On a recent morning, Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Keith Bell stepped into a classroom at Omaha's Central High to talk with a class working on a unit about death.
He asked his audience: What's the No. 1 cause of death for teens?
A student nailed it: car crashes.
Bell told a story. When he was a teen, he was riding in his friend's Chevy Blazer. Bell shouted at his buddy to drive faster. The Blazer sped up a hill and, at the top, flew through the air. The SUV landed on its wheels, but sideways.
Bell knows if the Blazer had rolled, he and his friend could have been killed.
The students sat silently, looking straight at him.
Then they started raising their hands, telling their own stories. One boy told how wearing a seatbelt saved his life in a crash.
A girl told how a friend died in a wreck.
Another girl said her grandfather is an alcoholic and drives drunk, and mentioned, even though off-topic, that he doesn't plan to attend her graduation.
Bell paused. He looked at the girl. He asked her name, and thanked her for sharing.
The class ended, and as the students filed out, one boy stepped up to Bell and shook his hand.
“Thank you, sir,” he told the trooper.
Bell, 36, is the guy who has to persuade kids to watch out for Internet predators, drive safely and say no to drugs and alcohol. His job as the patrol's community service officer in Omaha sends him across the metro area talking with thousands of students a year in more than 1,200 presentations. With prom and graduation coming up, this is one of his busiest seasons.
He joined law enforcement thinking he'd be the guy kicking down doors and slapping on cuffs, and, indeed, he still carries a .45-caliber glock on his hip. But his calling, his vocation, is working with kids.
He's known for getting people's attention.
“It doesn't matter what crowd he's in,'' said Lt. Brenda Konfrst of the State Patrol. “He makes connections.”
He's driven by a passion for helping others, and a strong faith in God.
He knows the importance of good adults in children's lives, having grown up without a father. And, with two sons of his own, he knows you don't connect with kids by preaching. You bond and build trust through asking questions, through humor, through honesty about your own life, about the stupid things you did as a kid.
On that morning at Central, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound patrolman put the class at ease before bringing up his solemn subject.
He told them not to worry — “I'm not here to arrest anyone,” getting what would be one of many laughs from the two-dozen teens.
He told them he's a terrible speller, he's even worse at math and did “stupid stuff” as a kid.
He said he lost people he loved, including his grandfather who was killed in a car crash when Bell was 3.
Bell joined the State Patrol a decade ago, and landed the community service job in 2005. He also works with kids on his off time as a youth mentor at King of Kings Church, where he lays down the rhythm as bass player in the worship band.
He's the father of nine-year-old Caden and six-year-old Cameron, a high-energy pair whose favorite sport is climbing on their dad's broad shoulders. He and his wife, Colleen, celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary last year.
Listen to his voice and you know he's from somewhere south of Nebraska — small-town Tennessee, where he played defensive-end on his high school football team.
He was born when his mother was 20, and they lived with his grandmother until he was five. His mother moved to Nashville, where she studied nursing and worked, and Bell stayed back with his grandmother.
She raised him as her own in the town of Charlotte, Tenn., where she was known as Mama Nellie. If a church was having a fundraiser, she made quilts to auction. If a mom needed a baby sitter, she did it for free. If men working in the tobacco fields didn't have a lunch, she'd serve them chicken and warm biscuits.
Every night she read the Bible, and told her grandson it was God's word.
She called him “dumpling,” and would ooh and ahh when he brought home pictures he drew at school.
She was loving but tough, never letting him slide, always making sure he faced consequences if he did wrong.
He remembers a day in sixth grade when his grandmother was going to pick him up after school and take him for ice cream. Bell had gotten in trouble that day for not doing his work, and when his grandma arrived he was sitting by himself in the back of the classroom.
No ice cream that day. His grandma took him straight home, and read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming ... for the son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
His grandma's message was simple: Get caught doing good, not bad.
Two days before Christmas 1988, when Bell was 12, his grandma died after fighting bone cancer. She was 83.
His mother moved back, and he lived with her. He was glad to finally have her, but he was angry.
He was mad that his grandmother died, and he missed her.
He started getting in trouble at school, and not finishing his homework.
One day his godfather sat him down and told him to stop messing up. He told Bell he loved him like a son, and that he was a good boy and smart, but he better straighten up or he'd end up in jail or working in the fields.
Bell's grades improved, and he joined the concert choir in high school and played basketball and football, and worked at a restaurant, helping his mom pay for groceries and other bills.
A day after he graduated from high school he drove with buddies to celebrate on the beaches of Panama City, Fla.
Bell wasn't known as a partier in high school, but started popping open beer cans after he hit the sand. He felt he worked hard in high school, and wanted to let loose.
He and his friends drank beer and swam in ocean, getting knocked around by waves that were extra big because of windy weather.
Looking back, he knows he was fortunate. Not only was he underage and intoxicated, he was a weak swimmer and didn't even know how to tread water.
He sometimes tells the story to high school students, and jokes that he could have easily ended up as shark bait because of the bad choices he made.
In the years after high school, he developed a relationship with his father and attended college part-time. He also worked at a treatment center for kids and teens with drug and other problems.
Aaron Grissom, a close friend since high school, worked with him and said Bell understood young people and their moods.
He could sense when two teens were about to get in a fight, and would separate them before trouble started.
“It was a relief to work with him because you knew everything was going to be OK,'' Grissom said.
Bell liked his work at the center, but knew it wasn't exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
He was turning 21, and he needed direction, so prayed for guidance in choosing a career. God told him what to do: Talk to the local police chief.
Over the years Bell had considered a career in law enforcement, and now knew his path.
He landed a job as a police officer with the City of Dickson (Tenn.), a post he kept until meeting his wife, a native of Columbus, Neb., and moving to Omaha in 2000.
Bell said his job with the patrol is a great blessing, but he said the best part of his day is pulling into the driveway of his northwest Omaha home. He'll play catch with his boys or shoot hoops in the driveway.
Each night at bedtime he pulls out his smartphone, looks up a Bible passage, and reads it to his sons. He loves Proverbs, because for him, it's a guide for being a good person.
“It's (about) preparing my children,'' he said. “My objective is for both my boys to be a better man than I am.”
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