Bringing Up the Bells

Bringing Up the Bells

By Diane Ballard

Corey and Millicent Bell have only six children at home. Yes, only. Because, you see, they used to have eight. The Bells, both UT Knoxville MBA grads, are in their mid-thirties and live in Round Rock, Texas, where Corey Bell has a successful business. Certainly they have a bright future ahead of them.

But it’s unlikely anything the Bells will ever do, no matter how spectacular, will overshadow the big-hearted gamble they took in 2001, when they became legal guardians for eight of Corey Bell’s younger brothers and sisters.

You may recall their story from Tennessee Alumnus. Corey Bell is the eldest of 13 children. When their mother died, the eight children who still lived at home in South Carolina were left alone. Corey and Millicent, married just 3½ years, took the youngsters in. The young marrieds, both with good jobs at Dell Computer in Austin, became instant, if inexperienced, parents. They bought a big house, new and shiny, to accommodate the influx. Beyond that, they weren’t sure what to do.

“We learned lots of lessons,” says Corey. Now just three of Corey’s siblings remain at home (ages 15, 17, and 18), and the Bells have three children of their own, a 3-year-old and 10-month-old twins. The siblings who’ve left the nest have all gone to college, except one who’s in the Air Force.

Just how did the family manage? “By the grace of God,” says Corey. That’s no throwaway line; he means it.

Disciplining the children was tough. Corey is, after all, the kids’ brother, not their dad.

“Whereas I can discipline one of my own children, and forty-five minutes later everything’s OK, with my siblings, they’d be mad for a day and a half,” Corey says. “I wanted to be the good-time brother. I wasn’t prepared for not being liked.”

And Millicent recalls the challenge of making the kids feel secure and loved. “We had no experience as parents. Corey’s mom had done such a remarkable job of making each child feel like the only one. It was difficult for me to establish those relationships.”

Corey recalls his siblings’ emotional tumult when they came to live in Texas. “Everyone was still grieving [their mother], and then we brought them to a place they’d never seen before. They had to wonder if we really planned to keep them, or if we would pass them off to someone else.”

There were financial challenges as well.

“We simply had to look at the hierarchy of needs—food, clothing, shelter,” Corey says. “Our focus hasn’t been on wealth accumulation or vacations. Our house is screaming for maintenance and paint.”

The family cars suffered too. “We had three or four wrecked cars,” Corey recalls. “We instituted a plan that if any of the kids were going to drive, they had to pay for their own insurance, and if they wanted a car, they had to pay half.”

Millicent, who continued to work at Dell until last fall, has “retired” for a bit. She remembers how job-focused she was fresh out of UT. “I had a specific timeline for my career,” she laughs. “That went out the window.”

But the good times outweighed the bad. The Bell family has enjoyed sports, school plays, fashion shows, homecomings, boyfriends, girlfriends, and “fun at every stage,” Corey says.

In 2003 Corey cofounded TriFusion, an information-technology service provider, in Round Rock. As of 2007, the company had about 150 employees and revenue of $7.5 million. He’s won awards for his success and entrepreneurship, and he has ideas for several other companies and for international expansion. Millicent, though, is his rock. “If there’s one fundamental effect I can point to from all this,” he says, “it’s that I love my wife even more.”