Dr. Bonn, A True Leader

By Dr. Sean Dahlin

It has been nearly one year now when I had learned that Dr. Robert Bonn, retired athletic director of Carthage College and NACDA Hall of Famer, suddenly passed away. This news hit me hard, because he was one of the first people that I connected with in college athletics when I started teaching sport management at UW-Parkside in Kenosha. We hit it off right away, which is probably not a surprise to those who know him. One reason was because Dr. Bonn had worked in athletics at Pacific University, which I was familiar with when I lived in Oregon. He also happened to coach against (men’s basketball) and work with my master’s advisor, Dr. Howard Gauthier, when they were both athletic directors…small world. I was introduced to his assistant athletic director at the time as well, Chris Barker, who is similar to him…very motivated and giving of his time and talents. In fact, Chris and I became colleagues at UW-Parkside just a few months later and I consider him a friend.

In my two years at UW-Parkside, Dr. Bonn agreed to talk with two of my classes on two different occasions, knocking it out of the park both times. When he spoke with my master’s students in our leadership class, he and Chris Barker presented on how leadership doesn’t exist, which is ironic because he is one of the greatest leaders in college athletics that I’ve ever met. Anytime I stopped by to talk or he came to our campus, he took the time to give me his attention and make me feel as if I was what mattered most at the time. I learned something each time we talked that was very valuable that I’ve implemented myself to not only become a more effective professional, but also become a better person. I even use him as a case study when I teach about organizational theories.

When reading through a description of Dr. Bonn’s career in college athletics, it is easy to see that he accomplished a lot at the NCAA Division III level including an overhaul of Carthage Athletics to top-level national athletics programs and the impressive facilities to back it up thanks to his concerted efforts in fundraising. However, I have no doubt that in his 40-plus years in athletics as a coach and athletic director (26 years as athletic director at Carthage), he influenced and inspired several student-athletes, fellow coaches, administrators and all those around him. Despite his decorated career, you would have never known it by talking with him. 

Although he would disagree with me because leadership to him didn’t exist 😉, I have been researching about servant leadership that I feel embodies him well. This leadership theory emphasizes that “servant leaders choose to use their talents to assist others in the growth of individuals and to steward organizations through change that emphasizes well-being” (Sullivan, 2019, p. 41). One of the many things I admired about Dr. Bonn was his ability to improve grassroots athletics programs and departments to respectable and nationally recognized programs by doing so ethically and in the right way. I believe he did this by investing in his people (administrators, coaches, staff, students, student-athletes) and giving them the tools to develop and grow and give the student-athletes at Carthage the best experience possible. One of the best indicators I have seen of an effective leader is noticing who one has mentored over the years and seeing how those people lead. It was apparent very early on that those that have learned under Dr. Bonn have instilled positive change in college athletics and beyond. 

Even though I only knew Dr. Bonn for a short period of time in comparison to others, such as his family, friends, and colleagues over the years, he left a lasting impression on me. In my mind, he is the ultimate leader that epitomizes these servant leadership characteristics: service-oriented demeanor, effective management, empowerment, developing a vision, stewardship, and interpersonal acceptance (Brutus & Vanhove, 2017). 

Thank you Dr. Bonn for your positive influence on so many of us, may you rest in peace.

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