All of us at Okizu mourn the loss of John “Bassmaster” Bell, beloved co-founder of our organization.
By profession, John owned and ran Golden Bear Travel, a travel agency specializing in luxury cruises. In the 1970s, he began volunteering at Hospice of Marin, where he developed a deep connection with a patient named Robert Sturhahn. Inspired by their strong bond, John made a commitment to honor Robert’s memory by doing something to help children with cancer.
Around the same time, John came across a news story about a summer camp for pediatric cancer patients on the East Coast. He approached hospital staff at several Bay Area oncology departments about holding a similar program for Northern California kids with cancer. As luck would have it, they had been thinking about doing something similar and joined efforts with John.
In 1982, 28 kids from five participating hospitals went to a weeklong sleep-away camp on Lake Vera. John and his co-founders quickly saw that there was a need for programming for all family members and the first SIBS Camp hosted 42 campers in the summer of 1984 and Family Camp followed in 1985.
John was highly regarded in the travel industry and, during the early years, his success with Golden Bear Travel was able to fund the operations of Camp Okizu. When he sold his company in 1998, he became a full-time volunteer, working with the events and fundraising teams to raise the money needed to run our ever-expanding programs.
John’s handwriting is all over our fundraising files, with personal notes about individuals and organizations who made donations after connecting with him and hearing about the significance of camp for our families. John was able to tell our supporters the individual stories of so many of our campers because he truly knew them and their families. In times that we were lean, John reached into his own pockets and called in favors from his friends and loved ones to make camp happen.
While John’s financial contributions to camp were endless, it is his physical presence at camp that we will cherish forever. He attended as many sessions of camp as he could, welcoming new families to Family Camp, serving meals and driving golf carts at Oncology camp, leading discussion groups at SIBS Camp, and braving white water rapids with the teenagers. He could be found at every campfire, often with his own chair in tow, laughing loudly as he enjoyed the songs and skits being performed.
John loved to read bedtime stories to our youngest campers, priding himself on picking the perfect book for the group and putting even the most unwilling campers to sleep. His greatest passion was being the “Bassmaster.” He spent countless hours untangling fishing lines and fixing reels so that kids could come and find success at the fishing hole. Those of us watching were amazed by John’s seemingly magical ability to coax a fish onto the hook of the child who needed it the most.
John was a national winner of the Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service and was awarded the Excalibur Award by the American Cancer Society, recognizing his contributions to the fight against cancer with his work at Okizu. Until 2017, John also served as the Chairman of Okizu’s Board of Directors.
For more than 42 years, John’s unwavering dedication to Okizu helped to create a place of respite and joy for Northern California children with cancer and their families. From all of us, and from the thousands of families that have shared Camp Okizu, we will remember John with great respect and love. We are so lucky to have known him and will miss him deeply.
All are welcome as we celebrate the life and legacy of John “Bassmaster” Bell on February 24, 2024 in Novato, California.
RSVPs are required in order to help us plan. Visit www.okizu.org/johnbell to RSVP.
In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of John can be made to Okizu at https://support.okizu.org/jb or mailed to Okizu at 83 Hamilton Drive, Suite 200, Novato, CA 94949 with a note that it’s for John. You can also call 415.382.9083 to give a card by phone.