Bonnie Clarke, guide for many, dies at 71

Courtesy of Rich Clarke
03/13/2019

Bonnie Clarke, a Point Reyes Station resident with an artistic eye, a generous spirit and enduring friendships, died on Jan. 2 at age 71. An active community member who served on the boards of the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin and Gallery Route One, Bonnie first fell in love with the area during her honeymoon in Inverness five decades ago. 

Outside of her work as a leadership development coach, Bonnie took on the mantle of mother and friend to many, offering guidance and support. Through these friendships, Bonnie assured herself longevity. 

“People like her—you don’t meet them very often, but when you do, they make an effect on everyone they connect with,” her friend Daniel Cordrey said. “[She was] such a potent person, and it’s too bad not everybody knew her, because she really had a profound effect on a lot of people.”

Bonnie was born on Sept. 25, 1947 in Washington, D.C. to Wilson Graham, an investment advisor, and Nancy Solomon, a homemaker. She had a younger sister and brother, Barbara and Wilson. The family moved to Palo Alto when Bonnie was 11; her father was losing his eyesight and wanted to participate in an on-site guide dog training program in the area. 

At a young age, Bonnie developed the empathic touch that would be her lifelong calling card.  “There really wasn’t an adult caretaker in family: her dad was blind and struggling to run his own business, and Bonnie really had the caretaking role for the younger siblings,” said her husband, Rich Clarke. Bonnie’s son Kevin said that Bonnie was forced to find mother figures outside her own family, perhaps leading to her willingness later in life to play such a role for others. 

Bonnie attended Palo Alto High School, where she was a pom-pom girl and voted the prettiest girl in her senior year class (“quite frankly, she deserved it,” longtime friend Lori Kyle said). Rich described her as an “academic whiz.” Bonnie went on to attend the University of Oregon, where she spent two years majoring in sociology before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, to finish her degree. 

She met Rich, a fellow University of Oregon student, when he offered her a ride north. “It’s about a 12-hour drive north to Eugene, and by six hours we pulled over to the side of the road and we were just infatuated,” Rich remembered. “We got out to stretch, and in stretching we ended up sealing at 53-year relationship with a kiss.” The couple married in 1967 and settled in Berkeley, Rich’s hometown. 

After working for a year on a child health and development study for Kaiser Permanente, Bonnie received a master’s degree in public health from Cal. She went on to work for Kaiser for another 13 years, during which time she helped develop the hospital’s outreach programs, organized conferences and created breast cancer support programs.  

In her 40s, uninterested in climbing the corporate ladder, Bonnie decided to strike out on her own. She became a certified life coach and started her own consulting company, working largely with medical professionals and corporate executives. She focused on people who wanted a change or a new perspective. 

When Mr. Cordrey, a contractor in Inverness, was looking to advance his career, he turned to Bonnie. After an initial session, he joined a group of younger locals who were “wanting to get to the next step—everything from yoga instructors to people just piecemealing their work together here to survive,” he said. 

The group met with Bonnie over several months in 2011. Mr. Cordrey said Bonnie had decided to hold the steeply discounted group sessions because she realized there were many in the community who were unable to afford her hourly fee. 

“She had this great combination of personality,” Mr. Cordrey said, “like she could be your mother and your friend. She could be all those people—and was all those people for a lot of us.” 

Bonnie encouraged friends and clients to take steps that would lead them in the direction they wanted to go. For Mr. Cordrey, “She pushed me to talk to a couple of local builders to ask them for mentorship,” he recalled. “I ended up taking a bunch out to lunch, digging in deep and not being afraid to ask about my niche craft,” Mr. Cordrey said, referring to sustainable building practices. 

Bonnie had two children: John, in 1986, and Kevin, in 1974. Her career, Kevin said, enabled her to “show up financially for our family in such a big way: she made everything possible for me in terms of being able to go to schools.” 

Although Bonnie regretted that she was unable to be home more often with her sons, Kevin remembers her as “a very good listener” who was able to give her children her undivided attention and help them dig into their feelings. Later in life, Bonnie especially loved being a grandmother to her three grandchildren: Zelda, Kylie and Keenan. 

Maureen Cornelia, who worked with Bonnie on the board of the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, was impressed with Bonnie’s ability to connect with people. She had “an unbelievable generosity of spirit and brought it to every part of her life,” Ms. Cornelia said. “She was able to touch people, whatever their age, whatever their background.”  

Ms. Kyle, who lived in Marshall, where Bonnie and Rich spent more than a decade before moving to Point Reyes Station, called this gift “a kind of evocative rapport.” She also wondered at Bonnie’s “extraordinary ability to create and maintain friendships over decades.” Both Ms. Kyle and Bonnie were members of a small group of friends who called themselves the Dangerous Women, still in touch from their days at Palo Alto High. 

Long before Bonnie and Rich moved to Marshall in 2001, the couple knew they wanted to live in West Marin. They had honeymooned at the Golden Hinde and referred to Kehoe Beach as the “Clarke family beach,” a place Kevin said was the site of “the times where I have the most succinct memories of us all cooperating and participating and just being in joy.” 

Bonnie and Rich moved to Point Reyes station five years ago. “We used to laugh and say we wanted to move from a rural area to the big city,” Rich said, but the main impetus was their involvement in the town.

While on the CLAM board, Bonnie helped sell an Inverness home that land trust had acquired. When the board was staging the home during the selling process, Bonnie brought items from her own house—a portable gas fireplace, furniture, ceramics—in order to make the house seem like a home. This, Kevin said, was par for the course, as one of Bonnie’s favorite hobbies was interior decorating. 

“She loved all the decorative arts,” Ms. Kyle added. “She had a keen eye for color and a fine eye for picking out some item in a vast store and seeing its artistic merit.” 

Bonnie would “literally bring color to environments,” Rich added. “She would help people decorate. People would ask her to go shopping with them because they didn’t know what to wear.”

Not only did Bonnie have an eye for finding art, she also had a knack for creating it. After moving to West Marin, Bonnie took up ceramics. She molded expressive sculptures and created boxes for Gallery Route One’s annual Box Show. “Some of [the sculptures] were sweetly humorous,” Ms. Kyle said. “A little sheep, a little pig—she somehow infused their expressions with a great deal of warmth and humor.”

Maile Sivert, a yoga instructor who lives in Inverness Park, said Bonnie “was always completely dressed as an art piece.” Ms. Sivert considered Bonnie to be her “local mom/mentor/close friend.” 

“She always wore that hat of checking in on how’s your life, are you on the right path, do you need any support in making changes?” said Ms. Sivert, who was also part of Bonnie’s local coaching group. “I met with her after she knew she was going to not make it, and two months before she passed away she was still like, ‘Do you need any coaching, any help?’”  

Bonnie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on her birthday in 2017. After surgery and rounds of chemotherapy, she decided in November to enter hospice care. Rich said that the couple’s immersion in a Sufi community in Petaluma for the past eight years had helped them develop a deeper relationship with each other and the world, giving them “tools—in spite of the cancer—to enhance our relationship and go together to the end of life in a very intimate way.” 

In December, Ms. Kyle asked Bonnie for one last gift. “I asked her for guidance going forward, when she would no longer be here to help me sort out my life,” Ms. Kyle said. In response, Bonnie gave her a poem by Mary Oliver, called “My Work is Loving the World.” “When I got to the last line, I realized that this was the best advice she had ever given me in a lifetime of advising me,” Ms. Kyle said. “And I saw that she had been living the words and the spirit of this poem every moment of every day since her diagnosis.” 

In the poem, Ms. Oliver writes that work is “mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here, / Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart / and these body-clothes, / a mouth with which to give shouts of joy / to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, / telling them all, over and over, how it is / that we live forever.”