Natchez native wills thousands to local organizations

Published 1:30 am Saturday, December 24, 2016

By Lyndy berryhill

NATCHEZ — Edna Raphael Belle lived life to the fullest. In death, she is giving to the fullest.

The Natchez native, who died Nov. 15, 2015, left more than $320,000 to friends, relatives and charity efforts.

Email newsletter signup

She left $100,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. She also left sums of $5,000 to more than 29 couples and individuals around the world, including 13 heirs in the Natchez area.

Belle also made three $25,000 donations to local non-profits, including Habitat for Humanity of Natchez-Adams County, the Historic Natchez Foundation and St. Mary Basilica.

Habitat for Humanity secretary Duncan McFarlane said he did not know of Belle when he received news of her gift to the organization earlier this month.

Belle’s donation, which is five times the largest donation Habitat has ever received, was an early Christmas gift McFarlane said.

Belle lived to be 101 years old. Under her stage name Sandra Lydell her career as a dancer and actress spanned four-decades. Along the way, she shared the company of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson, the Kennedy family and Ronald Reagan.

Her husband Gene Belle, famous for his military aircraft patents, preceded her in death. The couple wed in 1991 when the bride was 77. It was Belle’s first and only marriage. She never had any children, but stayed in contact with several nieces and nephews.

Laird Funeral Home Director Dickey Laird and local accountant Dennis Switzer were entrusted as co-executors to carry out her final wishes for her estate.

Laird said he and Switzer are nearly finished notifying the people named in the will.

“We’ve been working on this a solid year,” Laird said. “It’s a good many number of individuals.”

Along with the $25,000 donation, Belle also gave to the Historic Natchez Foundation the building on State Street bearing her family name. Belle’s will stipulated the Raphael building, which originally belonged to her parents, be restored along with other family heirlooms, and a plaque be placed on the building designating it as a historic landmark. The plaque has been placed for nearly a year.

“She was a delightful person,” said Mimi Miller, executive director of the Historic Foundation.

Miller said when she would see Belle in town she was “always upbeat and always positive.”

Miller said not long after attending Belle’s funeral, she received a phone call notifying her of the donation.

“We are pleased that she entrusted the Historic Natchez Foundation with her family home,” Miller said. “Our desire for the building’s future is to ensure that it is restored and preserved.”

Although Belle lived primarily in New Jersey, she owned homes in Pennsylvania and in Natchez. She would make annual trips to her hometown to visit friends and attend mass at St. Mary Basilica, where she met the Rev. David O’Connor.

“She lived out of state, but she would come here occasionally,” O’Connor said.

One day, Belle visited him when the church was raising money for its family life center on Main Street and hinted that she might help in the effort.

O’Connor said he knew she intended to give a donation in the future, but they never discussed the amount.

O’Connor said the money will go toward funding the youth ministry, music ministry and other everyday functions of the church.

“(Belle) obviously had an attachment from her early childhood here,” O’Connor said. “She must have had happy memories here.”

Belle is buried in the Natchez City Cemetery near her parents’ grave.