Laird Bell (1883–1965) was a distinguished attorney and Democrat who founded a leading Chicago law firm and endowed several charitable institutions. Bell was an extraordinarily active contributor in a variety of social and not-for-profit causes. He served most notably as Chairman of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Chairman of the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, and of Carleton College, and President of the Harvard Alumni Association. Bell was also an Overseer of Harvard College from 1948 to 1954.
Bell's active participation in the work of education began as President of the Board of Education of Winnetka, Illinois, in 1919. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, then, as now, based in Evanston, Illinois, serving as the first Chair of the Board of Directors. Bell founded a Chicago law firm, Bell, Boyd and Lloyd, which continued to bear his name until its merger with Pittsburgh-based K&L Gates in 2009.
Bell served as the interim Chancellor of the University of Chicago in 1951, during the interregnum between Robert Hutchins and Lawrence A. Kimpton. Prior to that, Bell had been one of Hutchins' chief defenders in several struggles with state legislators concerning academic freedom in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Milton Mayer, Bell was perhaps Hutchins' closest friend during his years at the University of Chicago.
In addition to his legal and philanthropic work, Bell was a senior executive and board member of the Weyerhauser Timber company, where his father, F.S. Bell, served as Chairman of the Board and President of the related Laird Norton Company. Bell was active in advising and advocating on behalf of Phil Weyerhauser during the firm's corporate changes during the Depression. Bell was eventually named Chairman of the Board of Weyerhauser, and Bell was also named publisher of the Chicago Daily News, when its publisher, Frank Knox died during the war, in 1944.
In foreign affairs, Bell was perhaps the main "interventionist" in Chicago before World War II, when Chicago was otherwise a national center of isolationism. Bell visited Nazi Germany frequently in the period before World War II, representing US bondholders who had lost more than $1 billion through "reappraisals" by the Reichsbank under the leadership of Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht. Bell's co-counsel in the representation was John Foster Dulles of the New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell. In 1940-1941, Bell was head of the Chicago chapter of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.
Bell received a KBE knighthood for his war-time activities on behalf of British War Relief. Following the war, he then played an active part, for a private citizen, in creating the New Europe. Bell returned to Germany as a legal adviser to Brigadier General William H. Draper. Jr., Head of the Economics Division, in General Lucius Clay's U.S. Military Government in Germany OMGUS. Draper's group brokered US interests in post-war German corporations. In 1945 and 1946, Bell "stalked the corridors of Foggy Bottom" in a "one-man crusade against 1067" a US rule that proposed a "barbarous" dismantling of Germany. As president of the Alumni Association of Harvard University in June 1947 Laird Bell organized the commencement speeches where Secretary of State George Marshall launched the European Recovery Plan. (General Omar Bradley was the main speaker that day).
In the spring of 1949, Bell joined Columbia President Dwight Eisenhower and a group of other notables, chaired by Allen Dulles, in The National Committee for Free Europe, Inc, a private organization which gave aid to intellectuals and political refugees in newly communist European countries. In 1956 he presided over Adlai Stevenson's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Born in Minnesota, Bell graduated from Harvard College and the University of Chicago Law School. Bell endowed chairs at Carleton College, Harvard University, and the Laird Bell Law Quadrangle at the University of Chicago is named after him.
Bell resided in Chicago's northern suburbs, served on the board of several Chicago charitable organizations and was a member of the University Club. Bell was born in Winona, Minnesota in 1883 and married Nathalie Fairbank in Chicago in 1909. Nathalie Fairbank was the daughter of the distinguished Fairbank merchant family in Chicago, and her pre-wedding portrait is in storage at the Smithsonian. The eldest of Bell's four daughters, Helen Graham Bell, married a future British MP, Geoffrey de Freitas in 1936. Bell was a parent and Trustee at the North Shore Country Day School, where a meeting room was named after him in 1956. Bell died on October 21, 1965 in the Evanston (IL) hospital.
On October 12, 1966, the Quadrangle at the University of Chicago Law School was named posthumously after Bell. Former President Hutchins spoke at the dedication.
- President's Report, Harvard College, 1964-1965
- various, including Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sept 7th 1955, "Biggest US Scholarship Plan Set Up."
- Various, including Ashmore, Harry Scott. Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1989
- "University of Chicago Record" (PDF). 2002.
- Milton Mayer, Robert Maynard Hutchins A Memoir, University of California Press, 1993. According to Mayer, "If Wilder was the closest friend of his youth, Laird Bell of Chicago was perhaps the closest friend of his middle life—and his lawyer, and, as chairman of the Chicago board of trustees, his boss. Bell was not only a member of the city's leading law firm, he was a formidable figure in the corporate world (for example, chairman of the board of Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company and, for example, an overseer of Harvard). He was also, in 1940 and 1941, the head of the Chicago chapter of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies—the city's foremost interventionist, as Hutchins was its foremost noninterventionist. A decade after this confrontation, Board Chairman Bell announced the anonymous endowment of the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professorship at the university; a decade later Robert Maynard Hutchins, called back to the university to preside over the dedication of the Laird Bell Quadrangle, revealed that the anonymous donor of the Hutchins professorship had been Laird Bell."
- Phil Weyerhaeuser, Lumberman By Charles E. Twining, sourced on Google Books, Nov. 26, 2008
- New York Times Archives
- Hersh, Burton, The Old Boys, New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1992, p. 46
- Independent, London, Obituary of Helen de Freitas, 1998 (see full reference below)
- Harvard Magazine, May, 1997, "Laird Bell '04, a Chicago lawyer, was then president of the Harvard Alumni Association. Among his responsibilities was the selection of Commencement speakers. Bell had assigned one of the afternoon's two principal speeches to his friend Ernest Colwell, president of the University of Chicago. At the urging of President Conant, who wanted a military figure, Bell had somewhat reluctantly turned to General Omar Bradley, administrator of veterans' affairs, as his second major speaker. With Commencement only a week away, the State Department advised Bell that Secretary Marshall would be willing to make a brief address at Harvard, though he did not wish to be the main speaker. "Thus I wound up with two generals instead of none," Bell said later. "I did not realize how historic the occasion would be." "
- Miall, Leonard (17 December 1998). "Obituary: Helen de Freitas". The Independent. London. Retrieved 20 January 2009.
- Erling Larsen, Something about Some of the Educations of Laird Bell, published by Carleton College, 1967
- Who's Who of the Midwest, 1961 edition
- "Clan Moffet Genealogy". November 26, 2008.
- Audio record, North Shore Country Day website
- NY Times obituary, October 22, 1965
- Meltzer, Bernard. "The University of Chicago Law School: Ruminations and Reminiscences" (PDF). University of Chicago Law Review.