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The road split on Thanksgiving 1987, as Bell was driving home from the television station.
"There was a fork in the road," recalls Bell. "I could go straight and head on to Dallas, or I could go west and go home for Thanksgiving and try to play like things were fine."
His fork led to Big D. He called his wife, and she suggested the separation. By March the divorce was final. His brother Peter chalks it up to a young couple's misguided quest to escape a confining environment.
"I think they just found each other at a time when both knew they shouldn't be in Amarillo," he says. "I think that's why they got together."
Another career move was on the way when Chris Bell came to Houston in late 1988. He had signed up to attend South Texas College of Law, although his student loans wouldn't kick in until the following spring. In the meantime, he had no job and had convinced himself that journalism was another dead-end road.
The news business was filled with too many catch-22's, he explains. He quotes a lawyer friend who had explained to the TV anchor: "Yours is the only profession I know where you can rise to the very top and still have to work till 11 o'clock at night."
He landed a holiday position in an unlikely place: clerking in the clothing section of Macy's in the Galleria.
"I found myself arguing with a woman who worked there -- 'cause it's a catty business -- as to which one of us was folding the sweaters correctly," laughs Bell. It's not a totally dissimilar scenario from the pettiness of some of the quarrels that erupt on City Council these days.
His job applications to Houston media outlets eventually paid off. KTRH radio hired him as a contract reporter, which evolved into a perfect assignment for a law student: covering the courts and reporting on the county's judicial establishment.
In a grueling routine, Bell would cover the courts during the day, feed stories until late afternoon and rush to evening law classes. Then it was back to the newsroom to prepare stories for the next morning, then home to study. Bell received Houston Press Club and Associated Press awards for his KTRH work, including a series on the costs of capital punishment and an investigative piece on a victims' rights advocate who had written a string of hot checks.
Bell, who relied on unnamed sources in his job, also became involved in an effort to get a state law passed to protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources. Houston Post and Houston Chronicle reporters had been briefly jailed when they refused to turn over notes from a crime scene.
While the push for legislation was unsuccessful, he eventually testified before a state committee studying shield laws. Bell introduced himself to state Senator John Whitmire as a journalist-turned-lawyer. "What are you going to be next?" Whitmire cracked. "A politician?"
When Bell came to Houston, he was told to contact Mike Hinton, an Amarillo native who is a noted criminal defense attorney here. Although his first call wasn't returned, Bell eventually ran into Hinton on the courts beat and struck up a friendship.
While Bell prepared for the state bar exam, Hinton's firm employed him as a clerk. Bell says it was a mix of legal research, chauffeuring lawyers and picking up laundry. It led to a chat with the boss:
"I knew when I came I'd have to check my ego at the door and get some experience in the legal field," Bell recalls saying. "But Mike, I was a pretty good driver before I got over here, and I don't need that much experience in that area."
During his clerking days, Bell had been introduced by his friends Allen and Elizabeth Blakemore to a young woman named Alison Ayres, who worked for Rob Mosbacher. The son of former president George Bush's commerce secretary, Mosbacher would go on to become a candidate against Lee Brown in the mayor's race.
Alison had worked as campaign scheduler for Rob in a losing 1990 race for lieutenant governor against Bob Bullock. She occasionally sang backup in Mosbacher's band, Midlife Crisis and the Hot Flashes. And then she became Chris Bell's wife.
Bell recalls the quick string of successes in 1992: Clinton was elected president. Bell passed his bar exam. One week later came his marriage to the GOP-connected Alison: "At the rehearsal party, one of my remarks was I felt it was a good time for the nation with Clinton as president but a great time for me. I think half the audience booed."
Bell joined the civil law firm headed by crusty, white-haired lawyer Tom Alexander, then set up his own practice with attorney Annette Henry. At first things seemed to be on a fast track, with the young attorney racking up his first million-dollar judgment. He represented a variety of clients -- even a ship captain who was injured when a stripper overturned a golf cart at a tournament sponsored by a topless club.
But just as he made headway into a legal career, Bell sensed the same distraction he'd felt back in his television days. The political itch was back. And it wouldn't go away.