Turning life’s pages

On the way back from her husband’s funeral, Melrose woman decided it was time for a new chapter 

Jeanne Bonfig believes in turning life’s pages to reveal new stories. She says, “My life has had a lot of chapters, and every time something eventful happened, I’ve just turned the page and started a new chapter.” She has been a church liturgist and pianist, insurance seller, singer, apartment manager, piano teacher, real estate agent, boutique owner, and worked in advertising and sales. She has sung onstage with Kenny Rogers and the Fifth Dimension and shared ice cream with Whoopi Goldberg. She has survived cancer and the death of a child, and she could put any “Biggest Loser” contestant to shame. Her current life chapter involves leading a touring company she founded within Mayer Charter Service of Melrose. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done—the most fun, the most interesting,” she says. “The best thing about it is the people. All of the jobs I’ve done have been customer related. This is not only customer related, but a lot of the customers are related!” She points out all the sister and cousin relationships on a bus, heading on a fall day to a shopping spree in the Minneapolis suburbs. She encourages all her passengers to introduce themselves, and warns them that latecomers will find themselves bungeed to the top of the bus or riding in the luggage compartment. “It’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever done, and I’ll probably do it until I retire, and I probably won’t retire until people don’t want to go on tours.” Jeanne was born in Cold Spring to Jerome and Lillian Twit. “Now, that name should be enough for a whole article. You are talking to a real, genuine Twit. That has resulted in a lot of conversation. Back then, it did not have the connotation of geeky or nerdy; it was just like Meyer or Welle or any other name. In the past 20 years or so, that connotation’s changed a little bit. I really feel that I’m a bit of a celebrity because every year on “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno has National Twit Week, and I think he’s missing the boat by not inviting me. I’m working on that.” Jeanne grew up in Cold Spring and attended St. Cloud State. Music was always a big part of her life. “My maternal side is very musical. My mother was one of the Theisen Sisters of Cold Spring, who did radio shows and recorded record albums. They sang four-part harmony like the Andrews Sisters. I grew up singing with my aunts and uncles and cousins. We sang all the old cowboy songs and all the old Mitch Miller. Everybody played instruments, and the whole house would just rock with guitars, pianos, and voices. When I was nine years old, I started taking piano lessons, and I did not quit until I was 19. “When I was 11 and my sister was 13, a priest came to knock on my parents’ door one day. He said, ‘We don’t have anybody in Jacobs Prairie who sings and plays, and they do.’ And that started my music and liturgy work. We were driven five miles out in the country to Jacobs Prairie, and at 11 and 13 years old I directed the adults and sang with them. My sister played the pump organ and my dad pushed the pedals, because she couldn’t reach them. We played in the church where our great-grandfather had played.” Then they had to attend mass again in Cold Spring, where they also had to play and sing in the children’s choir, because it was unthinkable to attend church any way but as a family. And, of course, since they were paid for their work in Jacob’s Prairie, they didn’t get the graces of the first mass, or so the sisters told them, another reason to attend twice. She worked with liturgical music and choirs in New Munich, Freeport, and St. Rosa for many years. Currently she is the music director at Sacred Heart, Freeport. “So I have never in my life not been a music liturgist, choir director, or pianist. This (2011) will be my Golden Jubilee Christmas. We’re now in our sixth generation of church musicians.” Between college semesters Jeanne worked as a singer in hotels in Glacier National Park. Once she had a chance to tour Europe with an Up with People company. Instead, she married Leonard “Butch” Bonfig, who worked for Culligan and later for Spaeth Distributing and in the construction business. They raised their family in the Albany area. For 16 years, she ran Jeanne B’s Shoppe in Albany; selling crafts, gift items, and tuxedos. Eleven years ago Jeanne was selling insurance and Butch, aged 54, was working construction in Lillydale. One morning she handed him his lunch pail, kissed him goodbye, and never saw him again. He had a heart aneurism in his truck while at work. Driving back from his funeral, Jeanne made a decision: “I decided I no longer wanted to convince people to buy insurance. It was a very tough decision. I wanted to do something that was fun. We had never heard of a bucket list, but we had an I-want-to-do list, and everything on it was ‘when the kids are through college,’ or ‘when we get older.’ So now I’m doing everything my husband and I wanted to do. I’m just not doing it with him, bless his heart.” She adds, “I think everybody thought grief was clouding my thinking a little bit, but I trusted my instincts. I resigned my job. Here’s my motto: If it’s not illegal—because I wouldn’t look good in an orange jumpsuit—or immoral, and I can afford it, I’m going to do it. And that’s how I’m going to live. That is how I live. I’m not a saver, I’m a spender, and I’m going to spend it. In the end, my kids will get some, and they can take my clothes to Goodwill and fight over my Tupperware!” Jeanne started by working as a tour guide. On a three-week West Coast tour, where disorganization reigned and the good times ended at 7 p.m. when all the seniors went to bed, she began planning her own tour company. She included itineraries, attractions, and the fun everybody would have. One night in California, she phoned Ervin Mayers, owner of Mayers Inc. of Melrose. She told him she wanted to run a tour company for him using his buses. He thought it sounded like a good idea and told her he would check with “the boys”—sons Bob and Mark. Back home, she called several more area bus companies, but none of them agreed to her terms. Ervin did. When he passed away, “the boys” took over. Now Jeanne runs MC Tours, which stands for Mayers Charters. “I now plan all the tours, wherever I want to go or wherever people who travel with me want to go,” she says. “I do all the office work, all the planning, advertising, and paperwork. I pre-tour everything. I don’t visit a restaurant I haven’t eaten at, and I preview all the shows. It’s very time consuming.” She deadpans, “It’s a dirty job. If three girlfriends have to jump in my car with me, and we have to drive to Chanhassen to dinner, and we have to watch “Hairspray,” it’s just sad.” Two years ago she decided to move to the East Village Town Homes of Melrose, a complex of patio homes just being constructed. She checked on the construction of every slab and rafter, and wangled herself not only her pick of a townhome but the job as manager of a 52-unit complex. “It’s a wonderful place to live. We have good tenants, so we don’t have any problems. Mostly Melrose area people live there when they retire.” Jeanne and Butch raised children Amy Bonfig, Jill Klasen and Jerry Bonfig. There are five grandchildren. The supreme grief of her life—beyond her husband’s death, or being told she had cancer, was the death of her child. She calls it, “The hardest page I ever flipped.” After a very traumatic pregnancy and being told several times that she would lose this baby, or it would be born with severe problems, she delivered a healthy little girl, Gwen Marie, who died at seven months of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. “They can put a man on the moon, but 34 years later, they still haven’t figured out how to prevent SIDS. No one should ever have to bury a child.” A cancer, diabetes, and gastric bypass surgery survivor, Jeanne wants to get the word out about preventing cancer recurrence as well as diabetes. She says, “Seventy-eight per cent of women who have breast cancer recurrence in our country are obese.” Jeanne lost 160 pounds, and went from a size 26 to a 12. “I want people to not fear that surgery, and I want anyone who wants to talk about that to call me, and I’ll gladly mentor them.” She adds, “It is a good chapter!” Jeanne actually finds time for hobbies: floral design, home decorating, all types of fishing, and bargain shopping. Soon she plans on opening a piano studio in her home. She also has some new ideas she wants to try with MC Tours. “I’m always excited to see familiar faces and even more excited to see new faces. If they stopped running buses tomorrow, it’s been the best five years of my working life because of the friendships I’ve made. I could retire, I suppose, but as long as people want to go places, I don’t want to retire. That’s not on my list.”

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