What inspired you to become a teacher?
I had a seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Rinehart, and even at that time, I knew I wanted to go off to college and be like Mr. Rinehart. He was very inspirational, and you knew his heart was in teaching. As I went along every year, I enjoyed my math courses more than anything else, but at the last moment, I got my bachelor’s in chemical engineering—the nation seemed to need engineers more than mathematicians.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
The only peculiar thing in my life is that my father was older than my grandfather. My father was born in 1869, and my grandfather on the maternal side was born two years later.
And you also went to elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse?
I was on the teacher side or the student side of the teacher’s desk for 74 consecutive years. They closed the one-room school when I was a second grader to send us off on the school bus to what we would experience in town. But I actually loved the teachers whom I remember even to this day when I drive by that little schoolhouse; it brings back fond memories of the teachers who taught there and their interest in students.
Tell us about your farm—you have 640 acres along the Ohio River?
My grandfather is the one who bought the original farm in 1869. When my mother passed, my wife and I bought the farm and enlarged it by a factor of two or three. It was more of a general farm as I grew up. We went into the dairy business when I was in eighth or ninth grade, and we did a lot of chores from sunup to sundown— milking cows, hoeing corn, feeding animals, gathering eggs, threshing grain, etc. And when it’s a dairy farm, you never have a day off. You have to milk the cows in the morning and evening, minimally, then put the milk in the cooler to keep it fresh and quickly get it to market.
That must have been hard work.
I got a lot of good out of working hard. I enjoyed it. I was 13 when my father died, and wouldn’t you know, the three older male siblings were in the service of the country at the time. It fell on us to handle the farm—my mom, who was 57, my brother, and me.
What makes farm life so fulfilling?
When you look at the beauty God has created, you do your best to treat it kindly and to make it special to you and your family. The river is one of the things that’s very special about my farm. I remember stories told to me by my aunts and uncles about rafts getting stuck on sandbars and my grandfather getting his horses to pull them out. I’ve also spoken with a lady who watched my father drive a team of horses pulling a wagon across the Ohio River, before they put the dams in.
You used to teach a J-term course on farming. What was that like?
We took tours of about six farms in the course of the month. I took them to dairy, sheep, beef, and hog farms; an orchard; even to the slaughterhouse, because it’s the real world. We also went to an Amish farm and a farm equipment dealer. These products you find in your cafeteria come from the farm. I had a student who said, “Dr. Bonar, I learned more in this course in the January term than in any course in my life.”
And your daughter is a Denison alumna?
My daughter, Mary, went here and graduated. She’s now an emergency room doctor. She did a triple major of English, history, and math. Her senior year she went to visit a friend at Ohio State University’s medical school and came back and said, “Dad, I want to go to medical school.” She and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, and our three grandchildren live in Pittsburgh, but they love to go to the farm. We’re building a house there for them.
What are you enjoying most about retirement?
Not grading papers. There’s an old saying: “I teach for free; they pay me to grade papers.” I loved the little darlings in the classroom, and it was a delight to be there. And I very, very much love Denison. I’m looking forward to this year’s graduation and watching the little darlings cross the stage.