By Tom Johnson
Perhaps just one thing has been as constant at CMC as the uniform excellence of speakers at Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, and that is the woman who has shepherded those hundreds of celebrities and presenters up to the podium throughout the past 25 years – Bonnie I. Snortum.
Bonnie began working at the Ath as a coordinator in 1989 and took over the reins as director from Jil Stark '58 GP '11 in 1992 when Stark retired. Now, 25 years after she began working at the Ath, Bonnie, who for generations of CMC alumni has become synonymous with the venue, is retiring herself.
“I remember that first day back in 1989,” she says. “It happened to be the day Rev. Jesse Jackson gave the first major address in Claremont celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Invited by Jil Stark, Rev. Jackson spoke to an overflow audience in Bridges Auditorium, after which we hosted a lunch for him in the Athenaeum.”
Over the succeeding years the parade of speakers has included a veritable “Who’s Who” of the controversial and famous in politics, religion and the arts, including Condoleezza Rice, David Sedaris, Desmond Tutu, John Wooden, and Milton Friedman. “I honestly can’t single out one event or person that has been the most meaningful experience for me,” she says.
“What I can say is that the most distinguished, accomplished, talented and important guests with whom I have had the privilege of working are also the most gracious and appreciative.”
But when pressed, Bonnie does remember one performance with fondness.
“One of the most moving experiences for me was Benjamin Bagby’s presentation in 2011 of the epic Beowulf,” she says. “He accompanied himself on a six-stringed harp based on the excavated remains of seventh-century instruments. It was thrilling.”
That said, Bonnie’s magnanimity – her reticence about singling out individual speakers – might just be an object lesson for the next Ath director about how to survive and thrive in the job.
According to Bonnie, what hasn’t changed over the past quarter century is her vision for the Ath. “The Athenaeum should build its reputation on being a forum for ideas – at times controversial but with intellectual integrity,” she says.
“My first impression on my first day was to be amazed at the amount of institutional support the College was willing to give to the Athenaeum,” she continues. “The CMC community deserves quality in return.”
Ever modest and unfailingly generous in spreading around compliments, Bonnie says that the general excellence of the Ath and what drives much of the speaker selection comes from student input past and present.
“Frequent comments from students and alumni are that exposure to new ideas and to subjects outside of one’s own field of study is invaluable,” she says. “Different points of view can help one deal with controversy in a more circumspect way. Also, I see our students becoming more confident and poised as they interact with distinguished guests at events.”
That said, Bonnie has a few bits of sage wisdom to impart to her successor about showcasing the Ath and its speakers to their best advantage. “Avoid succumbing to the misperception that celebrity equates quality and that the size of the audience is indicative of success, keep your sense of humor and remember that this really is a dream job.”
Bonnie hopes that in the coming years, the Ath will continue to host classical music performances -- a particular favorite of hers. “It is a perfect intimate venue for chamber music recitals and I would love to see an endowed series to keep that in the forefront,” she says. “Keeping the liberal arts focus in mind, I think it is our continuing responsibility to bring scholars and speakers from many disciplines as well as poets, artists and writers.”
Bonnie would be the first to admit that she’s come a long way from her Norwegian farmgirl roots in North Dakota and school in a one-room school house. In fact, there is a wonderful symmetry to be found in closing her career at a small, private college a half-continent away from where she grew up.
“I intend to move by whim,” she says about life after retirement, “and that includes travel, family, reading, renewing music study—perhaps the Haydn piano sonatas, late Brahms. Understanding that time does ultimately become more precious, I intend to enjoy it to the fullest.”