The admiring crowd swirling around the guest of honor last Thursday night at the Pyle Center’s Alumni Lounge was so thick that I could only get within a few feet of her as she stood near the entrance and surveyed the room.
“We need another bar,” Paula Bonner said.
Of course there was an overflow crowd. Bonner’s retirement celebration last week—she’s leaving university service at the end of the month—capped a months-long victory lap for the popular longtime president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
Bonner stepped down from that job this past summer, but stayed on to shepherd the opening this month of Alumni Park, a beautiful green space between the Memorial Union and Red Gym that employs art to honor the Wisconsin Idea, including a striking sculpture of Bucky Badger—the kind of sculpture that should be in front of Camp Randall Stadium.
No surprise, the park was Bonner’s idea, almost a decade ago now. She did not think small. The alumni association today has chapters across the globe, from Iceland to Sri Lanka. It’s an expanding tent that also includes alumni councils serving African-Americans, Hispanic Latinos, American Indians and the LGBT community.
I remember catching up with Bonner right after she returned from a trip to China in 2010, with then-chancellor Biddy Martin. We had a cup of coffee at the Kollege Klub. Not everyone knows the KK is open for breakfast. Paula was not only aware of that, she knew the owner, Bruce Meier, well enough to kid him about Meier’s recent participation in a boisterous golf outing in Las Vegas that raised money for University of Wisconsin athletics.
Bonner was wide-eyed that morning recalling China, and the country’s onrushing modernization. She talked about riding a small bus into Shanghai, marveling at the horizon crowded with skyscrapers. Someone on the bus pointed to a smaller building, maybe eight stories high, and said, “Until 1992, that was the tallest building in Shanghai.”
“I love to meet people,” Paula said that morning. “I love to seek connections with people.”
And heading the alumni association?
“It’s the best job in America,” she said.
Bonner may have seemed minted for the alumni job, but it was athletics that brought her to Madison. She earned a master’s degree in athletic administration in 1978.
Her hometown—Moncks Corner, South Carolina—was big on shrimping and crabbing, but Bonner gravitated to basketball. The state was a pioneer at allowing girls to play, with a state high school tournament dating to the 1940s. Her reverence for learning came early, too: both her father and grandfather were educators.
Bonner got a part-time administrative assistant gig with UW athletics while still in graduate school. She had a good mentor in Kit Saunders-Nordeen, and by the mid-1980s Bonner was an assistant director in charge of women’s sports.
Federal legislation mandated equal treatment for the men’s and women’s programs, but it took some doing.
At the KK that morning, Bonner told me about a women’s crew team so frustrated by the lack of a locker room, they walked into athletic director Elroy Hirsch’s office and began disrobing. Channel 27 was on hand.
Paula grinned. “It led to some improvement.”
More seriously, she recalled naysayers over the years who insisted sports equity would collapse men’s athletics on campus.
“Has it collapsed?” she said.
Even after moving to the alumni association in 1989, Bonner kept her hand in sports. My wife and I sat with Paula late last month at the 2017 UW Athletics Hall of Fame induction dinner.
Bonner herself was inducted in 2015. Last month, she led the induction of legendary bandleader Mike Leckrone, which was probably the highlight of the evening—certainly better than the fire drill that caused 450 celebrants to vacate Union South.
At the retirement celebration last week, UW athletics director Barry Alvarez spoke and credited Bonner with laying the groundwork for the current success of the women’s program.
There were other speakers, including Chancellor Rebecca Blank, and Mike Knetter, president of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. The alumni association and the foundation merged in 2014, a potentially thorny development that Bonner handled with typical grace.
When it was Paula’s turn to speak, she said, “I’ve been extremely fortunate to serve a place that I’ve come to love so much.”
She got a little emotional talking about the “challenging times” for education today. There was the sense she’ll continue to be involved somehow in helping meet that challenge.
In closing, Bonner said, “Thank you for the opportunity,” and I thought of the great newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin—he died earlier this year—who ended his last column, “Thanks for the use of the hall.”
Thanks to Paula Bonner for making such splendid use of her opportunity.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.