Physicists will tell you that the amount of energy in the universe cannot be diminished. It can change from one form into another but it never goes away. These are consoling words for the family and many friends of Bonnie Roberts who passed away on Saturday, June 24, 2017 at Hope Hospice after a long battle with cancer.
Bonnie was a force of nature, known as someone who got things done, not allowing anyone or anything to stand in her way, not that many would have foolishly tried. She spent the last three years fighting an aggressive cancer that she vowed would not rule her life, and it didn’t until the last few weeks.
Bonnie Roberts served as Event Coordinator for Santini Marina Plaza for over six years, organizing the Santini Sunrise Fresh Market every Tuesday morning and monthly special events during season. Heading up Bonnie Roberts Events, she participated in a number of island events including the American Sand Sculpting Championships, Pirate Fest and Sand Bash. Most Islanders will know her as the originator of Smokin’ in the Mangroves BBQ Contest, Do-Wop Festival and Howl’oween Pet Parade, all at Santini Plaza.
Bonnie held many jobs in her life, but none more interesting than dancer and choreographer. In a Sand Paper interview in 2010, Bonnie explained her musical history.
“My mother thought she had given birth to Shirley Temple so I was dancing by the time I was two,” Roberts said. “It was all about dance – dance and music. We all played instruments. My mother played clarinet in the Army’s all-girls’ band during World War II. They played for the troops all over the world. My daddy was a singer, my grandmother played every stringed instrument known to man and granddaddy was all about the piano.”
After training with choreographer Jack Rand, Bonnie performed in the Atlanta area as a teenager. While a student at Oglethorpe University, where she was honored as Lady Oglethorpe in 1968 and was later inducted into the OU Hall of Fame, she developed an interest in bluegrass music and saw cloggers perform for the first time.
Putting her own twist on more traditional clogging, Bonnie began teaching her high-energy, high-kicking style of clogging in Atlanta and formed a dance group called Buckwheat. That team of 12 dancers would dance their way into the Coca-Cola 100th Anniversary Celebration in Atlanta and then onto the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville and from there onto the TV show, “Hee Haw.” Buckwheat would take her and her dancers to stages all over the world, Disney World, the White House, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Atlanta Summer Olympics, to name a few. Buckwheat was just the beginning. Rainbow Connection a co-ed dance team came next and then teen and child dance teams. Bonnie often said it was an amazing time in her life.
She retired from dancing in 2001 after 28 years with Buckwheat and moved to Southwest Florida, a place whose beaches held her heart since she was a child.
In the 1950’s she came to Sanibel to visit her grandmother, and fell in love with the beach, the Gulf and seashells. Even during her busy Buckwheat career, she and her mother would come to Sanibel from Atlanta for some time away.
“I lost my mind over these gorgeous beaches,” Bonnie told us in 2010. “Sunrise with that smooth sand and that golden light playing on the water – and I just fell in love with Fort Myers Beach.”
This week, we spoke to family and friends who reflected on the Bonnie Roberts they knew.
Robin Roberts, her son, summarized her influence on his life, “She was the toughest woman I’ve ever known. She was an inspiration and creative leader. She was the brightest light in the room.”
“She was open, honest and irreverent,” said long-time friend Deanne Lansey. “She loved her Pomeranians, shells and being on the beach.”
“One big ball-of-fire,” said Jessie Titus. “She was so full of energy!”
Janeen Paulauskis of Fish Tale Marina described her as an amazing mentor for special events. “I watched what she did for her markets and events and was just blown away at how well she coordinated them.” “She was not afraid to speak her mind and was so feisty, in a good way, and funny. I visited her just last week and she had me laughing so hard.”
Andrea Cooper, one of Bonnie’s vendors and a friend described her as her “twin-sister soul-mate.” “My respect and admiration and amazement of that woman – she had such an interesting life; she was so caring and had such a wonderful sense of humor. She was one in a million.”
Asked to describe her in a single word or phrase, we heard a variety of descriptions that taken together may begin to reflect the dynamo that was Bonnie Roberts:
“Unsinkable,” “Vivacious,” “Fearless,” “Irreverent,” “In Charge” and “A Force.”
Physicists may be right about energy, but here in our corner of the world, we’ve lost a huge source of energy and the light sure seems a bit dimmer.