Senior Hall of Fame inductee Bonnie Atchison has made serving others her lifelong mission.
Bonnie Atchison was 10 years old when her friend’s mother came outside with tears running down her cheeks and an announcement they would never forget on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I remember that Sunday so vividly,” Bonnie says, her clasped hands resting on the dining room table of her Columbiana home. “We were all out in the neighbors’ yard playing after church. Cold chills run all over me when I think about it. She came out and she said, ‘Children, you must go home to your parents, for we are now at war. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.”
The following night, all of the children’s fathers gathered in one of their families’ kitchens to discuss who was leaving for war and who was staying at home. Bonnie’s brother was among those who left. Although her father didn’t have to go with the armed services, his job in the steel industry kept him away from home for much of the war. Bonnie, her mother and her siblings stayed back on their 68-acre farm in Remlap. They weren’t in financial trouble, but without bus transportation to and from town, they were somewhat isolated in their valley.
“Momma couldn’t drive, and she had three children at home,” Bonnie says. “There were no men to dig coal so that we could have coal to burn; therefore, Momma and three little kids had to make out the best we could. Of all Daddy’s 68 acres, there wasn’t a limb or anything lying on the ground in the woods we didn’t pick up to burn to keep us warm.”
But Bonnie also describes it as a good time—a time when everybody took care of everybody. With two cows, her mother often gave free pints of milk and pounds of butter to families whose cows weren’t producing enough milk at any time. “She was a gentle soul,” Bonnie says. “We’d wake up with Momma going to milk, and she was singing at the top of her lungs, ‘Amazing Grace.’ She was a wonderful lady.”
Those who know Bonnie would say the same about her. Compassion didn’t skip a generation in her family. At 87 years old, Bonnie still plans many of her days around service-oriented meetings and events. She is a long-time member of the Novella Club of Columbiana; is a member of First Baptist Church of Columbiana’s senior choir; is a member of the David Lindsay Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution; and works with a local ministry called GriefShare for people who have lost their spouses. She has logged more than 2,000 hours of volunteer work with the Shelby County Retired Senior and Volunteer Program, or RSVP. (She says she’s not sure how her hours were calculated—she doesn’t keep track of them herself.)
As surprised as she might have been about her volunteer hours, Bonnie couldn’t believe her eyes when she received a letter from Gov. Kay Ivey’s office last summer, notifying her she had been named to the Alabama Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. “I thought it was a joke,” she says, laughing. “I thought somebody was pulling my leg.” She called her son, Mike, to tell him about the letter. “He said, ‘Momma, make a copy and send it to me,’” she says. “He said, ‘That’s legitimate.’ I was just overwhelmed and so humbled.”
Shelby County RSVP Coordinator Marvin Copes nominated Bonnie, who was one of 10 Hall of Fame inductees from 10 Alabama counties last year. Inductees attended a ceremony at First Baptist Church of Montgomery in early August 2018. “I think the whole community should have seen that,” Bonnie says. “It was very moving.”
Six years ago, Bonnie was also placed in the spotlight unexpectedly when Mayor Stancil Handley proclaimed April 2, 2013 as Bonnie Atchison Day in Columbiana. Four years after that, she was named grand marshal of the 2017 Columbiana Christmas Parade. She is a past recipient of the Columbiana Vignette Club’s Quality of Life Award for her work with the Miss Shelby County Pageant. Last year, she also received the Shelby County RSVP Presidential Award and Spirit Award. All of these honors have been the culmination of her many years of service.
HER EARLY YEARS
Bonnie attended Blount County High School, where she met her first husband, Lewis Mason. They had two sons, and he answered a call to ministry, preaching at Locust Fork Baptist Church for three-and-a-half years. But he died at age 35, leaving Bonnie to provide for their children by herself. She moved the family to the Birmingham area, earned a degree in English and biology from Samford University in fewer than four years, and started working in education. Nine years later, she met and married a man named Harry Atchison (now deceased). “He brought me to Columbiana, and I fell in love with it,” she says. “I just thought this was the grandest little town I had ever seen.”
She got a teaching job at Shelby County High School, and stayed there for 20 years. “I just loved the high school. I did English, speech and drama most of time I was there. We did the first Broadway shows, like ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘South Pacific,’ ‘Music Man’ and ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’ Oh, it was a fun thing.”
She served as director of the South Shelby Chamber of Commerce from 1993-2003, president of the then-active Rotary Club, and curator for the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington for 10 years. She received a DAR Women in American History Award for her service in 2013. In addition, she served as president of the Novella Club, which is part of the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs, a non-profit organization dedicated to community improvement.
“I retired at 83,” she says, although “retired” might be too strong a word. “It’s been fun. I’ve done a lot of interesting things.” Now, she spends much time doting on her seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. She loves to paint, sing and share passages of the Bible she has memorized over the years. And she’s known for her delicious, made-from-scratch cakes.
But people know she’s only a phone call away from delivering a blanket to a nursing home, answering a widow’s question about health insurance, baking a cake for a fundraiser, helping to organize her club’s Cancer Survivor Dinner or serving in other, often unmentioned, ways. Serving is a lifelong calling for Bonnie. “I grew up like that,” she says. “The Lord called me to serve, and I guess that’s the whole thing. He left me here for a reason, and I have to be about his business. And what’s his business? To serve and to minister to those who come across my path, whether it’s my students, church, my community, my neighbors.”