Steve DiBiagio remembers being “impressed and intimidated” when he met Dr. Rose Mary Hatem Bonsack at a reception a few years ago, describing the Harford County physician, former state delegate and civic leader as “a force of a human being.”
“She was an inspiration for everybody,” DiBiagio, president of The John Carroll School in Bel Air, said. Bonsack was a past chair and emeritus member of the private school’s Board of Trustees, as well as a parent of John Carroll alumni.
Bonsack, who was born in Havre de Grace, died Sunday at age 86. The third-generation Lebanese American was the sister of the late Thomas J. Hatem, a Harford County commissioner, state delegate and Maryland insurance commissioner who died in 1985, and Dr. Frederick J. Hatem, a Havre de Grace obstetrician and former member of the Harford County Council who died in 2011.
Bonsack is survived by her husband, James Bonsack, to whom she was married for 63 years, and her children, Jeanette Bonsack and her husband David Beard, Karen Bonsack, Thomas Bonsack and his wife Kelly, James Joseph Bonsack and his wife Carrie, plus nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and multiple nieces and nephews. Her son, David James Bonsack, died in 2006.
She became chair of John Carroll’s board in 1978 and served in that role until the late 1980s, according to DiBiagio, who noted Bonsack was a leader in the campus community when the school — founded in 1964 — was still fairly new.
“She is among the [leaders] of this school, whose legacy we’re responsible for carrying forward, and they set the bar pretty high,” the John Carroll president said.
A graduate of Havre de Grace High School and Washington College, Bonsack was one of two women out of a class of 98 students when she started her medical studies through the University of Maryland. She went on to earn her degree from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and had two children at the time, according to her obituary.
DiBiagio recalled Bonsack telling him about completing medical school while raising a family, noting that it “takes an incredible person to be able to balance a family and the rigors of medical school, and there was nothing that she could not accomplish.”
Bonsack was a leader at a co-ed high school, and she was “living proof” to the female students — as well as male students — that “anything was possible," DiBiagio said.
“Only accept the best from yourself and others,” DiBiagio said of the personal lessons he learned from Bonsack. “She clearly expected only her best and others to give their best.”
Bonsack held a number of positions in the local and state medical communities, such as chief of clinics for the Kirk Army Health Clinic at Aberdeen Proving Ground, several roles with the Harford County Health Department and medical director with Ashley Addiction Treatment in Havre de Grace. She also held leadership roles in a number of community boards and was the first female president of the Harford County Medical Society and the Maryland Academy of Family Physicians.
Bonsack served in the Maryland General Assembly from 1991 to 1999, as a Democratic member of the House of Delegates, representing Harford County’s District 34. She spent three of those years as the chair of the Harford delegation.
Current Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat who represents District 34A in Annapolis and has previously served on the Harford County Council and as Havre de Grace city manager, said she and Bonsack had a “long history” together.
“She always greeted people that she cared about with a smile and a hug and words of encouragement,” Lisanti said, adding that the long-time friend of her family “had a big heart, and she wore it on her shoulder and she expressed it in her words and her deeds.”
While she had been a trailblazer for many local women, Bonsack focused more on being known for doing the best job she could in all the avenues of her life, whether in the medical profession, the political arena, education, her faith and her family, according to Lisanti.
Bonsack understood the challenges each generation faces, and “she had a way of reminding you of the past so that you could understand what your place was in history,” Lisanti said.
“Nobody ever makes a summit by themselves,” the delegate said. “There’s a lot of people that have cut the trail and maybe not made it all the way, but made a pathway for the next person to come behind them.”
Lisanti highlighted Bonsack’s dedication to their shared Catholic faith as well as the doctor’s devotion to her family. She also noted how Bonsack stressed the aspects of their faith that apply to serving in government, such as charity and caring for marginalized people, and that being an elected representative is “an expression of love for your community.”
“She always used to tell me to stay true to my faith, and to trust your gut and pray and to never lose sight that you’re here to do the people’s work,” Lisanti said.
County Executive Barry Glassman has ordered the Harford County flag lowered to half-staff on Thursday to honor Bonsack. The county flag will remain at half-staff through sunset on Sunday, Oct. 4.
“In addition to her successful career, Rose Mary will be remembered for her kindness and devotion to her family and her community,” Glassman said in a statement. “I am proud that she was also a fellow graduate of Washington College and one of my mentors. Harford County will keep her and her loved ones in our prayers.”
Funeral services and burial will be provided by Zellman Funeral Home in Havre de Grace, and will be limited to family. A livestream of the funeral mass will be available at 10:30 a.m. Friday on the Zellman Funeral Home’s Facebook page.
In lieu of flowers, friends and family may make a contribution in her memory to the John Carroll School.
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A Celebration of Life is being planned for a later date, and those interested in being notified should send an email to email@example.com.