The life of John W. Bonner, for whom Bonner Elementary School is named, epitomizes the phrase “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”
He was born in County Donegal, Ireland, to Patrick and Sarah Bonner. He was 6 months old when the family emigrated to Pennsylvania. His father, a miner, died when he was 6. Sarah Bonner moved her five children to Salt Lake City and found work as a housekeeper. Because of the poverty conditions at home, Bonner and two of his brothers were temporarily placed in a Catholic orphanage. When his mother remarried, the family was reunited and relocated to Milford, Utah.
After graduating from high school, Bonner worked as a laundry truck driver, a lumber company worker, a copper miner and a laborer for the Union Pacific Railroad. He and a brother operated a taxi service in Ely, but his dream was to become a lawyer. An attorney in Ely, Virgil Vargas, took Bonner under his wing and tutored him in law while Bonner took correspondence courses through the Golden Gate Law School in San Francisco. During this time, he worked as a cab driver and IRS agent.
In 1938, Bonner passed his bar exam and soon after was elected district attorney of White Pine County, Nevada, a position he held for eight years. About this time, he became active in the Democratic Party and was named state party chairman in 1948. He served as a delegate at three national conventions. He moved to Las Vegas in 1946 and practiced criminal, labor and mining law.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Bonner as U.S. Attorney for Nevada in 1961, a post from which he retired in 1966.
He served as the city’s alternate municipal court judge for 13 years and continued practicing law until 1982, when he retired at 78.
Bonner was involved in the Elks Club, the Lions Club and the Knights of Columbus.
Bonner died on Dec. 3, 1991, leaving behind his wife, Mary, and eight children.
His son Michael Bonner described his father as having been “a great guy, very vibrant … He had a fabulous sense of humor, but he came across –– if people didn’t know him –– … as gruff and very serious, but he had one of the best senses of humor in the world. He was always cracking jokes.”
His father was also an avid golfer, playing the sport until he was 83, and his quick gait earned him the reputation as the fastest walker on the course.
“He had a very fast stride, and he’d usually be way down the fairway, with the rest of his foursome left in his wake,” Michael Bonner said.
He said his father was always reading golf magazines, trying to improve his swing, and that finding the secret to golf became a constant quest. But there were no Mulligans or gimmes, he said, as the elder Bonner abided by the rules whether in the courtroom or on the golf course.
“He was incredibly honest, incredibly ethical and a really likable guy,” Michael Bonner said. “He loved being a lawyer, absolutely loved being a lawyer.”
Paul Catania, principal of Bonner Elementary School, 765 Crestdale Lane, said, “We focus on the fact that you can be anything you want to be, and there’s absolutely nothing that can hold you back. If you really want something, and you work hard at it, then you can get that. We’re following in the footsteps of (John Bonner). We have two simple rules — be kind and work hard. And we focus on just doing our best. And with that, just like John Bonner, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at email@example.com or 702-387-2949.
Naming Las Vegas
The history behind the naming of various streets, parks, schools, public facilities and other landmarks in the Las Vegas Valley will continue to be explored in a series of feature stories appearing in View editions published on the first Tuesday of every month.
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