Her Story Could Become a Hollywood Movie!
The story of longtime Carthage resident Nina Bell’s coming to America from post-War World II Italy involves a love story that could easily be found in a romantic war movie from that era. Stories about soldiers bringing home brides from war-torn countries have piqued the imaginations and torn at the heartstrings of many a movie fan for generations.
Born in Udine, Italy in 1930 during the worldwide Depression, Nerina “Nina” Comuzzi was only six days old when her father Adelchi died at the age of 36 from the cancer with which he was diagnosed while her mother Ester was pregnant with Nina, and her sister Bianca only three and a half years old. Adelchi was working for the railroad, but because he was so young and his pension based on how long he had worked, his 29-year-old widow was forced to look for work to support herself and her two young children at a time when no work was available. She finally moved to Rome to live with her sister and because she was an accomplished seamstress, found work with a tailor there.
Nina says her most vivid memories of her childhood are of being a tomboy, definitely not a “girly girl.” She says, “They were building a subway right in front of where we lived, and I remember running up and down the hills of dirt they had dug. I also remember a pretty ugly trick I played on my mother once. The beach was only about eight miles away by tram; one day when neither my mother nor my friend’s mother could take us there, we each told our mothers that the other mother was taking us. We packed our lunches and were ready to leave when my mother called my friend’s mother to warn her that I had absolutely no fear of anything and that she would need to watch me closely. Our deception was discovered, and our plan crashed. I was always doing things like that. I was a mess!”
Nina recalls one of the scariest times of the war happened when her family agreed to allow some escaped American POWs to hide in a spare bedroom in their house for a few days. She says, “Somehow the Germans got wind of it and came pounding on our door. We hid the men under the bed, and Mama got in the bed with the covers up to her chin, pretending to be very sick. She was shaking so much from fear that she really did look sick! She knew that if they found those men, the Germans would shoot them and all of us as well. They pushed their way in, I told them Mama was really sick in that room, and I guess they were worried about getting whatever bad illness she had, so they never went in the room and looked under that bed! Later those POWS came back to visit with us and thank us for hiding them and saving their lives.”
When Nina was only 13 years old, she met an American soldier from the Fifth Army Tank Batallion Armored Division named William “Bill” Bell from Beaumont. The place his unit was staying was far from the center of the city, so many of the soldiers were renting rooms in a large apartment building owned by the same lady her family was renting from. “We met in an elevator,” she says. “He was holding chocolate bars behind his back and gave them to me. He then met my mother and told her, ‘After the war, I am coming back to Italy and marry your daughter!’ She answered, ‘You and the whole Fifth Army! She let him know emphatically that I was just a child and that he would have a long wait, until I was at least 18.”
She continues, “He stayed in Italy another year or so and was about to be sent to the war in the Pacific when we received the news about VJ Day, so he went home to Beaumont, where he had a business renting trailers to people who were moving themselves. He was very persistent, staying in touch with us and constantly sending clothes, candy, and material for my mother to sew, all of which were very hard to come by in Italy after the War. When I was almost 16, his sister called and told us that he was on his way over, with plans for us to get married, and my mother had a fit. She said, ‘She’s just a child, and she’s not getting married, and he can just go right back!’”
Luckily, Nina’s uncle (her father’s brother) had gotten to know Bill and really liked him a lot. Nina says, “During the war my mother had asked Bill, who was going up north from Rome to an area near Udine, to see if he could find our family and let them know we were okay, and he did that. He rang the bell at the gate outside my grandmother’s home and told her he was an American soldier with news of her family in Rome. She delightedly opened the gate for him, and a dear friendship was born between him and my Udine family. He would bring them chocolate and real coffee that they had not had in years, and they all enjoyed each other a lot!”
So when Nina’s mother refused to let her get married, her uncle intervened, telling Ester what a great guy Bill was and how much the family loved him, and he literally talked her into signing permission for 16-year-old Nina to marry Bill. She insisted that Nina must have a church wedding and that Bill had to agree that their children would be raised in the Catholic church. Bill went to counseling with the priest, with both of them using English-Italian and Italian-English dictionaries to converse, and the wedding was set.
Bill had purchased and mailed a dress pattern and all the fabric for a wedding dress from the States, and Ester made an exquisite dress out of it. They married in October but stayed in Rome for several months because there was so much paperwork involved in getting permission for Nina to leave Italy and go to America and also because it was very hard to get in and out of Europe. They tried and tried unsuccessfully to get passage by air or ship, when one day in March Bill’s sister was playing bridge with friends in Houston, and one of the ladies there was the wife of the owner of the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company. She insisted that she would arrange passage for the couple. Nina says, “We got a telegram saying to get on a train and come to Genoa, from where we would sail to America. So we ended up having a beautiful cruise for our honeymoon. We stopped in Spain and Havana and other ports and had a wonderful time!”
The couple lived in Beaumont for several years. Their oldest two boys, Leonard and Eric, were born there. Bill was in sales with American Standard and met some people who were drilling water wells. He became interested and built his own water well drilling rig. They moved to Jasper for about a year, and there was a big drought all over East Texas during that time, so many people were wanting wells. Someone asked him to come to Carthage to drill some wells, and he really liked the town, so they found a house to rent and moved here, and Bell Water Well Service was born!
Their youngest son, Chris, was born in Carthage. Nina’s life revolved mainly around her three boys for years, but when Chris was in elementary school, Nina was ready to pursue a new challenge. She graduated from the LVN program at Panola College and then decided to go to Texas Eastern School of Nursing in Tyler to earn her Bachelor of Science in Nursing and become a Registered Nurse. She remembers taping lessons to listen to in the car during her daily commutes because she had so little time to study. Bill and she decided that she needed to stay in Tyler during the week and come home on the weekends, and she was lucky to find a room to rent in a lady’s home with some other students. They would each put money for groceries in the sugar bowl each week and take turns cooking Monday through Wednesday, then Thursday they would go out to eat with whatever grocery money was left. “We really had a lot of fun together during that time,” she says.
After graduation she went to work at the hospital in Henderson and became very interested in diabetes, becoming a Certified Diabetes Educator and starting a Diabetes Center that was certified by the American Diabetes Association. She says, “I am very proud of the work we did there. The closest similar centers were in Beaumont, Texarkana, Tyler, and Shreveport, so it was a big deal for Henderson. I worked until Bill’s health got bad, and I needed to be home. I continued to do some individual and group classes with people who had diabetes and had very good results in helping them get their disease under control. He died in the late 1990s, and after his death I continued doing some one-on-one diabetes education in my home and also put on some programs for insulin companies.”
The Bell family’s favorite activities centered around the water—packing a picnic and taking their boat to the lake all the time for skiing, and trips to the beach in Galveston at least once every year. The family still has an annual reunion each Father’s Day weekend at Lake Texoma at son Eric’s lakehouse. The center of activity in Nina’s life today is her church, St. William of Vercelli in Carthage. She has also made a trip back to Italy nearly every year to visit her sister and other family members; this year son Chris and his wife Donna are joining her on the trip.
Nina moved to local assisted living facility Winkler Place about two years ago in order to get out from under the constant responsibilities of owning a home. But this vibrant lady remains very active, ready to go all the time. She is very close to her sons and their families and treasures the time she gets to spend with them. Son Leonard and his wife Jayne live in Dallas; their son Brian has two college-age daughters. Son Eric and his wife Judy live in Oklahoma City and have a daughter Angela and two sons, Brad, who has two young sons, and Paul, who has one. Son Chris and his wife Donna live in Carthage. He has two sons, Clay and Justin, and a daughter Amy, who has four young children. Daughter-in-law Jayne jokes that she and Nina got in a lot of trouble with their husbands over the years because of their love of shopping, but she insists they only bought things that were on sale. Nina agrees and adds, “We haven’t been shopping in a long time, and we need to go again soon!” Jayne voices a sentiment shared by the whole family, “Nina is a beautiful person and is dearly loved by her family.” What better compliment and greater legacy could a person have than that!!