Arnie Bellowe extended a welcoming hand to a visitor at his spacious lakeside home south of the grounds on Chautauqua Lake. Paintings done by his wife Jill adorn the walls. The Bellowes have both served eight-year terms on the Institution’s board of trustees. Jill’s term expires this year, but their impact on Chautauqua extends well beyond board service.
Jill, please talk about your early life.
Jill: I was born in Akron, Ohio. My father worked in the automobile industry, and we moved to Detroit when I was 6 months old. Basically, I grew up in Detroit. I went to school there and went to the University of Michigan. I was 18 when I got married. I moved back to Akron briefly and then to Cleveland where Arnie started a store.
When my youngest entered first grade, I went back to school and went on to get a master’s degree in counseling. I then worked with Vietnam vets for quite a few years. Many of these vets had post-traumatic stress disorder. I was working at this time with the Veterans Administration office in Cleveland. That was really heavy-duty work.
Tell me some more about your veterans work. This was in the 1970s, is that right?
Jill: Yes, in the 1970s. I was working with a professor who taught me in graduate school. I moved with him to the VA. We worked with groups, and I did one-on-one counseling, with him as my supervisor. My perspective on my work was that my clients needed to get comfortable enough in the counseling setting to be able to reveal and begin to deal with their demons, particularly with this Vietnam trauma.
As I worked with them, I kept wondering, as a woman, how the women in their lives dealt with them. Another counselor and I started a support group for women, at the Free Clinic in Cleveland. We did this for several years. The men patients were aghast: They did not want us to have anything to do with their women. With Vietnam veterans, control was a huge issue after their service, because so much previously had been out of their control.
Some of the vets wouldn’t let their women come to our support group. Some of our women would get anxious as they revealed details of their lives, and they wouldn’t return. One thing that emerged was that many of these women had been abused as children, and they gravitated toward this type of controlling man; this is what they knew.
As I said, this was heavy work. The kids were growing. There was a lot going on. It got to be too much. So I turned to teaching stress management classes at local colleges. After we moved to California, I taught at Santa Barbara Community College for about seven years. We have lived in Santa Barbara for 24 years now.
You have said that you are a painter.
Jill: I do paint. I have always had a bit of difficulty describing myself as an artist.
Arnie: She is good. I’ll show you some of her work.
Jill: I stopped teaching in part because I wanted to devote more time to my painting.
How did you meet?
Jill: Do you want his story or mine?
Well, the wife’s version is usually richer and more nuanced and more interesting …
Jill: We were back in Akron, visiting family. I was nearly 17 years old at the time. Arnie had just returned from graduate school at UCLA. Everyone was trying to fix him up, because people in Akron got married pretty young then. Our cousins knew each other, and they got together and coerced him into taking me out. He was late picking me up.
Arnie: It was a blind date, set up by her relatives.
Jill: … And I was getting pretty annoyed. But he made it, and we wound up having a good time together. He took me out to an amusement park that was supposed to have a live band and dancing. We got there, but no band. Here is the bad part: He said, “Let’s go on the roller coaster.” I said, “I am uneasy with heights. He said, “You’re just putting on an act like all those girls.” I got so mad, I said, “OK, dammit, I’ll go.” I was terrified. …
He asked me out for the next night. I said there were more family events and I couldn’t. He said, “How about if I pick you up afterwards?” So he did.
Your parents showed some trust here. You were not quite 17, he was, what, 24 or 25?
Jill: Yes, but remember, my aunt and our cousins were promoting this. In fact, my aunt told him I was 20 and in my second year of college, which was an exaggeration.
Arnie: I was lied to.
Jill: When I found out my aunt had lied, I figured, oh well, blind date, I’ll never see him again anyway. But then he came to Detroit to see me, and I knew I had to come clean.
He wasn’t too perturbed, apparently.
Jill: Actually, he was. He was put off, and I didn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks. But then he did call. Remember, I was still in high school at this point. He went off to the Army. I went to Michigan, and when he came back we got engaged. Now we have been married for 54 years, so something must have worked.
Arnie: Marriage does require some trust, though.
Jill: Well, I haven’t lied to you since. And it was my aunt’s lie anyway.
You seem to be involved in recent years in philanthropy — but maybe even more than that — in making a positive impact on the lives of others.
Jill: We have been fortunate. Arnie has worked hard. Others have not been as fortunate.
Arnie: We have tried to give back. When we moved to Santa Barbara, we got involved in the City College there, with the University of California at Santa Barbara.
I have not gotten involved with Big Brothers or organizations like that because they tend to discourage emotional involvement. You take the young man out to dinner and talk once a month, then it’s nothing until the next month. That didn’t appeal to me.
But a more personal involvement did. For instance, a woman who worked for us came to me one day. Her son was Mexican. He was 14 years old. He was having some problems at school. I asked if the mother wanted me to help.
Well, I wound up visiting the principal at his school. And his counselor. We managed to get him into some good courses and onto a good path.
We got our young man through high school, taught him how to fill out an application. I kept on with him, coaching him. He got into City College at Santa Barbara. We got him a Pell grant. Maybe I paid a few fees. Meanwhile, he became manager of the hamburger joint where he started out a few years earlier.
He did get married and now has become one of the four assistant kitchen managers at the largest hospital in Santa Barbara. There are 250 people in that kitchen.
Jill: There were some others, but this was the best.
Have you had a better feeling than to see his success?
Arnie: It doesn’t get any better than that. I still see our young man. He has told me that if I hadn’t gotten involved with him, he would have wound up in a gang.
Speaking of immigrants, I have to say, the Institution’s “Immigration” week really hit me. My mother went through Ellis Island. I do believe we need immigration in this country, and we need it badly.
Tell me about your long-standing relationship with Chautauqua.
Arnie: We bought this place in 1972.
Jill: It didn’t look much like this at that time.
Arnie: Until the early 1990s when I sold my auto parts company, I was a weekend visitor up here. I hardly knew anybody here. I’d come up on Thursday night, play with the kids, and crash, basically. There wasn’t time to develop relationships. After 1993, when I was semi-retired, I started to get around more.
Dan Bratton was president at the time. He and Tom Becker, then Foundation CEO, asked me to join the Renewal Campaign cabinet. I accepted, as a community member, in 1997.
We did our fair share of giving, but nothing special. I know that people believe that philanthropy gets you on these boards. But what really happens is that when you get on a board, you begin to get really involved and then committed and then, more likely, the greater philanthropy comes. That’s more often the sequence, in my opinion.
Jill: There are people on the board of trustees who can afford to give money and some who cannot. But what we all give is massive amounts of time and energy. We all try to do the right things.
But back to our Chautauqua life generally, I have to tell you this: When we bought this place, it was a tiny little cottage, about 900 square feet. I said to Arnie at the time, if we do this, there will be one requirement: No TV. We still don’t have a TV in the house.
And the theater has always been my love. Arnie was involved in the campaign to raise the money for the Bratton Theater.
How do you deal with the air conditioning in the theater?
Jill: Putting your program over the vent helps a lot. But they are getting better at managing the temperature.
Arnie: I have always played the piano, have taken lessons in Cleveland and here. In Chautauqua, there is so much available culturally. This place is unique. I love it.
Tell me about your company.
Arnie: My father had a auto wrecking yard. Then, after the war, my dad shifted to auto parts, and in 1961, we bought Forest City Auto Parts in Cleveland. At that time, there was a revolution taking place in the auto parts industry. The distribution network changed profoundly. We became a discount auto parts store, like Auto Zone for example, and we were a bit ahead of our time in taking this course.
America was expanding in the 1960s, and we rode along with it. We did figure out how we fit into the larger economic picture. We kept expanding, winding up with more than 50 stores spread from Chicago to Syracuse. We kept the headquarters in Cleveland, but broke up the business into regions under our headquarters.
I had been a pre-med student, and switched to history. I met a history professor who I am still friends with, and he inspired me to go to UCLA for graduate work in history. But then I began to have some doubts. I went into a young professor at UCLA, and he said his family had a business in Chicago that he could have joined. He chose academia, but regretted it. I listened to him, changed my mind, went back to Akron, and went into business with my brother.
Where most companies create business traffic by advertising, we relied on people. We always invested in training for our staff. Most of them stayed, so the investment paid off. We built a good company, and were able to sell it in 1991. We were conservative as we built the company, and used our profits to expand. My brother and I forged a durable, successful partnership. Our business soared in tough economic times, because people keep cars longer and therefore need the spare parts.
The bottom line was that it was really fun working with people. Successful entrepreneurs don’t take wild risks. We operated conservatively. It was very satisfying building that business.
But when you build a business — and spend 35 years in it — you do hit a wall. You just get tired of it. When we confronted changes in the auto industry, we didn’t want to continue with the company.
You mentioned learning a lot from a Harvard Business School program you attended in mid-career. What prompted you to enroll?
Jill: I want to answer this. Arnie is someone who plans in blocks of time. He was always doing five-year plans. He’s always about long-term goals. He has always been a student, and loves to learn.
Arnie: We always encouraged education for our employees. I was just practicing what I had preached.