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Making a difference

Retired teacher and cancer survivor working hard to improve her community.

Bonnie Cumberland just keeps on giving.  Even though she has been retired from teaching for 10 years, it hasn’t stopped her from continuing to give in order to improve the quality of life for the Brainerd area community. Whether serving on the city council, being mayor, teaching 34 years for the Brainerd School District, or as a member of nearly 20 boards over the years, Bonnie has received many accolades for her dedication and service to the community. She’s there for whatever task needs to be accomplished. She calls herself a step-by-step problem solver. “Careful thought, continued effort, and following a process are the necessary skills to get a job done properly,” she stated. Her courage in battling breast cancer 15 years ago did not keep her very long from her many duties Today, Bonnie is currently in the midst of her second four-year term on the Brainerd City Council. But she has had more than six years of experience with city government. Whereas most elected city officials serve on the council before taking the reins of mayor, Bonnie served as mayor first and was elected to two terms (1991-1998). As a marketing instructor at Brainerd High School in 1990, she was asked by a group of citizens to run for mayor. Her supporters hoped that she could “market a positive attitude of the city.” “It was a hard decision to make,” Bonnie recalled, “but then I thought even if I don’t get elected, how many people have the chance to do it?” After a lot of coaxing, she filed to run on the final day filings for elected officials were open. She was invited to a dinner sponsored by deer hunters, her first campaign activity. To her surprise, when she arrived, posters were already printed stating, “If you want sanity back in city government, vote for Bonnie Cumberland.” She won the mayor’s chair by 500 votes and was the second woman to serve in that office. Her days were full working as a teacher plus her duties as mayor. “I’d go to the city hall after school and would be there until 10 p.m. or later,” she remembered. “Then I would go home and correct papers or do whatever needed to be done for classes the next day.” Bonnie explained that the office of mayor is a public relations position as Brainerd has a home-rule charter government whereby the city establishes the government they choose in a charter, and statutory cities, which includes the majority of city governments, operate under Minnesota statutes with the power to veto or sign council actions. “In a charter city, the mayor markets the city by making many personal appearances,” Bonnie added, “the mayor can break a tie vote, or can veto the action of the council, but the council can override the veto.” A charter city can change its charter when it needs to.  A statutory city has less control and must ask the state legislature to change state statutes or grant special powers through special legislation. Voters have more control over government in a charter city and can expand or restrict city governmental powers. There are 110 cities in the state with a charter government. Replying to what some of her accomplishments were as mayor, Bonnie shared a story when a little girl came to her and gave the mayor a big hug. “A little girl came up to me at a public gathering and said, ‘Mayor Bonnie, I want to thank you for the new stoplight at the corner of [Highway] 371 and Buffalo Hills Lane. My grandmother died [in an accident] there and now no other grandmothers will die.’” That little girl was later a student in Bonnie’s high school marketing class. Following her two terms as mayor, Bonnie filled an opening on the Public Utilities Commission for five years in order to remain involved with city government. In 2006, she was again approached by supporters to run for city council and is now serving her second term. Bonnie was born in Minneapolis and her family moved to Richfield where she graduated from high school in 1964. She attended the University of Minnesota and majored in marketing education. Graduating from the U in 1968, she accepted a teaching position in Brainerd. While teaching, she received her master’s degree in marketing education and curriculum development. She has also been an adjunct instructor for marketing and job supervision at St. Cloud State University. In the high school classroom, Bonnie’s students learned about sales and advertising and how to market in the sports and hospitality industries in addition to running the student store. One of her favorite things about teaching is the interaction with students. “It’s great to see a student have a light bulb moment!” she said. Due to budget restraints, the marketing class is no longer offered, but the student store, Warrior Outlet, which sells promotional items for the Brainerd Warriors, is still open, to Bonnie’s delight. She was also the advisor for DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), a nonprofit marketing organization for students who are interested in marketing, hospitality, finance or business careers. Students are able to apply their skills and compete on the state and national levels. While teaching, Bonnie also helped with the Junior Achievement program offered at Lincoln Elementary School, a program that helps students learn about working, earning and saving. As she worked with third-grade students about running a business, M & M candies served as money. “But one of the students ate all of his, so he had no money to deposit,” she laughed. “One girl wanted to open a restaurant that would be open 23 hours a day. I asked her why 23? She answered that she needs to rest sometime.” In the summer of 1997, Bonnie had her annual mammogram that eventually led to the discovery of cancer. Her mother also had the disease and three of her grandparents died of some type of cancer. Considering the family history, Bonnie had the breast removed, but the cancer had also spread into the lymph nodes which resulted in 38 radiation treatments in a six-week period plus six weeks of physical therapy. During one of her visits to the oncologist, chemotherapy was suggested to help ensure that cancer would not spread to the other breast. “But I didn’t know if I wanted to be sick from the chemo and lose my hair, so I asked what other alternative there was, and of course, that was to remove the other breast, so that’s what I decided to do.” Fifteen years later, Bonnie is still cancer-free. The local newspaper did a story on Bonnie’s fight with cancer. “I received many comments on the story and was surprised to have many men say they had read the article, and would I speak with their wives who were afraid of having a mammogram,” she shared. In helping to maintain good health, Bonnie has lost over 60 pounds by eating healthier and exercising. Bonnie feels very fortunate to live, work and be active in the Brainerd community. “I would like to express my appreciation to the community for allowing me to work for the school district, the city, and for giving me the opportunity to help others.” Through the years, she has been honored with many awards including Brainerd Teacher of the Year in 1976, Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber Outstanding Lay Person Award, the Sertoma 2000 Service to Mankind Award, Brainerd Citizen of the Year Award in 2001, and the Minnesota DECA Honorary Life Membership Award in 2002. A single woman all her life, Bonnie admits, “I never had time to get married. All I have is my 13-year-old cat, Cleo.” In her spare time, Bonnie enjoys reading, walking, visiting with people and shopping. She has never made a bucket list and really can’t think of anything to put in it. “I’ve done my traveling to Europe and throughout the U.S.,” she concluded. “I just want to continue volunteering and make a difference somewhere. I have my own home. I’m happy and content where I am. I really don’t need any more. Life is good!”

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