The remarkable journey of Albion’s Harry Bonner told in new collaborative biography
By MICHELLE MUELLER
September 19, 2019
In the works for six years, a new biography of Harry Bonner Sr. on which we’ve teamed up is hot off the press and will be available in Albion starting this Friday.
Both Harry Bonner and I will be on hand to autograph books during Albion’s 2019 Festival of the Forks. On Friday, September 20 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., we’ll celebrate the launch of the book “Mr. Bonner: The Story of a Mentoring Journey” at Stirling Books and Brew, located at 119 N. Superior Street in downtown Albion. The Festival’s Car Show will also be happening in the same area from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., so both events can be enjoyed. Then, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. on September 21, the Saturday of Festival, Bonner and Mueller will have a booth set up in the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott, located on Superior Street in the heart of downtown.
It was in 2013 that Harry Bonner asked me if I would like to write his biography, and I didn’t hesitate to answer an enthusiastic “yes!”
The pair of us had met in 1997 when I was a fledging journalist, writing for the Albion Recorder, and under Bonner’s tutelage, I developed a passion for covering the work of non-profit organizations like his and also became deeply immersed in learning about the history and culture of Albion’s African-American community. The newspaper had long put out an annual bridal issue in the spring, and that year I was supported in my efforts to make the issue more inclusive: for the first time, care was taken to ensure we also featured photos of Black brides, and I researched and wrote stories on the tradition of “jumping the broom” and where grooms and groomsmen could find kente cloth cummerbunds.
Bonner was also the first person I consulted when I was offered the position of executive director of the then Albion Civic Foundation. Could I make as much or more of a difference in the community of Albion – particularly to the African-American community – in such a position? After all, it would mean giving up my 25 year career as a commercial interior designer. In a moment of déjà vu Bonner also didn’t hesitate to answer an enthusiastic “yes!” and my professional life, which had been spent flying around the country creating new food court-style dining halls for colleges and universities, sometimes having to leave my young son, Hayes, with his dad for days on end, became focused on the children my son was growing up with and working to make life in Albion better for all of these Albion kids and their families.
What followed was a key time of growth for the foundation during which the organization’s board agreed to change the name to the Albion Community Foundation, and with Bonner’s guidance, its first African-American endowment fund (The Bogan-Holland African American Endowment Fund) was established and a massive grant program to help Albion youth was launched.
By 2013, though, I had retired from the foundation, and was back writing part-time for the Recorder, which was now published once a week, rather than six times weekly. For the next several years, I worked the authoring of Bonner’s biography in around my journalism efforts.
By then, I’d known Harry Bonner for many years, and had grown to admire the work he was doing for the at-risk African-American youth in the community. Since working for the foundation, I had a new appreciation for the incredibly savvy ways he developed partnerships and sought funding to further the effects of his organization. But diving into the writing of this biography gave me a window into this man’s heart and his life journey over the years before I’d come to know him.
Learning about his “godchildren,” the kids he’d gotten closest to over his 40 years as a mentor, and hearing their firsthand stories about the difference he’d made was astounding. The generous candor of a number of those godchildren who are featured in this biography – Terry Langston (Albion High School ’88), Paula Langston Ware (AHS ’88), Sedgwick Harris (AHS ’88), Donetta “FeFe” Moye (AHS ’91), Andrea Armstrong (AHS ’91) and Elijah Armstrong Jr. (AHS ’94), Twynette McCormick (AHS ’94), Aisha Ridley-Melton (AHS ’97), SeQuita Craig (AHS ’98), Shymetha Wilson (AHS ’99), Lekia Blake (AHS ’02) , and Michael Culliver (AHS ’04) and Hongmin “Nancy” Feng Zhang (AHS ’11) – were an important way to present the life-changing effects he had on so many young people’s lives over the four decades covered in this book.
After considering and then discarding numerous title ideas for the book, those many interviews with this bunch of godchildren also helped me finally decide on the perfect title for this biography: without exception, every single godchild, no matter their age, still addresses Bonner as “Mr. Bonner,” and always refer to him that way in any conversation as well. So, Mr. Bonner it was.
When Dr. Mauri Ditzler, president of Albion College, chose to award an Honorary Doctorate to Harry Bonner in 2015, I learned from watching and listening to Harry that this event was a capstone event in his professional life. His acceptance speech on the campus quadrangle that day made clear that his entire professional life he’d felt inadequate because he hadn’t gone further in his education than an associate degree – but that every time he thought about it “there was another child who needed my help.”
So, in the book, framed by that afternoon on the Albion College campus, chapters describe the Bonner family’s arrival in Albion, Harry’s school years, his meeting and marrying his beloved wife Jerlene, and his very first mentoring job as a hall monitor at Albion High School in 1975. That was, literally, the beginning of the rest of their lives, and without the support and sacrifices of Jeri and their sons, Elgin and Harry Jr., Harry Sr. insists, he could never have accomplished the work he did. The biography goes on to describe the lessons Bonner learned from his own mentors over the years, the non-profit organizations that Bonner formed to continue his quest to help kids, and key partners such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Michigan State University’s Calhoun County 4-H program. There is fascinating information about the ways in which Bonner’s youth mentoring work had to evolve and adapt to follow not only funding streams, but also the powerful economic and cultural ebbs and flows in Albion itself through the rest of the century and on into the 2000s.
The receipt of his Honorary Doctorate may have given us the perfect place to end this book – but it is by far the end of Harry Bonner’s mentoring journey.
“It’s my hope that this book can be used as a how-to or a textbook for anyone who wants to be a mentor,” Harry says today as yet another way to “pass the torch.” Towards that end, near the back of the book are a set of discussion questions that can be used by a book club or group of students who engage in a reading of this mentoring journey.
Today, in his seventies, Bonner continues to work with youth in Albion. He’s cut back a little, and with Jeri at his side travels as often as he can to visit their sons, grandchildren, and great grandkids in Illinois and North Carolina.
When I engaged in some self-examination about why my own bond with Harry Bonner had deepened so incredibly during my journey through his journey, I realized that Harry had moved beyond just being a mentor to me, and had become a father figure to me – and that I had become one of his godchildren. Having lost my own father to a cerebral hemorrhage when I was only three, I know that my entire life I have sought out and thrived from mentoring by slightly older men.
So, thank you, Mr. Bonner.