Volunteers at the Balboa Park Visitors Center information desk need to know a lot of things, from the park’s unique history and historic architecture to events and programs at the various cultural venues and recreational facilities. So it’s not surprising that one of the primary attributes park volunteers are required to possess is a thirst for learning. Joyce Bell exemplifies this attitude and is a professional volunteer in every sense. Not only does she come with a deep knowledge of San Diego history, but she has compiled a comprehensive information binder on the park, which she regularly updates and keeps close at hand during her shifts. Here are some other interesting things we learned about her:
What got you interested in volunteering in Balboa Park?
I had tried other avenues for volunteering around San Diego, but they didn’t hold my interest long. I had been doing San Diego city tours, so I lead groups through Balboa Park all the time and talk about the museums, the buildings, and their history, and I found it a lot more fascinating. To me, the history of the park is a living thing—it’s growing; it’s ongoing. So it satisfies my need to be constantly learning something.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
For the past 20 years, I’ve worked with destination management companies and the cruise lines to give coach tours of San Diego. I had answered an ad in the newspaper that read, “Tour Guide: Do you like to talk in front of people?” Try and shut me up!
I’ve lived in San Diego since 1958, and I realized when I saw the ad that I didn’t know the history of the city that well. So I started learning, and taking all the other tours of the city, and visiting the different places. I’ve since developed quite a rapport with San Diego’s history.
Other than that, I’ve been a princess of all trades and a queen of none, doing accounting work for San Diego Gas & Electric and National Steel and Shipbuilding. I worked as a cashier and Vons for many years. And I did taxes for H&R Block. It’s been a nice variety.
What are some of your favorite memories of Balboa Park?
One of my first memories goes back to when my kids were little, and we came here for a family picnic and to play croquet over by Sixth Avenue. My late husband had spent the entire day before waxing and polishing the car, and after we parked, the sprinklers came on and the windows were down!
Another favorite memory is not that long ago, while I was on a plane to Australia, I happened to be sitting next to Ruth Hayward, the sculptor of Kate Sessions and the other bronze figures of Balboa Park founders in Sefton Plaza—which I had been talking about for years during my city tours! She explained to me the face for Kate Sessions is technically all correct. But for the body, she used her roommate as a model. And she did something similar with the other founders, using friends and neighbors for the bodies and poses. She was very nice.
Is there anything about you that would surprise most people?
One thing that people would be surprised to know is that I have a transgendered child, which has only happened within the last four years. She’s gone from male to female, so we’ve gone from talking about wrestling to talking about lipstick and bras. I love my child, and I want her to be happy.
What is the most interesting/unusual thing you’ve encountered while volunteering?
The staff. Suzanne, Susy, and Sean work so hard to make everything so pleasant, not only for the visitors coming through here every day, but also for the volunteers. And to me that’s an unusual thing in my experience working in so many other environments. They are all so appreciative.
Tell us something most people don’t know about Balboa Park.
So many people don’t realize why the park is here—to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Our population was very small to be able to create all this, only about 40,000 people at the time, and we didn’t get any financial help from the federal government. The early 1900s would’ve been a really amazing time to live in. So many things we take for granted now were just starting to happen then.
What is your favorite season or time of year in the park and why?
Probably this time of year, summer, because of all the activities going on, with the Twilight in the Park concerts in the Organ Pavilion, the Food Truck Fridays that are so popular now. And tonight, The San Diego Museum of Art is starting their outdoor movie series again.
If someone has only a couple of hours to spend in the park what do you recommend they do?
I recommend that they check out the Timken Museum of Art, because where else in San Diego can you see a Rembrandt for free! I tell them to then go over to the Botanical Building where they can see the 2,100 varieties of plants, including the beautiful orchids. And then I advise them to go into the Casa del Prado building, into the sculpture court to see how some of these buildings were put together. And then I recommend they either go to the Spanish Village Art Center to check out all the studios there, or they can pop into the San Diego History Center to see the film Balboa Park: The Jewel of San Diego. It’s only 30 minutes. And then from there, they can go across the pedestrian bridge to visit the beautiful Rose Garden.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about volunteering in the park?
I love it. I love to talk to people, and where else can you go and meet people from all over the world and share this beautiful place!