Bonnie Sonnek Retires


On the occasion of Dr. Bonnie Sonnek’s retirement, I was honored to make the following speech at the College of Arts and Sciences Holiday Reception in the Lamoine Room of the University Union on Friday, November 30th, 2018.

I am honored to recognize Dr. Bonnie Sonnek for her 15 years of service to Western, to the English Department, and most especially for her work in educating an entire generation of high school English teachers. But even more than that, to honor her lifetime of commitment and achievements as a teacher, an intellectual, and a colleague who is devoted to learning and to mentoring others in the art of teaching.

Bonnie and I arrived at Western in 2003, and I have had the pleasure of working with her ever since. When I reflect back on my time with her, what most strikes me is her absolute sense of adventure, her never ending intellectual curiosity, and the deeply caring relationships she has nurtured with both colleagues and students.

Like so many of our students, Bonnie has always had a foot in two worlds. She was raised on a farm in Minnesota, and grew up knowing agriculture and animals intimately. But her sense of adventure and her curiosity would not allow her to remain on the farm. She took her degree in English and Speech from Winnona State in 1976 and taught High School in Alexandria, Minnesota. She didn’t stay there long though. With her irrepressible sense of adventure, she signed up to go to Iceland to teach American students for the Department of Defense, and then on to yet another a new teaching post in Germany.  She spent many years abroad, her free time devoted to exploring the whole of Europe.

Bonnie went from Germany to Texas, where she worked as a grant writer and then an editor. Never content not to be engaged, learning, and challenging herself, she went on to earn her M.A. in Developmental Adult Education at Texas State University, and then decided that she would earn her Ph.D., which she did, in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Iowa in 2002.

Bonnie has brought this wealth of experience to her students and colleagues. The English department faculty often organizes informal reading groups, and Bonnie was there, willing to take up any book that was on offer, and maintaining an ambitious and varied reading life of her own! Indeed, downsizing her library has been almost a full-time occupation for her this semester. She is there at almost every department event, at social gatherings, and has done much to build a rich culture in our department. Dr. Alisha White remembers Bonnie’s generosity, writing “One semester, I had a tight schedule and often ate lunch alone in my office. I ran into Bonnie one day at the microwave and she asked if I wanted to lunch with her. It was such a nice break, that we made it a thing. Whenever we both have the same break for lunch, we try to eat together. We talk about classes and life and what good books we are reading. It has been lovely to get to know her.” Lest this all run the risk of making Bonnie into too much of a saint, I should also point out that she has a wicked sense of humor, and if you have the chance, ask her about her practical jokes, including a whopper involving a friend’s fairy garden and two most inappropriate gnomes.

But while Bonnie is an engaged friend and colleague, imaginative intellectual and voracious reader, she always keeps her foot in another world outside the university, and she comes back to us every summer from her time in Montana with stories of riding horses, the wild land, gardening, and more. Indeed, for a time she spent her Macomb summers on a horse herding cattle for local farmers. She is truly a renaissance woman, living the life of the mind and of nature.  

But most of all, Bonnie has spent these last fifteen years doing a supremely important task: educating a new generation of teachers. It is the students that will most miss Bonnie, and before I end my speech today I want to acknowledge this.

Her former student Tiffany Dimmick (B.A. 2011) writes “Bonnie has a deep passion for teaching. Not just teaching about facts, rules, and strategies, but getting to know her students on a personal, one-to-one basis (even if that meant taking the whole period to just talk). I feel like her motto would be: Life over textbook.”

Bonnie’s motto reappears in the testimonies of many of her other students.  

Dawn Hindberg (B.A. 2006) writes “When I reflect on my time as a student at Western Illinois University, thoughts of my office chats with Dr. Sonnek come to my mind. Dr. Sonnek truly dedicated her time to her students by opening her office and her heart for conversations about the classwork, chats about books, and musings about life. I do not think I would have become the educator I am today without her.”

Her student Darlene DeWitz (née Roberts, B.A. 2006 ) writes, “I would not be the professional I am today if it weren’t for Dr. Sonnek. While I attended Western, I experienced setbacks that made me question whether English Education was the right field for me. She helped me realize my potential, which did wonders for my confidence and how I was eventually able to grow as a teacher. She also sparked my interest in teaching pre-service teachers later in my career. Because of Dr. Sonnek, I am currently working on my PhD in Reading, Language, and Literacy, and after a long day of teaching high school English/Reading, I moonlight as an instructor for my University’s Masters of Ed program, where I get to teach future educators. I owe everything I have accomplished to the support she showed me each and every time I wound up in her office, needing advice and guidance”

Former student Dan Connelly (B.A. 2006) says,

“I have so much to thank Dr. Bonnie Sonnek for that it’s difficult to know where to begin . . . but I’ll try:

I am thankful for the introduction to Paulo Freire. I am thankful for our class discussions – and the space that was created and held for each of our voices and experiences. I am thankful for one-pagers. I am thankful for her inclusiveness and support.

As a working-class kid from Chicago, and the first to go to college in my family, I was acutely aware that academia was not created by, or for, people like me. During my first year in the program I was told by one staff member that I would never be a teacher – presumably because of my resistance to adopt the costumes, language and values of the affluent class. I questioned myself. I questioned my ability, my efficacy and my agency. It’s true, I thought. Who do I think I am? I considered quitting the program.

Instead, I went to the thrift store and bought a cheap and tattered pair of tan corduroy slacks, an obnoxiously wide brown tie, and a white dress shirt yellowed from age to wear to class each day. Dr. Sonnek pulled me aside, looked me up and down, and laughed.

And that’s what I love most about Bonnie. Both in and out of class, I always felt included, supported, and seen.

I am currently in San Francisco and I’ve been teaching for over 12 years now.”

“Thank you, Bonnie,” writes Dan.  I should point out was Dan Connelly was also nominated for California League of School’s Educator of the Year Award in the fall of 2014

The testimony of these students confirms the transformative work that Bonnie has done here at Western. She has touched the lives of her students deeply, and she has inspired them, as she has her colleagues, with her spirit of ambition, curiosity, and care.

It it with great admiration and affection that I thank Bonnie for her time, her imagination, her dedication to the Department of English, the College, the University, and the community.

Thank you Bonnie!

For more pictures of Bonnie’s retirement reception and department party: