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Aili R. Bell

Aili Rytkönen Bell died October 10 in Chapel Hill. Aili Bell was born in Pielavesi, Finland, in 1926. The third of six children, she lost her mother at the age of 5. The only one of her siblings to pursue higher education or to move away from her hometown, Aili graduated from Turku University in 1955 with a double Masters in Finnish and Related Languages, and World Literature. Her first job was as Secretary of the Finnish Christian Student League (Student Christian Movement) in Helsinki. In the early 1960’s, she was sent to London to start Lutheran work among students from Younger Churches (of newly independent African nations). While there she was involved in the initiative to build a Lutheran Student Hostel.

In London she met her husband, Donald Bell, with whom she subsequently spent three years teaching at Gordon College in Rawalpindi, West Pakistan, as Fraternal Workers for the Presbyterian Church. Moving to the United States in 1964, she continued to be actively involved with the mission and refugee work of the church. She was a long time member and deacon at Westminster Presbyterian in Alexandria, VA. Over their years in Alexandria, Aili and Don hosted countless international students and visitors, and provided long-term housing for a number of refugees in their home.

Aili was well known for her expertise in Finnish language, literature, and folklore. From 1964 to 1987, she was Senior Finnish Language Instructor at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, teaching language and culture to diplomats (and a few spies). She pioneered and developed the definitive textbooks, A Finnish Graded Reader, and Conversational Finnish. She continued her publishing activities after retirement, with two editions of A Practical Guide to Reading Finnish. In DC, she was actively involved in Finnish cultural activities, started the Finnish library of the Finlandia Foundation and initiated the Finnish Language School. She was also a charter member of the Finnish American Translator’s Association (FATA), and a long time contributor to her hometown newspaper. After moving to Chapel Hill, NC in 2000, she was active with the Triangle Finnish Association.

A great conversationalist, she will be remembered for her keen intellect and wit, an unwavering love for her homeland and Finnish culture, a ravenous appetite for books, an industrious and practical attitude towards life, faithful giving, generous hospitality, fiercely democratic politics, and for her love of the woods and bridge. When asked what were the highlights of her career she would mention her instrumental role in the building of a beautiful chapel in the SCM village of Teiniharju in Finland during her student work.

Aili was preceded in death by her husband, Don Bell (2001). She is survived by her brother, Eero Rytkönen, of Pielavesi; her son, Risto Bell, of San Jose, CA; and her daughter, Maija Bell Samei (Ehsan) and four grandchildren, all of Chapel Hill, NC. A memorial service will be held at University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill on October 25 at 10 a.m. In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made in her memory to the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, 475 Riverside Dr., Suite 1221, New York, NY 10115, with a memo to the Roy and Edna Bell Scholarship Fund.

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