Bonner

Oscar Trent Bonner (August 26, 1905-November 23, 1994), one of the pioneers in public school education for over forty years, left his mark on many of the educational institutions of Danville. While Bonner hailed from Roanoke, Alabama, which is in Randolph County on the border of Alabama with Georgia, his grandfather, John Wesley Bonner, was born in Georgia. The eldest of seven children of Oscar Arnold Bonner and Cora Eunice Strother, Bonner’s father was a Methodist minister who moved about in Alabama quite a bit during the early 1900s.

In the 1910 census, the family was in Corona in Walker Co., Alabama, and Oscar Trent was listed as Oscar T. By the time of the 1920 census, the family was in Goodwater in Coosa Co., Alabama, and Oscar Trent was listed as Trent, probably to distinguish him from his father. For the remainder of his life, he was known by his middle name, Trent, or by his initials, O. T. Being the eldest of seven children, Trent helped earn family income from an early age, carrying newspapers, collecting and selling scrap iron and taking lunches to mill workers for 25 cents a week.

Working for a year after high school to earn tuition before entering Birmingham Southern College, he entered his first semester, but exhausted funds and went back to work in security. Later reentering Birmingham Southern, he majored in pre-med graduating in 1930. Some time during his college years, he made a trip to Virginia with college friends, a trip he would later refer to as “probably the turning point in my life.”

He wanted to be a physician, a dream he would never fulfill, but which would be fulfilled in the life of his son. After graduation from college, he spent a summer in Malden, Massachusetts, near Boston, working as a salesman and chemist for the Pine-Ox-Gen Company where he developed a vegetable, antiseptic germicide. During that summer, he received a letter from the Bedford County, Virginia, superintendent of schools, whose knowledge of his skills remains a mystery, offering him a job as “a teacher, principal, coach, janitor, etc. of a rural school near Lynchburg.”

Bonner abandoned his dream of medical school and accepted the job in Boonesboro, Virginia, which offered a stable income during the Great Depression and where, in addition to his other duties, he taught preflight aeronautics. He later became principal of Bedford County (Moneta) High School and still later was the High School Supervisor of Bedford County Schools, spending a total of thirteen years in Bedford County. It was while he was in Bedford County that he met Ella Garnett Hundley (April 25, 1911-May 30, 1989), daughter of John T. T. Hundley II, president of Lynchburg College, and Sue Fleet Walker Hundley. “A vivacious, fun loving, bridge whiz, frivolous woman” Ella was born in Dunnsville, Virginia, received her bachelor’ degree from Lynchburg College in 1932 and taught and coached girls athletic teams at Moneta High School where Bonner was principal.

She and Trent were married on October 5, 1935. She became an active and supportive partner in all of his educational and community undertakings throughout their married life. From 1960 to 1961 she was acting Dean of Women at Averett College in Danville, the school from which her mother earned her diploma in 1892. In 1939 Trent earned a M. Ed. Degree from the University of Virginia and later did postgraduate work at the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago and Columbia University.

In 1943 Bonner, invited for an interview by G. L. H. Johnson, superintendent of Danville Public Schools, arrived for that interview piloting a Piper Cub to the Danville Airport. Johnson, impressed with his credentials, hired him to become Danville City Schools’ director of instruction from 1943-1946, during the austere years of World War II. In 1946 Bonner became Assistant Superintendent of Danville Public Schools.

On March 25, 1947, G. L. H. Johnson became ill and was taken to the University of Virginia hospital where a benign brain tumor was removed. In convalescence for ten months, he was never able to assume full responsibilities again. During Johnson’s illness, Bonner was appointed to assume his duties. Johnson resigned June 20, 1948, and after a search and interview process, Bonner became superintendent in 1948.

As explained by his son, John, Bonner’s management style was one of empowerment; he believed in letting people do what they knew how to do without interference. He put a lot of authority and power in principals’ hands and really demanded that the principals deliver. While allowing his principals to lead their schools, Bonner turned his attention to the physical needs of the school system which had languished during the Great Depression and the war years. He showed both insight and foresight in finding and acquiring suitable sites for schools often with room for them to grow and expand. Schools constructed during this phase of Bonner’s career included G. L. H. Johnson, Grove Park, Woodberry Hills, Park Avenue, Langston, Bonner with additional land for future use and George Washington High School on a 60-acre campus.

His building program and leadership in land acquisitions, demonstrate that Bonner was a master at dealing with people. His quiet, diplomatic manner, coupled with his knowledge and expertise in the areas with which he dealt made him a person admired and trusted by all of those with whom he dealt, including the school board, the city council and local citizens.

During his administration, the citizens of Danville, by overwhelming votes, approved three school bond issues to support a $12 million school building program. Establishing one of the first full-fledged school maintenance departments in the state, he slowly moved the schools from coal to gas and oil fired furnaces for vast cost savings. He promoted vocational education in the local school system and was instrumental in helping Danville Technical Institute become a strong, technical training center and a forerunner of what was to become Danville Community College. Early in his career in Danville in 1949, he was criticized at a Dan Civic League meeting in North Danville for the modern platoon system which he had installed, but that same year he was reelected to a four-year term as superintendent.

On May 17, 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court handed down its Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka decision which found that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal, and, therefore, unconstitutional. While some localities in Virginia resisted the decision to the point of closing their public schools, Bonner recognized that integration was inevitable and began formulating plans for the successful integration of the Danville school system in the 1960s. He started with a program which allowed white students to attend the black high school and black students to attend the white high school on a volunteer basis. When this program did not result in very much integration, he moved to consolidate the high schools which required the transfer of teachers as well as students and the changing of school mascots and athletic team names. Although the integration process was not without some problems and disturbances, Bonner’s policies and the school personnel whom he chose to lead the process resulted in a relatively smooth integration process.

After leading the school system for 23 years, mandatory retirement rules forced him to step down as superintendent in 1971. At his retirement, City Manager, T. Edward Temple noted that “he had the ability to satisfy parents, students, teachers, the School Board and HEW while acting as a gentleman.”

Even before retiring as superintendent of Danville schools, Dr. Dana Hamel, the first Chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, which was established in the late 1960s, sought Bonner’s understanding and support of a DTI and VPI-Danville merger. Originally not in favor of the merger, Bonner was persuaded by Hamel to support it; the merger occurred July 1, 1968. Bonner was appointed to the initial Danville Community College Board and at its first meeting April 21, 1969, was unanimously elected its first chairman, a position he would hold through consistently unanimous board elections for almost 12 years.

With DCC as with the Danville School System, Bonner led in the acquisition of property and the construction of buildings for the new community college. By March 1970 construction projects were underway and the DMI building, the “Castle on the Hill,” was slated for demolition. Bonner, content to leave hiring and academic programs as responsibilities for the college administration, devoted himself tirelessly to DCC’s expansion and building programs and to being an advocate for the college with state and local officials. He chaired 42 DCC board meetings, never missing a meeting, and saw enrollment grow from 900 students to over 2,000 during his tenure. Although Bonner stepped down as Chairman of the DCC Board in 1979, he continued as adviser to the Board.

Some of the honors Bonner received were the Lions Club Distinguished Citizenship Award in 1956, the Kiwanis Club Citizenship Award in 1965, the Hugh Williams Veterans of Foreign Wars Distinguished Citizenship Award in 1965 and the O. T. Bonner Junior High School named for him in 1971. The O. T. Bonner Memorial Scholarship at DCC was established in 1996 by Bonner’s son, Dr. John Bonner, in memory of his father O. T. Bonner, an educator who served as the first chair of the DCC Board.

Bonner served on various boards including the Danville Life Saving Crew, Averett College, Mount Vernon United Methodist Church and the Virginia State Advisory Council for Vocational Education. He was a member of the Lions Club, Roman Eagle Masonic Lodge No. 122, Danville Scottish Rite, Phi Delta Kappa and the Retired Teachers Association. His home in Danville was at 405 Linden Place.

O. T. Bonner was survived by a son, Dr. John Trent Bonner, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine and his wife, Alice Wysor Dorrier Bonner, a Judge in Superior Court of Fulton County in Atlanta, and a daughter, Sue Garnett Bonner Rhett of Wilmington, North Carolina. Both O. T. Bonner and his wife Ella are buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Danville.

Bonner Avenue, named in honor of O. T. Bonner, runs from Kemper Road to Taylor Drive and is a major thoroughfare giving access to the Temple and Taylor Buildings on the DCC campus. Students and faculty access a large parking lot near Temple with more parking available in front of Taylor with parking also allowed on both sides of Bonner because of its wide width. Beyond the parking lots is the sweeping, forested section of DCC known as Piedmont Forest. In addition to the DCC campus, one business and six households were located on Bonner Avenue in 2005.