Elizabeth Viola Bell was born on 4 June 1897 at San Francisco, California, the daughter of English parents Elizabeth Brown and her husband, John William Bell, a boilermaker. The family moved to Canada, Australia and then Fiji arriving in New Zealand at the end of 1902. Early the next year Vi, as she was known to family and friends, started her education at Mount Roskill School in Auckland, continuing at Waihī in 1907. At the end of 1911 she qualified for a junior free place in a secondary school. After a year in Fiji with her family, she became a pupil at Auckland Girls' Grammar School. She passed her matriculation in December 1915 and continued as a prefect in the sixth form.
Having chosen teaching as a career, she spent two years as a pupil-teacher at Grafton and Maungawhau schools and a further two at Auckland Training College. In 1921–22 she was an assistant teacher at Newmarket School, and in 1922 graduated BA at Auckland University College. She was a keen tennis player and took part in the Auckland Basketball Association competitions from 1920 until 1922.
During 1923–24 Bell taught at Taumarunui District High School and in 1925 became senior assistant mistress at Matamata Junior High School. For 28 years she played a leading role in the organisation of the school, which became Matamata College in 1946. Regarded as an outstanding teacher and administrator, she took the matriculation class of girls and boys for most of their subjects. As senior English teacher she produced plays and musicals, and organised the library, speech and drama contests, and the school magazine. She was also responsible for the girls' physical education, arranging and coaching basketball, cricket, tennis and softball.
In 1932 she was instrumental in forming the Matamata Basketball (later Netball) Association, and she became the president for 36 years. After Matamata was affiliated with the New Zealand Basketball Association in 1940, Bell soon became a delegate to the executive and to that of the New Zealand Basketball Referees' Association, serving as vice president of both bodies for many years. Under her direction and coaching Matamata became one of the most successful provincial associations. Following her retirement in 1968, she was made a life member of the local basketball and referees' associations and of the Auckland South Provincial Basketball Referees' Association. In May 1969 she was the first person to receive two life memberships at a New Zealand Basketball Council meeting – those of the national basketball and referees' associations.
During the Second World War Vi Bell was appointed company commander of the Matamata Women's War Service Auxiliary and organised the activities of the 60 to 80 women who paraded every week. When a Matamata Free Public Library committee was formed in 1944 she became a member and chaired its meetings from 1958 to 1968. She was made a life member when the Matamata Borough Council took over the management of the library. The Matamata Dramatic Society began in 1946 with Vi Bell as inaugural president, a position she held for 26 years. During this time she introduced the successful Matamata Annual Drama Festivals and produced 21 major three-act plays. She became a life member of the society in 1967, retired in 1982 and was later appointed patron.
After her retirement from teaching in 1952, Bell continued with her community interests. She chaired a committee that raised money for the Matamata College War Memorial Library appeal and at the same time served on a committee raising funds for the Matamata District War Memorial Centre. For 27 years from 1956 she was president of the Matamata Centennial Drive Development Society, a group formed to transform a neglected area of land into a park. In 1982 she was made a life member and in 1985 she became patron.
Viola Bell was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1976 for her services to sport, culture and education. She never married, and in 1984, after nearly 60 years in Matamata, she moved to a rest home in Hamilton and later to one in Auckland. She died there, aged 93, on 25 December 1990. Although she had always given credit to the teamwork of her associates, it was through her leadership, enthusiasm and energy that she achieved so much and influenced so many people. She is commemorated in the Viola Bell Magnolia Grove in Matamata's Centennial Drive.