A Tribute to Alfreda Elizabeth Bonner Jan. 1, 1926 - Dec. 14, 2020
It’s taken me a while to collect my thoughts about my Delaware mom. Mrs. Alfreda Bonner, a long-time librarian, campus thespian, and one of Ohio Wesleyan University’s greatest ambassadors, was an amazing woman and, quite frankly, the first diva I ever met.
Early on, I didn’t frequent Beeghley Library (I preferred Slocum), so my first memory of Mrs. Bonner is at the Chappelear auditions for A Raisin in the Sun in 1972. She naturally owned the role of Lena. I played the son, Walter Lee Younger—Sidney Poitier’s signature part.
This was fall, my freshman year. I was so impressed with Mrs. Bonner. You could tell she had been on the stage; she was commanding as Mama, and she lifted everyone else’s performance.
She showed me how to deliver my lines. Everybody on the production approached her with awe and respect. I didn’t know any better and thought she was some professional actress hired to play the role made famous by Claudia McNeil in the 1961 film.
I remember being a little knocked back during a rehearsal when I learned that Mrs. Bonner was an OWU librarian. We went on to get six standing ovations over the course of a week. I was so green, but Mrs. Bonner and OWU great Barbara McEachern, who played Ruth, whipped me into shape.
Not long after, I adopted Mrs. Bonner as my Delaware mom. If she was that good of an actress, what else could I learn from her?
She was a cultured woman, who demanded good manners and read everything—newspapers, magazines, menus … you name it.
We spent hours listening to her opera records, delighted in reviewing the album liner notes, and checked out articles in old magazines that she had collected.
She wasn’t shy about giving advice. I needed to spend more time in the real library, she said. And don’t leave without checking out something. Before too long, I was a regular at Beeghley, and if she was around, I always got in her checkout line.
Occasionally, she would sneak away to show me where to find a particular book. We’d wander into the culture section, and she’d point out stuff about opera and art. That’s how I knew our library had a copy of Raisin, which I still have.
When I’d visit her little ranch house on Delaware’s south side, she’d be so excited to show me the latest things she had read. There were plenty of books but also newspaper articles from the Delaware Gazette and the Columbus Dispatch. She knew I was a journalism major, and she wanted me to know she was on top of that.
That’s when I started to learn that Ohio Wesleyan was being portrayed a bit differently than what my experience was on the campus. Not that my experience was bad. I had a great time, met a lot of fascinating students, and was grateful to be there after barely meeting deadlines to get into college. That last part is a whole other story.
Looking back, those clippings and conversations fueled my activism, and I got more engaged in trying to change OWU.
I had already participated in a protest freshman year, part of a group that had occupied center court at a basketball game while a manifesto was read over the PA system. But after being around the Bonners and learning about Black Delaware, I got more into revolutionary literature, cofounded The Witness, and attended the historic 1975 March on Boston for school desegregation.
That growth was stoked over dinners with Mrs. Bonner and her beloved husband, Dewitt. I always thought he should have been a Black intellectual from Harvard. But he was a proud autoworker. They had nice things, a second home in Cardington, Ohio, drove Cadillacs. And he loved Mama, his pet nickname for Mrs. Bonner.
But being exposed to these talented, smart Black folks turned me into a sponge. I became a lover of theater, especially musicals, and even got to see the great opera star Jessye Norman. I own at least a thousand books and have given away that many over the decades.
I have my Delaware mom to thank for that. She was one of the most influential people in my life.
And here’s the thing. I wasn’t the only one. There were other students that she mothered in Delaware. Black and white. I’m not sure the school ever fully appreciated the important role she played for students.
Whenever I would start complaining, she’d tilt her head to the side, shoot me a glance and remark that OWU had helped her travel broadly, visit the great museums in New York, and go to the Met to see Madama Butterfly, her favorite opera. Take advantage of all you can while you are here, she’d say, and soar higher than anybody else. She didn’t allow whining in her house.
I loved those pep talks. Way into her 60s, she essentially kept a scrap book of my newspaper career. Then she started sending me clippings and old photos after Dewitt died. She sold the ranch house and moved to an apartment.
She knew she had helped me fly, and I never stopped showing my appreciation. Whenever I was in town, I took her to dinner. I got a kick out of watching her order her meals with an aristocratic air after she examined the menu. She knew what she wanted pretty quickly, but she read the whole thing to decide how good of a place it was. I do that, too.
The last time I saw Mrs. Bonner was Oct. 2, 2018, the day after I moderated a Q&A at OWU. She came to my events whenever she could. But this time she was with a caretaker, a friend from her church. She was a tad unsteady, but we made plans to meet at her place on Tuesday before I headed to the airport.
It was a strange last encounter. We sat together in the common area of her apartment building, the first time that she hadn’t invited me into her home. We still talked about everything—my family, our lives, and her dinner club, an integrated group of octogenarians, give or take a few years, whom she met with regularly.
I asked her if she needed anything, and she admitted that she needed a pair of glasses. I gave her another business card and told her to have her optometrist call me so I could pay the bill. As I stood up to leave for the airport, she blurted out, “OK, you can come on in.”
I knew she had been a hoarder. Back in the day, I had helped her clean out her ranch house so it could be sold. Now, 20-plus years later, here we were again. I was aghast. She would not be able to keep going like this. So, I called the county’s adult services department and asked for a welfare check and demanded they get her place cleaned up.
I also found the friend from her church, a beautiful soul. We agreed that an intervention was necessary. The system is weird; it respects people’s right to privacy and free will even when they are struggling and making very bad decisions.
We developed a plan for haulers to clean out her apartment. But before we could execute it, Mrs. Bonner was rushed to the hospital. Authorities determined soon after that she needed to be in assisted living. That settled things.
Through it all, she remained a fiercely independent woman and resisted suggestions that she change any routines in her life. But she knew I had called the county on her. And without ever saying so, she was glad that I did.
I loved Mrs. Bonner. She knew that, too. The day I graduated from Ohio Wesleyan I made sure that she met my mother, who thanked her for taking care of me in Delaware.
When I got the call on Dec. 14 that Mrs. Bonner had passed away, I slumped into a chair. A wonderful journey had come to an end. I needed time to reflect—on those rehearsals, the lectures, the dinners, her class, her grace and, her loyalty.
I was now ready to offer my tribute. It’s never too late to say thanks.
Oh, I have one more thing to share. During our final performance of Raisin in the Sun, someone shouted from the crowd: “You can’t talk to your mama like that.” After the show, Mrs. Bonner proclaimed that you knew you had delivered an authentic performance when the audience responded like that.
That night, she said, I was excellent.
Gregory Moore is the retired editor of the Denver Post, a member of the OWU Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Poe Medal as a former member of the Board of Trustees.