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Teacher's legacy lives on



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Leigh Bonner speaks to junior high students at last February’s World War II Remembrance Day. File photo (click for larger version)
November 17, 2010 - W. Leigh Bonner retired from his job as a teacher at Clarkston High School in 1982, but he never stopped teaching.

Bonner, who departed this life the day before Veterans Day, Nov. 10, 2010, at the age of 90, spoke about his World War II experiences with Clarkston Junior High School students for the past several years.

"He was a regular speaker at the World War II Remembrance Day at CJHS," said Brian Zezula, CJHS teacher. "He and his wife would come whenever we needed a speaker, sometimes two separate trips in one day, and he did a great job inviting us all to understand what was going on during that time."

Mr. Bonner was very skilled at "setting the stage" for a discussion of the Great Depression and WWII, and used a mix of facts and personal experiences to captivate students and give them a glimpse of what was going on over 65 years ago.

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"He was always cordial, was the most stylish dressed man in the whole building, and had a sparkle in his eye when he got in front of a group of students and when he was done speaking some of that energy and excitement was transferred to those who were fortunate enough to have been listening," Zezula said.

Bonner was born in Traverse City, Mich., the son of Leona and Walter Bonner. He graduated from Traverse City Central in 1939 and continued his education at Eastern Michigan University. While a student there, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942.

"I hated every minute of it," he admitted to students during Remembrance Day last February, his third. "But I was glad I was there."

After the war, he returned to school to earn his M.A. and obtained a teaching position with Clarkston Community Schools, where he taught U.S. History, retiring in 1982.

According to the Clarkston News' story "CHS teacher retires after 37 years," Nov. 10, 1982, Bonner was "the Attila the Hun of the history lecture circuit."

His assignments were tough, and included requiring students to learn the presidents in their proper order.

"He had read that many students didn't know the presidents," said Lois Bonner, his wife.

He also assigned students a family genealogy assignment.

"A lot of students had a fit with that one, but they were surprised how much they learned," Lois said.

Many former students mentioned in their birthday cards that they still have the family trees, some under lock and key.

"Charles Robinson said he keeps his in a safe," she said. "Many kept going on with it."

The assignments were to help students connect history with their lives and their families,, she said.

Recently celebrating his 90th birthday, he received cards and letters from dozens of former students.

"It was an incredible response – it makes me tear up," Lois said. "He treasured all of them."

Aurora Cerron from Peru, an exchange student hosted by the Bonners, sent birthday greetings.

"I will never forget that day that the driveway was full of snow and that as soon as I arrived to your house I felt at home and enjoyed my time in Clarkston," Cerron wrote.

Her experience in Clarkston was one of the most important and rewarding in her life.

"Your example, together with my parents, and values and principles practiced while living with you, has helped me in my personal and professional life," she said. "These days, I can proudly see those same values, freedom, discipline, hard work, punctuality, etc. in my children, Tito and Diana. I am so, so grateful for it."

They also heard from former student Patrick Jewell, Lois said.

"He was one of his favorite students," she said.

Jewell credited Leigh with setting his life in the right direction. After being caught skipping, he was invited by Leigh, his teacher and assistant football coach, for dinner and given some general encouragement.

"Mr. Bonner was my favorite teacher and had a substantial influence helping me establish priorities," Patrick said.

Leigh is survived by Lois, his wife of 67 ˝ years, a nephew Collin F. Bonner of Grawn, Mich., a grand nephew, Brett J. Bonner of Mississippi, and two exchange students, Cerron and Rosie Malarky from the Philippines, now living in New Jersey. His brother, Stuart, and nephew, James (Skip) Bonner, preceded him in death.

Mr. Bonner was a charter member of the Calvary Lutheran Church and at one time, very active in the Republican Party. He also was responsible in establishing the Clarkston Brandon Community Credit Union.

Services for Mr. Bonner were Nov. 15 at Calvary Lutheran Church with Pastor Jonathon Heierman officiating. Burial followed at Lake View Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to Calvary Lutheran Church or the Michigan Humane Society. You may also send condolences to the family at www.wagleyfuneralhome.com.

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.
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