Bonnie E. Cone, or Miss Bonnie, as she was popularly known, was a dedicated educator, motivator, and community leader who played an instrumental role in the vision and history of UNC Charlotte.
She held the title of director of Charlotte Center, became president after its conversion to Charlotte College (established 1949 as a two-year institution of higher learning), and served as Acting Chancellor during the college’s transition to the four-year, state-supported UNC Charlotte in 1965 that we see today.
She continued her career and advocacy efforts with the university through retirement and beyond.
A Life Remembered:
The Legacy of Ms. Bonnie Ethel Cone (1907-2003)
Miss Bonnie, as she was popularly known, not only aroused the community, but she also inspired thousands of students by refusing to let them give up on their hopes of getting an education. Among them are many Charlotte businessmen who call themselves Bonnie's Boys and tell stories about Miss Cone talking them out of dropping out when the hours seemed long and the way ahead looked bleak. She wouldn't let us quit they say. She devoted much of her adult life to the building of UNC Charlotte and even in retirement continued to work for the institution. Until age 94, she lived only a few blocks from the campus and faithfully attended university events.
She moved to Southminster Retirement Community on Park Road in July 2001, and was most recently living in the Saluda Nursing Center in Saluda, S.C. Bonnie Ethel Cone was born in Lodge, S.C., June 22, 1907, into what was to become a family of teachers. She was the youngest of four children (two sons, two daughters) born to Addie Harter and Charles Jefferson Cone. Three of the four children entered the teaching profession, as did three of the grandchildren.
Her father was a farmer and businessman who also served as the mayor of Lodge, a community of about 200 people near Walterboro in Colleton County, S.C., just off Interstate 95 in what is known in South Carolina as the Low Country. Her father also ran a dealership and garage for Hudson automobiles and was a distributor of Singer Sewing Machines. Bonnie Cone's mother, Addie, was a talented seamstress and needleworker who made most of her children's clothes. She also was a gracious and resourceful homemaker with precise ideas about keeping house. Whether the task was doing laundry, setting a table, or arranging flowers, she taught her children to do it properly. Bonnie Cone inherited her grace, her precision and her resourcefulness.
From her earliest days Bonnie Cone planned to be a teacher. She once recalled that while feeding chickens in the backyard of her parents home, she pretended the chicks were her pupils. I taught every little animal around in those fantastic years, she said. A neighbor who owned a piano taught her to play and made music an important part of Bonnie Cone's upbringing. Until age 12, when she got a piano of her own, Bonnie practiced on an imaginary keyboard in the windowsill of her bedroom, she said. She was such a good student that when the town music teacher married and moved away, parents of other piano students prevailed on Bonnie, then a teenager, to take over the teaching chores, which she did. She also learned to play an organ. Baptized by total immersion in the Little Salkahatchie River, she became a member of Carters Ford Baptist Church and played the church's pump organ at worship services.
She attended public schools and was a good student, but in the eyes of her parents was too young and shy to graduate at the end of her last year. In those days in the Lodge community, high school ended at the 9th grade. When her father sent her back for an extra year of schooling, she was assigned to the school's new teacher, Edwin Rentz, who helped her see the logic in mathematics and converted her into a lifelong mathematician. She had hoped to go to college at Winthrop, the state's teacher training institution for women, but her parents feared that Winthrop was too far and too large (1,200 students). Instead they enrolled her at Coker, a women's college at Hartsville, where she was one of 275 students, including her older sister, Louise, with whom Bonnie roomed her first year.
At Coker Bonnie majored in math and earned a scholarship by grading math papers. She was president of the Math Club and the YWCA. She played the piano and was a member of the basketball, field hockey, and swimming teams. She also rowed on the crew team. Graduating magna cum laude in 1928, she got a job teaching math, science and French at a high school in Lake View, S.C. French was not her best subject, and she struggled to teach it during one anxiety-filled year in a classroom beside the principal's office where everything she taught could be heard next door. She abandoned French but continued to teach math and science at Lake View four more years, then moved to McColl, S.C., and later to Gaffney, S.C., where in 1940 her reputation for excellence in teaching brought her to the attention of Dr. Elmer H. Garinger, principal of the 1,400-student Central High School in Charlotte.
When Dr. Garinger invited her to join the faculty at Central High, Bonnie Cone accepted on condition that she be allowed to teach more than one subject. She didn't like the idea of teaching the same course over and over all day. At age 33, she joined the Central High faculty as a roving math instructor, moving from classroom to classroom to teach basic math, algebra, plane geometry, trigonometry, solid geometry and college algebra. She also ran the school's testing program. Central High students of that period remember seeing her walk the crowded hallways between classes, her short, dark hair pulled tight behind her head, her blue eyes sparkling and her body leaning forward as if she were determined to get where she was going. She usually carried a sheaf of student papers under one arm and a collection of math teaching tools a wooden compass and a protractor under the other.
During summers she attended Duke University and worked toward a masters degree in mathematics, which she earned in 1941. In 1943, when World War II had made math instructors difficult to find, the mathematics chairman at Duke invited her to teach in the Navy V-12 program underway there. She accepted and was the only woman teaching on Duke's all-male West Campus. Among the students she taught from 1943 to 1945 was author William Styron, who resisted Miss Cone's instruction, complaining that he wasn't interested in math, that he intended to become a writer. She told him that his first priority was to survive the war, and to do that he would need to learn mathematics. The writing could come later. After the war he sent her a thank you note and an autographed copy of his first published novel, "Lie Down in Darkness."
In 1945 Cone went to Washington to work in the Naval Ordnance Laboratory as a statistical analyst, studying mine detection reports. She returned to Charlotte a year later to resume teaching at Central High and also signed on as a part-time instructor in engineering math at the Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina, a night school housed in Central High to serve World War II veterans going to school on the GI Bill of Rights.
A year later, at the urging of Dr. Garinger, she gave up her high school teaching job to become director of the Charlotte Center. In that role she became acutely aware that the Charlotte area lacked sufficient higher-education opportunities, not only for returning war veterans but also for many high school graduates who could not go away to college. The nearest public college was more than 90 miles away and our area was just not being served, she said.
She established a reputation as a motivator of students. Eternally optimistic and a tireless worker, she wouldn't let a student give up on education, even though he or she might be working full time and going to school at night. She had a way of focusing her attention on each student individually and making each of them feel that what happened to them was important. Among them were men and women who went on to successful corporate and professional careers, including one young man, Steve Mahaley, who became a brain surgeon, and another, William Disher, who became chief executive officer of Lance Inc., and a third, Ken Harris, who became an insurance executive and mayor of Charlotte.
Hundreds of other Charlotte area men and women credit their success to Bonnie Cone, saying, "She wouldn't let me quit." Her motto, engraved on a ceramic tile that was always on her desk, said: "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do, and what I ought to do, by the Grace of God, I will do."
In addition to directing the Charlotte Center, she continued to teach and supervise the school's testing program, regularly putting in 18-hour days. When students asked what kind of vitamin pills she took for energy, she replied, "You're my vitamin pills." She made a strong impression on younger students too. C.D. Spangler Jr., later to become president of The University of North Carolina, recalled growing up in Charlotte's Myers Park Baptist Church, where Miss Cone usually sat in the pew in front of the Spangler family. Dick Spangler said he learned to follow the worship service by watching Miss. Cone. He said his mother told him to stand when she stands and sit when she sits. The church later elected Miss Cone as its first female chair of the Board of Deacons.
As president of the University, Spangler often went out of his way to pay special tribute to Bonnie Cone and to inform the rest of the state about what she had done for higher education in Charlotte. When the tide of returning veterans ebbed, The University of North Carolina sought to close the Charlotte Center, but Bonnie Cone insisted that its services were still needed, if not for returning veterans, for hundreds of young men and women who could not go away to college. She looked for ways to make it a permanent institution. When obstacles appeared, which was often, she would say, "This too shall pass." Of those who sometimes stood in the way of the center's progress, her worst epithet was, "That booger."
In 1949, with the support of Dr. Garinger and a cadre of community leaders, she sparked the Charlotte Center's conversion into Charlotte College, a two-year institution financed by city taxpayers and supervised by the Charlotte Board of Education. It was a pioneering move that later resulted in athletic teams at UNC Charlotte being named the '49ers.There was never enough money to assure Charlotte College's permanence, but every time a major crisis arose, Miss Cone would find a benefactor willing to rescue it. She had a knack for making small gifts seem large. Among the college's early supporters was Henry Fowler, Charlotte's Pepsi-Cola bottler whose granddaughter, Dale F. Halton, grew up to become a patron of UNC Charlotte.
Following the death of her father in the early 1950s, Miss Cone invited her mother to live with her in an apartment on what is now Sharon Road in Myers Park. The mother lived there until her death in 1959. Each morning, Miss Bonnie would get her mother started on a knitting project for the day, and then hurry off to her duties at the fledgling college. In 1954, when the outlook for Charlotte College seemed especially bleak, she led a campaign in which city voters approved a two-cent property tax to support the school. Four years later that tax was expanded to include property in all of Mecklenburg County. Miss Cone recruited part-time faculty with the same resourcefulness in which she raised money. She persuaded editor-author Harry Golden, publisher of The Carolina Israelite and numerous best-selling books on American life and manners, to teach courses on Shakespeare. She prevailed on C.A. Pete McKnight, editor of The Charlotte Observer, to teach Spanish. She convinced lawyer Robert Potter, later to become a judge of the U.S. District Court, to teach business law.
In 1958 the newly created North Carolina Community College system accepted Charlotte College as a member, qualifying it for state support and requiring the appointment of its own board of trustees. At the time she predicted that within 10 years the college would be expanded into a university to serve Charlotte and the burgeoning metropolitan area around it. She made many Charlotte business leaders understand the importance of such a university, not only to the students it would serve but also to the local economy. Many of businessmen, including some of the city's most conservative, among them investment banker J. Murrey Atkins and engineer Oliver R. Rowe, rallied to her cause.
By 1959 her duties as president of Charlotte College forced her to give up teaching. Her busy schedule, including hastily arranged trips to Chapel Hill or Raleigh to intercede with state officials in behalf of Charlotte's needs, often caused her to miss classes. It was unfair to students, she said. Bonnie Cone also called on the Charlotte business community for financial support. Her goal was to free the college from its high school surroundings by acquiring a campus of its own. Her appeals to businessmen often included the phrase, "and there's this little piece of land that Charlotte College needs."
In 1957, after surveying sites in all parts of the county, Charlotte College trustees purchased land at N.C. Highway 49 and U.S. Highway 29, adjacent to the County Home, about 10 miles northeast of midtown Charlotte, easily accessible to local students as well those from surrounding counties. If Charlotte was to win state support for a college or university, the campus would have to serve more than Mecklenburg County, she argued.
Before there were any buildings on the campus, Miss Cone invited students and faculty to a picnic on the grounds. When it looked like rain, she moved the picnic, with red and white gingham table clothes and napkins, into an abandoned dairy barn that stood on the property. They ate, sang songs, and spoke of their dreams for the new school. It was the first event on the new campus.
In 1961, after passage of a local bond issue, Miss Bonnie led the College's move into two new buildings on what later became a 1,000-acre site, thanks to Mecklenburg County's gift of land that had been the County Home farm and gifts from numerous individuals, including department store executive Tom Belk. North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford spoke at the dedication of the first two buildings. The new campus stimulated other development around the university, including a housing subdivision called University Downs. Bonnie Cone purchased a home there and opened it often to students, faculty, prospective faculty, and alumni.
Miss Cone recruited faculty with the promise that by joining Charlotte College they would participate in the building of a great university. Dr. Sherman Burson, later to become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was hired as a professor of chemistry on that premise. So was Dan L. Morrill, a professor of history who later was to become the leader of Charlotte's historic preservation movement and the prime mover in restoring Charlotte's vintage trolley system. In 1964 Bonnie Cone beamed as Charlotte College was expanded into a four-year, state-supported college and a year later three years ahead of the date she had predicted she saw the fulfillment of her dream for a university.
On July 1, 1965, Charlotte College was elevated to become UNC Charlotte, the fourth branch of Consolidated University of North Carolina that then included only UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and UNC Greensboro. Bonnie Cone was in Raleigh to witness the final vote on the bill authorizing that expansion. That night she drove home expecting to find a dark campus. As she pulled into the main entrance, the lights went up, students, faculty and staff cheered, and she suddenly found herself in the center of a joyous celebration. Her joy was tempered later when she was not named to head the university she had envisioned. Leaders of the Consolidated University wanted a more experienced administrator and chose Dean Wallace Colvard, a North Carolina native, former dean of agriculture at N.C. State and previously president of Mississippi State to become UNC Charlotte's first chancellor. Though that was a personal disappointment, Bonnie Cone never publicly acknowledged it, never spoke of it, and never allowed it to sour her outlook. We are not here to elevate ourselves but to build the institution, she said. She served as acting chancellor until Dr. Colvard could move to Charlotte in April 1966.
At the facultys last meeting before the Dr. Colvard's arrival, its members stood to applaud her and unanimously passed a resolution in her honor. The resolution said in part: The members of this faculty, more perhaps than any other group, know personally the debt they, the students, and the community owe Bonnie E. Cone for the development of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. We take the occasion to express our gratitude for her contribution to an institution which owes its shape and its very life largely to her. Over a period of two decades as Director, President, and finally as Acting Chancellor of the University at Charlotte, she converted a shoestring and a ball of twine into a university with eighteen hundred students, over a hundred faculty members, a campus covering more than nine hundred acres, and nine buildings. Here is the realized dream of a great lady Miss Cone was offered the post of vice chancellor for student affairs and community relations. After thinking about it several months, she accepted and continued to work for the University, to motivate students, win friends, and attract benefactors.
At her retirement in 1973, the student union building was named the Bonnie E. Cone University Center in her honor, as were numerous scholarship and fellowship programs in subsequent years. She continued to work for the University as liaison with the UNC Charlotte Foundation, helping to raise money and build alumni support, even into her 90s. She rarely missed a convocation, never a commencement and seldom a basketball game. When she appeared at campus events, students would come up in small groups to introduce themselves. They took pleasure in having an opportunity to meet her. She returned the compliment by focusing her full attention on each of them, inquiring about their hometowns, their majors, their goals at the University, and offering them encouragement. In 1990, when UNC Charlotte marked the 25th anniversary of its induction into The University of North Carolina, Miss Bonnie joined in ringing the Old Bell that UNC Charlotte used for ceremonial occasions.
From high in the crowd that overlooked the ceremony in the breezeway between the two halves of Colvard Hall, the voice of a single student called out, We love you, Bonnie Cone. The cry elicited spontaneous and prolonged applause from the rest of the gathering. She attended every commencement at UNC Charlotte until well into her 90s and often signed autographs for smiling graduates who had only heard of her but, seeing her smiling eyes, wanted to be part of her legacy. In addition to her work for Charlotte College and UNC Charlotte, she served other educational institutions, including Coker College, where she was a trustee for 23 years and chairman of the board for two years. She also was a trustee of Belmont Abbey College and a member of the Board of Visitors at Davidson College and Johnson C. Smith University. In 1959 she was president of the Southern Association of Junior Colleges, the first woman to hold that position. Beyond education, she served many civic and cultural organizations, including the Charlotte Symphony, the Charlotte Opera, the Boy Scouts of America, the YWCA, the Childrens Nature Museum, Habitat for Humanity, the United Arts Council, and the Charlotte Central Lions Club. In recognition of her commitment to good teaching, her tenacity in behalf of students and her vision of increased educational opportunity, she was the recipient of ten honorary degrees, including two on the same day from Davidson College and Coker College. Others came from Belmont Abbey, Queens, Wake Forest, Pfeiffer, UNC Charlotte, Duke, Mt. Holyoke and Lander.
In addition she was WBT Radios Woman of the Year in 1956, recipient of the National Conference of Christian and Jews Silver Medallion for citizenship in 1962, winner of the Charlotte Civitan Club and the North Carolina District of Civitan International's Distinguished Citizen Award in 1965, and winner of the 26th Judicial District Bar Association's Law Day Liberty Bell Award in 1966.