Robert O. Bonnell Jr., Naval Academy graduate and former fighter pilot, dies

Robert O. Bonnell Jr., a businessman and former Navy fighter pilot who threw himself into volunteer work after an encounter with Mother Teresa, died Oct. 25 of respiratory failure. The Roland Park Place resident was 93.

“At 93, I think he just decided it was time to go,” said his wife, Barbara Johnson Bonnell.

Mr. Bonnell was born the day before Independence Day in 1925 in in Denver to Robert Owen Bonnell, a banker who later became chairman of the Maryland State Roads Commission, and Hettie Hazlett, a social worker and community activist.

In 1930, the family moved to Baltimore, where the young Mr. Bonnell attended Roland Park Public School and then the Gilman School. During World War II, he studied at Yale for two years through the U.S. Marine Corps before attending the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was classmates with future President Jimmy Carter and CIA Director Stansfield Turner.

“He always had the erect posture of a Naval Academy person,” said Mrs. Bonnell.

After serving in the Navy, flying jets from aircraft carriers, Mr. Bonnell began his business career in the 1950s, with a job at New York Life Insurance and then Commercial Credit, which merged with the American Health and Life Insurance Company.

In 1966, he married Mrs. Bonnell, who was then working for the Greater Baltimore Committee to rebuild the Charles Center. The couple went on their first date to the now-closed restaurant Marconi’s; she was drawn to his optimistic attitude and positive approach to life.

“I think he was one of the most optimistic and positive-thinking people I’ve ever known,” said Bonnie Cunningham, his eldest daughter from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce. As a father, he had a playful side, doing gymnastics with his children in the living room and dancing like Fred Astaire for their enjoyment, she said.

In addition, Mr. Bonnell was an avid golfer, playing at Elkridge Country Club and winning several championships. He was honored by Arnold Palmer for his support of youth golf, according to his son, Robert O. Bonnell III, of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“If my dad hadn’t gone into business he would have been playing professional golf,” said the younger Mr. Bonnell.

While working in the business world, he used the golf course as his “desk,” an opportunity for camaraderie and networking, family members said.

With his second wife, Mr. Bonnell enjoyed many trips, including one to the Soviet Union in the 1970s with their daughter Lila. They regularly sojourned in Paris, and had adventures in Egypt, Kenya, Turkey and even Antarctica.

Mr. Bonnell once traveled to India, where he had a chance meeting with Mother Teresa, family members said. He had been sitting in a room on the floor when the revered Catholic leader passed through.

“When she walked past my dad, she stopped and turned back and took him by the hand and looked into his eyes,” said his son. “And my dad said at that moment, ‘I saw Jesus Christ in her eyes.’ … Every time he would tell the story he would break down into tears uncontrollably.”

The encounter remained an ever-present memory, and helped ignite his passion for service, according to his family members.

After he retired from the business world, Mr. Bonnell was appointed by Mayor William Donald Schaefer to be head of Baltimore’s Society of Executive Retired Volunteers, which matched former business people with struggling nonprofits.

“His main interest was in Baltimore City and in helping nonprofits succeed,” said Mrs. Bonnell.

He worked with many different organizations in the city but was particularly proud of one project called the Educational Opportunity Program at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, which he developed with state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden. The program, which offered $5,000 scholarships to students, was covered in a 1990 article in The Baltimore Sun.

“Resources do make a difference,” Mr. Bonnell told The Sun. “Learning is not so much about race or economic background as it is the availability and application of resources.”

Mr. Bonnell seemed always on the lookout for ways to help people, his family said. When he and his wife moved to Roland Park Place, a retirement community, Mr. Bonnell learned that many of the residents in the nursing facility suffered from a lack of interaction with people. Mr. Bonnell organized a committee to bring sick residents their mail, ensuring they saw people’s faces every day.

“He would see a need and he would come up with some interesting solution,” said Mrs. Bonnell.

In addition to Mrs. Bonnell, his son and his daughters, Mr. Bonnell is survived by daughters Elizabeth Yates of Reston, Va., and Sarah Kruger of Marietta, Ga., 13 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His ashes will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery next year.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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