Voice of the County

Published 6:08 pm Tuesday, August 17, 2021

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Longtime Herald reporter remembered for wit, perseverance


Former Austin Daily Herald reporter Lee Bonorden loved his trips into rural Mower County to cover events. Even physical limitations that would hound him in his later years couldn’t keep him from getting the story.

But this was more than just a job to Bonorden.

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“It was the gift of journalism,” Bonorden said for a May 2019 story that looked back on the 10 years following his retirement in 2009. “(People) were letting me into their lives and tell their stories.”

LeRoy “Lee” Bonorden passed away on Tuesday, Aug. 10, surrounded by family.

A journeyman of journalism, Bonorden arrived in Austin in 1985 after jobs in Wisconsin, Wyoming and Missouri. Everything Bonorden formally learned about journalism came from his time as a reporter in the United States Navy during the Vietnam Conflict. In that same 2009 interview, Bonorden said his training was mostly on-the-job training.

“It was learning by doing and publishers taking a chance on me,” he said. “The more I did something, the better I became.”

During a good amount of his time in Austin, Bonorden did his job on top of battling limitations in his vision, allowing him to see only a few feet in front of him. Despite larger fonts on his computer and his sweeping note-taking with tall, broad letters, Bonorden was always joyfully turning in stories.

He also managed to cover his beat as a single dad, taking care of his son, Ryan, and daughter, Sara. Later in life, he took in three of his grandchildren and raised them.

“He touched my sister and I’s lives so much,” Ryan remembered. “To see people all over the county show how much they appreciated him was just a minuscule part of what we saw at home. It was the special effect he had.”

Ryan remembered a man who didn’t let life get him down, even if there were times his open, blunt nature sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.

“He was so independent and stubborn,” Ryan said with a laugh. “It was a fun experience to be around. At other times you may cringe and wonder, ‘dad, what were you doing?’”

While Bonorden often considered Austin the “big city,” many of his best stories came out of the rural communities he visited within the Herald’s coverage area. Bonorden was on the road from Lyle to LeRoy and everywhere in between.

One of those people Bonorden came to know over the years was Gary Ziegler. Bonorden was a constant presence at the Lyle Area Cancer Auction, an event Ziegler himself has been involved in throughout its run. In getting to know Bonorden, Ziegler came to see a reporter that could talk his way into stories simply by getting to know people.

“His uncanny knack to remember people’s names and their stories and their history,” Ziegler said. Ziegler remembered a story Bonorden wrote about his parents resurrecting Union Presbyterian Church.

“He would always come back and ask how my parents were doing,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler also remembered how Bonorden was able to get the story of an annual contributor to the auction. Chuck Berg was known to be humble to everybody who knew him, but Bonorden was able to get the story, much to the surprise of many.

“He had an uncanny ability to get people to open up,” Ziegler said. “The hardest nut to crack in LAC was the legendary Chuck Berg. Chuck was the most humble, quiet individual to walk the face of the Earth.”

It was an impression that was also left on long-time co-chair of the LAC, Larry Ricke, who recognized Bonorden as a wordsmith that could invoke the spirit of the LAC or any event he covered.

“He was always there,” Ricke said. “He would take his time on stories. He said the right words. He really inspired a lot of people for the LAC. He hit home runs all the time. He was a super guy.”

In his pursuit of these small town stories, Bonorden’s path to a story often came from getting to know the people involved.

“That means a lot,” Ricke said. “It’s just like anything. If you want to succeed or be great at something, make a friend and that will go a long way. He’s there as a friend.”

While he always delighted in covering the small town communities, it was at the Mower County Fair where Bonorden really thrived. He was a fixture at the fair and for six days laid down an extensive coverage network of everything 4-H.

“That was one of his favorite times of the year, when people all over the county gathered in one spot,” Ryan said. “It was almost like an extended family. Everybody wanted to talk to him and he wanted to talk to them.”

Current Mower County Auditor/Treasurer Scott Felten served on the Fair Board for a number of years, finally retiring from the post in 2019. Like many who worked at the fair, Felten remembered Bonorden as an important part of fair coverage.

“I think the fair was an important community event that he did a good job covering,” Felten said. “He made it fun.”

Bonorden liked to have fun with people, often in his Thursday columns where his opinion flowed freely with amusing anecdotes that poked light fun at people. But sometimes that opinion could also be pointed.

Retired long-time Herald reporter Lee Bonorden participates in a dance routine on the Spruce Up Austin float in the Fourth of July parade in 2009.
Herald file photo
Photo by Katie Johnson/katie.johnson@austindailyherald.com

However in covering the fair, Felten recognized that part of what made Bonorden so popular was how he interacted with people, which was never to the point of being completely serious.

“He didn’t take himself too seriously,” Felten said. “He liked to joke around. I think we took it tongue in cheek. We knew it was good natured. Deep down there really was good support for the fair.”

Bonorden was simply content to report on the community; however, he also took an active part in the community. His work with Spruce Up Austin helped pave the way for several beautification projects over the years.

“We had a name for him in the club – ‘Bonzai Bonorden,’” group founder Mike Ruzek said with a laugh. “We enjoyed having him and we got a helluva lot of press out of him.”

While the group and Bonorden were able to accomplish a lot, Ruzek suspects that being part of the group was more than just trees.

“I think it’s a little deeper than that,” Ruzek said “Lee was fascinated with the prospect of saying, ‘we can put all of this together and create a good lasting project.’ He relished … the gathering of people, the gathering of different connections to make it all happen.”

Throughout his career, Bonorden’s stories had a homey, relatable quality to them. For many, Bonorden provided a voice of Mower County in a number of different ways.

“That’s a top 10 list,” Ziegler joked when asked about what he would remember about Bonorden. “Just his compassion and overcoming.”

“Every story he wrote … It’s like losing a bit of a cornerstone of Mower County with his passing. He wasn’t afraid to dig up the story and tell the story,” Ziegler added.

Felten likened Bonorden’s passing as the passing of the old guard of journalism and lamented that there are fewer and fewer reporters like him.

“I don’t think the work he did covering the fair and the communities has really been replaced,” he said. “He was one of the last types of that journalism. We certainly appreciated his support of the fair and the coverage of the fair. A lot of people have missed him and will miss him.”

For Ryan, however, Bonorden’s retirement was a chance to further connect with his dad, an opportunity to be the one to offer his support rather than the other way around. There was no interview to get to or a work-related appointment. There were Austin Packer basketball games and meals out on the town.

“He had done so much for us, it was nice to try and give back a bit,” Ryan said. “It was an honor to take care of my dad.”

It was a fellowship that Ryan found easy to interact with, knowing somebody was there to listen.

“He was somebody to talk to,” Ryan said. “He knew someone everywhere we went. You could always count on Lee to say something to make you feel good.

“The effect and reach that dad had on so many people was amazing.”