Jean Schell Bonta, former director of Ashland Preschool Center, dies

Jean Schell Bonta, the former director of Ashland Preschool Center, died of heart failure April 26 at her home in Phoenix in Baltimore County. She was 82.

Born and reared in Mount Pleasant Mills, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of Robert Schell, a grain mill owner, and Ethel Depew, a seamstress. She grew up in the mill and attended a one-room school.


She earned a teaching degree from what is now Bloomsburg University. Musically inclined, she taught herself to play the French horn for the college marching band. She worked in the school cafeteria and occasionally played the organ in local churches. After graduation, she taught at Joseph Hart Elementary School in Bucks County’s Warminster.

While enrolled in graduate courses at Rutgers University, she met her future husband, William “Bill” Bonta, after being introduced by a cousin. They met at a family home in Pennington, New Jersey.


After marrying in 1964, they moved to New London, Connecticut, and ultimately relocated to northern Baltimore County.

In 1976, she became director of the Ashland Nursery School off York Road. Its physical plant then consisted of two classrooms sharing a building with two child care classrooms housed in a flood-prone basement.

Mrs. Bonta became director of both the nursery school and the child care program. In 1984, Ashland Presbyterian Church combined the two. Under her leadership, Ashland Preschool grew to serve more than 200 families a year.

“My mother was an organized person. The child care center was in debt and she soon turned that around,” said her daughter, Hilary Bonta.

The church raised funds to build a larger, new building, and the preschool added programs for kindergarten classrooms and summer camps.

“During a time when women were increasing their work outside of the home, she responded to meet their families’ needs,” her daughter said. “She positively impacted the lives of countless children and educators by being instrumental in creating a statewide curriculum for all preschools and promoting efforts of the National Association for the Education of Young Children to establish professional standards.”

Over the years, Mrs. Bonta became known throughout northern Baltimore County as the longtime director of Ashland Preschool Center. She was known as “Miss Jean.”

Mrs. Bonta believed passionately in high-quality preschool and advocated for early childhood education.


Mrs. Bonta learned she could go to auctions and antique shops and find valuable treasures. She also refinished furniture she purchased. She spent Friday nights at the Homer Snyder Auctions in Hampstead. Her husband collected clocks and she collected napkin rings, silver and porcelain.

Mrs. Bonta liked helping friends and family with their needs. She could furnish an apartment or find children’s clothing at a good price.

“She loved the hunt and she loved old things. She did not like to see possessions go to waste,” her daughter said.

She was an adventurous cook for her family and eager to stretch her own culinary boundaries.

“While other kids were eating McDonald’s, she took us to Jimmy Wu’s New China Inn,” her daughter said. “Over the years she developed personal relationships with the owners and workers at restaurants near her home — the Orchard Cafe, Cafe Spice and the Ashland Cafe.

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“She was always ready to provide a meal or host a dinner. She had a pot of homemade soup simmering and set a perfect table outfitted for any occasion. She was the kind of person who had and used asparagus tongs,” said her son-in-law, Mark Bowerman. “She fed me well, and her definition of family was open and expansive.”


She and her husband began traveling in search of old watches and clocks in England. They later visited other European countries and developed friendships with their children’s friends.

Mrs. Bonta was a member of Sherwood Episcopal Church in Cockeysville. She served on the vestry, and organized rummage sales and other church events.

“Jean was a kind and determined person. She was a person you wanted on your side if you wanted advice on how to navigate a situation,” said Greg Sesek, director of music at Sherwood Episcopal Church. “She sang soprano in the church choir and was a regular here for many years.”

Mrs. Bonta spent her retirement playing rounds of bridge and solving New York Times crossword puzzle. She also played Catch Phrase at family gatherings.

A memorial service will held June 4 at Sherwood Episcopal Church. A time has not been set.

She is survived by her husband of 57 years, William “Bill” Bonta, a retired nuclear and mechanical engineer and Maryland Department of Environment employee; a son, Anthony “Tony” Bonta of Towson; a daughter, Hilary Bonta, of Philadelphia; and four grandsons.