Sister Sonja Jean Kepler Bel l was born October 3, 1937, in San Diego, California to Maynard Mack Kepler and Theresa Wynne Kepler. Sonja was the only girl of seven boys: Jimmy, Maynard, Renard, Duane, Zackey, Stephen, and Andy.
~ Spiritual Life ~
Sonja learned at an early age (as written in Psalm 148) the reason for man’s existence and all creation is to glorify and praise God, the Creator, whose Hebrew name is Ahayah. Sonja accepted Christ as her Savior and was united with Open Door Pentecostal Church in Phoenix, Arizona where her aunt, Vivian Boone, was Pastor.
During a portion of Sonja’s childhood, she and her brother, Jimmy, lived with Pastor Vivian Boone, whom they called Aunt Bill and her husband, Uncle Shepherd. Aunt Bill packed a “switch of correction” and put the fear of God in them, if they failed to live a sanctified life, which included her code of ethics: No short sleeve blouses. No short hemlines. (Hemlines should be below your knees, even when sitting.) No hand holding. And absolutely NO red lipstick or red fingernail polish!
Aunt Bill taught Sonja and Jimmy to pray and took them with her to hospitals to pray for the sick. Sonja joined the choir and Jimmy played the piano. Sonja loved singing, “Zum Gali, Gali,” a Hebrew folk song. Sonja and her childhood girlfriend, Bobbi Palmer, were Church delegates and enjoyed traveling to Chochilla, California to represent the church.
When Sonja married in 1956, she joined her husband’s church, Tanner Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1976, Sonja moved to Elgin, Texas and united with Union Hill Baptist Church in Utley, Texas. In later years, when it became physically challenging for Sonja to attend in-person church service, she watched televised sermons by Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.
~ Education ~
Sonja attended elementary schools in California and Arizona. Her uncle, Lloyd Dickey, was her principal at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona.
In 1954, Sonja graduated from Carver High School in Phoenix, Arizona. She chose the same career path as her father… teaching. Sonja enrolled at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona and received a Bachelor Degree in Education in 1962. Later, she completed a Masters Degree in Education in 1970 from Arizona State University.
Sonja and her husband, Charles, flew to Tempe, Arizona to celebrate Sonja’s 50th class reunion at Arizona State.
~ Hollywood ~
Sonja was a talented dancer and singer. Her uncle and aunt, Zach and Corene Banks, got Sonja casted into movies at a young age. Sonja's hair was styled in ringlets. She was known as the “Black Shirley Temple.”
~ Courtship, Marriage & Family Life ~
In high school, Sonja was introduced to Charles Floyd Bell, a college student at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. The couple married June 17, 1956, at the end of her sophomore year at Arizona State University. The couple moved to San Antonio, Texas when her husband was drafted to Fort Sam Houston Army Base in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Following her husband’s discharge, the couple returned to Arizona where they raised two daughters, Theresa, and Charlene.
In 1976, she and her family moved to Elgin, Texas after the death of her beloved father-in-law, Charlie Bell.
Sonja and Charles were blessed with two grandsons: Bobby Washington, III “Trey,” and Roderick Emanuel, Jr., as well as two great-grandchildren: Theresa Washington and Trey Washington.
~ Teaching Career ~
Sonja’s teaching career began in Phoenix, Arizona at Roosevelt School District in 1962 teaching 5th grade. In 1965, she was employed by Phoenix Union District and assigned to South Mountain High School as a reading specialist. She taught Adult Education during evenings at Booker T. Washington Elementary School. In 1976, she was employed by Bastrop Independent School District until her retirement in 2000.
~ Goodwill Toward Others ~
Throughout Sonja’s teaching career, she provided clothing, school supplies, food and financial assistance to students and families in need. She generously gave to individuals in the community, Christian and civic organizations, scholarships, fundraisers, and political campaigns.
~ Memories ~
Sonja was an excellent cook. She was known for her desserts: Red Velvet cake, Pound cake, Lemon Meringue, and Icebox Lemon pie. Her French waffles were awesome, too! She loved backyard barbeque pool parties at her home in Arizona. And she looked forward to hosting holiday family dinners.
Sonja’s Native American specialty dishes were green chili burros, chicken enchiladas and cheese crisps. She loved tamales and looked forward to making them with her mother and cousin Cruz during the winter.
Sonja was a talented artist. A self-portrait painted by her captured her beauty. She had a beautiful voice, too. Occasionally, on Saturday mornings, at her home in Arizona, she began the day singing; normally to the soundtrack from “The Sound of Music,” by Julie Andrews.
Sonja was a talented pianist also, which might have been an inherited gift from her grandmother, Mary Kepler. Sonja’s grandmother played classical music-by-ear at western saloons in small mining towns in Arizona. The family migrated to these towns because her grandfather, Mack Maynard Kepler, was a miner. Mack Kepler was a German immigrant. Today, most of these towns are abandoned ghost-towns. Her father shared gold prospecting adventures growing up in these old western towns and colorful stories about living on a Cherokee Native American Reservation with his grandmother, Martha Dawson; they camped and hunted.
Sonja was the pet mama to many: a chicken, goldfish, birds, cats, dogs, and a horse. When Sonja retired from education, she created a menagerie for her grandsons to enjoy and to instill in them love for animals.
Sonja loved sports. She was a true-blue Dallas Cowboys fan. Her favorite quarterback was Danny White, an Arizona State University Alumni. She liked the Oakland Raiders and Lakers. She enjoyed comparing sports statistics with her grandsons, Trey and Roderick, Jr.
She was also an athlete. She played tennis, handball, and team sports. She loved nature, fishing, canoeing, swimming, picnics in the park and amusement parks. She took her grandsons to Disney Land in Anaheim, California.
Sonja loved to travel. She traveled across the United States from California to New York and north from Canada down into Mexico City, Mexico and beyond to Mexico's beaches. Sonja checked off on her bucket list two cruises, the Bahamas and Alaska.
~ Beyond the Veil ~
On February 23, 2022, Sonja Jean Kepler Bell crossed the Veil to reunite in heaven with her parents, Maynard, and Theresa Kepler; her daughter, Theresa Washington; her brothers, Jimmy, Renard and Andy; her grandparents and a host of relatives and dear friends.
~ Loved Ones to Cherish Her Memories ~
Sonja is survived by her husband, Charles Bell of Elgin, TX.; daughter, Charlene Emanuel (Roderick) of Bastrop, TX.; grandsons, Bobby Washington, III “Trey,” of Manor, TX. and Roderick Emanuel, Jr. of Nashville, TN.; great-grandchildren, Theresa Washington and Trey Washington of Bastrop, TX.; brothers, Maynard Kepler of Los Angeles, CA., Duane Kepler (Patricia) of Fresno, CA., Zackey Kepler of CA., Stephen Kepler of Aurora, CO. and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, Goddaughter, Sewah Archer Russ, of Austin, TX., and dear friends.
Sonja will lie in state at Elgin Funeral Home, Friday, March 4th from 12:00 PM until 6:00 PM. A Home-Going Celebration will be conducted at Elgin Funeral Home, Saturday, March 5th at 3:00 PM with the Reverend Walter Greene, Eulogist and Deacon Roderick Emannual, presiding. Interment will follow at Colorado Chapel Cemetery of Utley.