The high school where Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell first taught has closed, his old school district in Idaho has been absorbed into another district and his college has gone out of business.
"I was surprised," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last night at a farewell dinner for Bell, "that all of these institutions would just disappear after Ted Bell left . . ."
Hatch paused, and the crowd of 300 began to hoot.
"And now he's leaving the Department of Education," Hatch finished, and the audience applauded and laughed.
"As a conservative," Hatch said, "I don't see why you're laughing."
Four years ago it looked like there would be no need for last night's farewell party. President Reagan and a whole lot of other people expected the department, and its secretary, to be long gone, mere memories of a bureaucratic past.
But there was Bell last night, accepting toasts in the ballroom of the downtown Marriott, and there were the congressmen and senators saying that despite rumors that Reagan may still hope to get rid of the department, it's going to be around for a while.
"I think it'll continue exactly the way it has," said Hatch, chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, before dinner. "I think he has streamlined much of the department, and I would hope it will continue to be streamlined. I don't see the sentiment on the Hill to do away with the Department of Education."
Bell last night didn't mention the possible demise of the department he came to Washington to close, although earlier in the day he expressed regret that Reagan has once again raised the possibility of shutting down the department. At the dinner, Bell, like a good guest of honor should, stuck to a litany of appreciation, exhortation and gratitude, with only one very faint qualification.
"I am grateful to the president for the wonderful help he has provided me," said Bell, who announced Nov. 8 he was resigning at the end of the year. "In spite of the fact that some may not have agreed with everything he has had to say about education, the president's willingness to provide the considerable prestige of his office has been a tremendous help these past years."
The crowd included, at one point or another, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Agriculture Secretary John Block, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C), Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) and former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Elliot Richardson. The dinner was underwritten by an assortment of corporations, education groups and foundations.
"What is extraordinary about Bell's achievement is that one did not have the sense, day by day, that he was caught in the middle of irreconcilable differences," said Richardson. "He made it look easier than it was."
And, only too happy to remind people that Washington is a place of shifting enthusiasms, Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) remembered when Bell, who earlier as education commissioner had supported the creation of the Department of Education, came to the Hill for his Education Department confirmation hearings and spoke about closing down the department.
"When he came before the subcommittee I chair during his confirmation hearings, I said, 'Mr. Bell, you were so convincing several years ago when you were convincing us to establish the Department of Education. Even if you've changed your mind, I can't."
"Of course," Stafford said, "we both laughed."