Except they all went away, and I’m still here.”

Mr. Bell was “always above reproach,” said Deanna Harms, executive vice president of Greteman Group, a branding agency.

“Bailis was a very shrewd person, and for somebody to survive for close to 40 years in such a high-ranking public job, he knew pitfalls to avoid,” she said.

Harms said Mr. Bell once told her that “he never let the city pay for his phone, and he never put alcohol on his tab,” even while entertaining for business.

“I just appreciate that he served our community so well for so long.”

Christopher said that Mr. Bell held himself and staff to high standards.

“It was just incredibly important to him that he make good leadership decisions for the organization.”

Christopher said Mr. Bell “very much sized up people” and then built relationships, often through teasing.

With his ever-present camera, Mr. Bell would snap surprise photos of Christopher and send them to his mother, like the time Christopher was sweeping glass after someone accidentally plowed a car into the terminal’s ticketing area.

“See the great work Brad’s doing?” Mr. Bell wrote.

Coykendall said Mr. Bell taught so many people so much — Prather called it “a mini MBA in airports” — that she once fell for one of his jokes when she thought it was a test.

Some geese were flying overhead in a V-formation, and Mr. Bell asked Coykendall if she knew why one side of the V was always longer.

“I was trying to think of these aerodynamical answers,” she said.

“Well,” Mr. Bell deadpanned, “it’s because there are more geese on one side.”

Coykendall said, “That’s the kind of jokes he would tell.”

Barbara Bell said her husband delighted in blanketing people’s lawns with surprise marshmallow Peeps around Easter.

Ryan said his “dear friend” was “a genuinely good-spirited, good-hearted, hard-working” person.

He said he remembers when Mr. Bell would stop by his office at the fixed-based operation, particularly on Friday nights when they’d break open a six-pack of beer.

“Or a case. I’m not sure which.”

Ryan still chuckles over Mr. Bell dressing as a nun one Halloween.

“That was quite a sight.”

Though five years ago Mr. Bell became afflicted with a rare form of dementia — frontotemporal dementia — Barbara Bell said her husband “never once pitied himself.”

“He just forged on and made the best of every day and wanted to grab as much of life as he possibly could,” she said. “Even though there might have been some trials along the way, he never wavered in his determination to just enjoy everyone.”

Barbara Bell said her husband savored every day.

“I just went along for the ride.”

Carrie Rengers has been a reporter for almost three decades, including 16 years at The Wichita Eagle. Her Have You Heard? column of business scoops runs five days a week in The Eagle. If you have a tip, please e-mail or tweet her or call 316-268-6340.