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Bonnie Austin blooms where she’s planted

February 19, 2010
By Sue Kennedy, Chronicle columnist

At this writing, the sun is shining, the snow is melting, and it's Valentine's Day. Things are definitely looking up. What better way to put an end to a surreal couple of weeks then with a holiday of love. Some say Valentine's Day was dreamed up by the purveyors of flowers, candy, fine food, jewelry and boxers covered in little hearts. And I say, so what? No matter how you look at it, Valentine's Day is about the many faces of love, and this is definitely not a bad thing to celebrate. Especially if you're Bonnie and Mike Austin. They were married on Valentines Day in 1959.

Bonnie Lou Cline was born in Bozeman, Montana. Her father, Grant, was a cattle rancherhe raised themtraded thembrokered them and sold them. Bonnie's grandfather was the largest cattle rancher in the state and his granddaughter was riding a horse by the time she was five. As much fun as this sounds, the life of a cattle rancher isn't easy. Grant's cattle business forced him to uproot his family, Eileen and their four children- Bonnie, Don, Dick and Patty - thirteen times before Bonnie graduated from high school.

Her final family move as a Cline was to Yakima in Washington State where Bonnie entered her senior year at Yakima HS. Somehow she pulled all As and decided to pursue nursing in college. But first there was a semester at the University of Hawaii to major in "swimming, ceramics and the hula. " She then got down to the business and returned to Yakima and St. Elizabeth's School of Nursing. Mutual friends introduced Bonnie to Mike Austin at a party in August of 1958. Mike, a political science and journalism major at Whitworth College in Spokane, was seriously thinking about going into politics. Bonnie was intent on getting her nursing degree.

Article Photos

Bonnie Austin

Bonnie had heard of Mike through his art. Politics notwithstanding, Mike Austin was a serious artist who had already received some notice. The two were engaged by Christmas and married on Feb. 14. Their first home was in Spokane. Then Mike was accepted in Navy Officers Candidate School in Newport, RI and the young couple headed east. That was the first of twenty-one moves the Austin's would make together.

One has to wonder how someone is able to move every year or two throughout her life and still manage to make a home, raise a family, and live her life. I asked Bonnie how she managed to keep her sanity and she just laughed "I'm very organized." was her only answer. And she is. The first thing you notice is not the organization but the welcoming feeling you get as you approach the big, warm home nestled at the end of a long drive on Howard Road. Bonnie loves the twinkle of outside lights they're a beautiful sight from the distance and give a welcoming feeling up close. It's charming.

Chez Austin is full of "finds." "I love flea markets, just about everything here is from a flea market." She makes it sound so plain and simple while it's really gorgeous antique furniture in beautiful combination. There are extensive collections of everything from liqueur bottles from around the world to African masks and a pretty serious art collection.

Organizational qualities are important but clearly not responsible for the generous nature of this Bonnie Austin. No matter how many times or where she made a home for her family, she got involved in the schools and the caring agencies in each new town. You definitely get the feeling that as Bonnie was unpacking dishes she was speed dialing her children's new schools for volunteer opportunities.

Mike graduated from OCS and was sent to Norfolk, then Long Beach, California, then Washington, DC and American University, to Cyprus, California for two years and then back to Newport then to San Diego for survival school and finally back to DC and the Pentagon. They started their family in California with the advent of Miss Tiffany Austin. Natasha was next to follow and finally Toby. They moved to Santa Maria, California. When Mike was stationed at Long Beach, for the second time he was a Lieutenant Commander and Bonnie, who had been president of the Cypress School PTA the first time, was elected PTA president in Paradise Hills. She was a Cub Scout leader, Brownie Scout Leader, Sunday school teacher and choir leader.

Bonnie began working for Dr. Rudolph, a DC dentist, during Mike's first tour of duty in DC. And every time the Austin's found themselves back in DC Bonnie went back to work for the good doctor. She was a dental assistant and an office manager and apparently invaluable. Even though Dr. R knew Mike would get another assignment, he kept rehiring Bonnie.

The Austin's bought their first house in Kensington, MD in 1968. Mike was sent to Viet Nam as base commander in the Qhian Provence less than two years later. He returned in 1972 and was stationed in Newport, RI. They moved. Then it was to Arms Forces Staff College in Norfolk, and back to California.

Mike was stationed on the historic destroyer Turner Joy as it left once again for Viet Nam.

Bonnie was remained deeply involved in the Navel Wives Club and one of her duties was as Navy Ombudsman of USS Turner Joy (DD 951.). I had to ask: Did you ever think about not moving every time your husband did. "Absolutely not. We were a family and we were going to stay together."

The only move they didn't make was to Viet Nam.

Mike came home safe and sound and was assigned to Destroyer School back in Newport and then the Arms Forces Staff College in Norfolk and then Brussels, Belgium. Bonnie moved the children and their pets and their things as effortlessly to Belgium as most would to the next town.

A Jack Russell named Cecilia went back and forth across "the pond" on several occasions, as did Annie the cat and Erica, a Norwegian Elkhound they'd adopted from "some awful people who treated her terribly." Bonnie took to Brussels like a duck to water and from 1976 to 1979, until a return to the states, she served as PTA Officer of her children's school, International Wives Cooking Club Chairman, Prop Coordinator for the American Theater Company, Chairman of the Red Cross Station and tour guide for visitors to the US Mission to NATO. Mike was the US Rep. to the Civil Emergency Planning Commission of NATO.

In 1979 the Austin's returned to their home in Kensington. MMike went to the State Department in a diplomatic position, Bonnie went back to Dr. Rudolph, and the kids went back to school. Tiffany to the University of Washington, then Natasha went off to Washington State University and a year later, Toby to Emory and Henry in Virginia. Today Tiffany lives in Seattle with her partner, Ellie Anderson, and is a corporate executive trainer; Natasha and husband Joe Dragonice live in Olympia, WA with their daughter, Lauren and son, Mike. "Tasha" is a specialist in Para-education for the Olympia school system. With a Masters Degree in Social Science, Toby is with the Dept. of Corrections in Clarke County, VA.

Mike retired from the Navy in 1985 and went to work for Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Austin's started thinking about retirement and Shepherdstown as the place. It had everything they loved: old world charm, history, friendly people, a university, and world-class art. They found just the right house but it was in less than the right shape. "There were footprints on the ceiling!!"

Bonnie began by learning the gentle art of drywall and wound up hanging all the drywall on the first floorand doing it right. This is a real source of pride.

Most people would think restoration was reason enough to take it easy for awhile. Not Bonnie.

She immediately got to know Anne Small, which means she got involved with Spay Today. She volunteered with Millbrook. And then FEMA assigned Mike to Brussels for three more years. Bonnie was thrilled to return "I absolutely loved Brussels." But was also happy to come home to Shepherdstown and start making up for lost time.

The year was 2003, and since that time, Bonnie has Volunteered for M.O.M.S., joined the Potomac-Mecklenburg Garden Club, served as Chair of the Men's Cub Labor Day Picnic, serves on the Board of the Men's Club as Hospitality Chair, Chaired the Back Alley Tea, and The Christmas Tea and has been serving as a Caregivers' volunteer for almost four years. "I like to drive." Out of curiosity I asked exactly how much driving has she done for Caregivers? The answer: about 6990 miles in 650 hours. For her work here she received the 2007 Volunteer of the Year for Jefferson County.

Bonnie gives credit for success to everyone but herself. She's a real motivator and wouldn't ask anyone to do anything she wouldn't do herself, and probably has. "Nothing would be possible if people didn't step up year after year and helped me figure it all out and then make it happen." The movers and shakers according to Bonnie include: Martha Young, Suzy Yates, Anne Petrillo, Donn Marshall, Vicki Lanham, Sheri Garner, Libby Howard, Nate Howard, Shirley Derr, Nieltje Gedney, Liz Kyle, Meg Spurling, Ed Moore, Ed Dunleavy, Judy Jenner, Mina Goodrich, Charlie Freeland, Mina Goodrich, Dean Goodrich , the unstoppable Mary Stanley and the Men's Club president himself, Mike Austin..

The 2010 Back Alley Garden Tour is scheduled for the weekend of May 22 & 23. The Garden tea will be on both days from 11-3 and as the Tea Chair so beautifully stated, " I am always looking for volunteers to help and I can be reached at (304) 876-0598. If you call me then I won't have to tackle you on the street. "

Sitting in the Austin's kitchen listening to Bonnie attack each memory with a cheerful passion, I had to wonder how could someone move 17 times as a child and then another 21 from the time she was a bride and see each move as a family opportunity, and do it with such style. Though she has relished every one of these "opportunities" when asked what she loves to do most said "Go to the Blue Moon with Mike and our friends every Friday night." That might be a hint to the answer. Here's another: Bonnie Austin is a living example of the old saying "Bloom where you're planted."

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