Only two dozen names were on the mailing list when Howard Bell arrived at Pathways for its first day in business 20 years ago. When he left his retirement party last weekend, that list had grown to more than 10,000 names.

Not a bad growth curve for a guy who was supposed to be a temp.

"Yes, at the time, it was temporary," said Penny Winton, one of the driving forces behind the Minneapolis nonprofit resource center for people with life-threatening illnesses. "But we never bothered to conduct a search for an executive director because we realized right away that Howard was the best person for the job."

Pathways, at 3115 Hennepin Av. S., offers psychological, emotional and spiritual support to seriously ill people, their families and their caregivers.

For many of those people, that process started with a one-on-one consultation with Bell -- what he calls "a laying on of ears." You talk, he listens, sympathizes and supports but never, ever judges.

"Our motto at Pathways is what works for you works," he said. "There is no one way to deal with life and death. That's one of the reasons we called it Pathways plural. There isn't just one pathway."

His devotees say that philosophy creates an aura that permeates the building.

"This is the kind of place that, even when I'm having a rotten day, I feel great the instant I step inside," said the Rev. Lynn Woodland, who has been attending Pathways since its inception and leads a class on experiencing daily miracles.

Bell, 61, is a soft-spoken but gregarious man. As executive director, his job description has included everything from leading classes on the mind-body-spirit connection to typing up the monthly calendar. But his focus is connecting with the people who come looking for help.

"People with serious illness have enough to do dealing with medical issues," Bell said. "But they also have to deal with the fear, depression and despair that often accompanies a serious illness. That's where we can help. We can offer hospitality, compassion -- which is different than pity -- and a caring presence."

His fervor is contagious, said Cathy Buelow, a member of the original board of directors. The reason that Pathways can offer its services for free, she said, is that Bell is a master at recruiting volunteers. They donate nearly 10,00 hours a year.

"It's everyone from the people leading classes to the guy taking care of the plants," Bell said. "Many of them came for our services and now want to pass that on to others."

A time before 'hospice'

He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, but he balks at being called Rev. Bell.

"For one thing, that's a title that implies certain duties and responsibilities in a church setting," he said. "I also want to avoid the chance that someone might assume that Pathways is connected to any particular religion or denomination. It's not. It's for everyone."

Nonetheless, Pathways looks like his ministry.

"This was his mission in the world, and you could see it in his enthusiasm, his commitment and his joy," said board member Ron Moore.

He traces the commitment back to Yale Divinity School, where he signed up for training "for what is now called a hospice program, although that was before they had a name for it," he said. "It was a cross-disciplinary program involving medical students, law students and seminary students. It was a class about life and death, and it had a huge impact on me."

The Pennsylvania native came to Minnesota in 1972 to become program director at the University of Minnesota YMCA, a position that included leading a campus ministry. He also helped found what is now known as the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support.

After leaving the YMCA in 1979, he took part in the launch of the hospice programs at Bethesda Lutheran Hospital in St. Paul and Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. In 1987, he became director of supportive services for the Minnesota AIDS Project.

"That was basically a hospice program, too," he said. "You have to remember that in the mid-1980s, AIDS was a death sentence."

One of his clients gave him a new perspective on his career.

"He had an inherent love of life and love of people. ... Up until that time, I realized, my focus had been on death. But it's not about whether you live or die. It's about finding a reason for being alive."

The AIDS project ran short of funds, and Bell was laid off in the fall of 1988. About that time Penny Winton and her late husband, Mike, were drawing up plans for a healing center. They got Bell's name from a mutual acquaintance. "I was unemployed," Bell said, adding with a laugh: "It was a perfect fit."

It's time to move on

Bell has several reasons for stepping down now.

"There's a theory in religious circles that if you stay at a church too long, the church becomes tied to your style and it can't move on" after you leave, he said. "When I hit my 20th anniversary on Dec. 1, I started thinking about that. Plus, I'm young enough that I still can do something else."

Early in his career, he led a church for three years, and he's toying with the idea of doing that again. He also has several people encouraging him to write a book, "but I'm a terrible writer. I'm a good talker, though. I'd have to dictate the whole thing."

Regardless of what's next for him, he's convinced that Pathways, which is conducting a search for a new executive director, will thrive.

"It's about the providers [who teach classes] and the volunteers and the people who come for the services," he said. "It's not about Howard Bell."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392