PHILADELPHIA, July 25, 2013—Community College of Philadelphia mourns the passing of its founding and first President Allen T. Bonnell, Ph.D., a champion of education who died at 101 years old on Saturday, July 20. He was a resident of the White Horse Village, a retirement community in Newtown Square.
Dr. Bonnell was a leader who sought to “democratize” higher education through public support and open access policies. He spearheaded the development of Community College of Philadelphia by leading an extensive research effort resulting in the creation of the Philadelphia Committee on Higher Educational Opportunities in 1957 and a proposal for a Philadelphia community college in 1962. He retired on Aug. 31, 1983, and has been president emeritus of College since 1993.
Thanks to Dr. Bonnell’s vision and determination, the College has since served more than 630,000 people and is Philadelphia’s only public institution of higher education. Pennsylvania was the 44th state to authorize the creation of a community college system in August 1963. Two years later, the first board of trustees selected Dr. Bonnell to head the College. His credentials were ideal. He had spent the previous 17 years as a senior administrator at Drexel Institute of Technology, now Drexel University.
There were many doubters that the new two-year institution would succeed in opening its doors on time, let alone accomplish its ambitious mission. Dr. Bonnell proved them all wrong. The College opened as scheduled on Sept. 23, 1965, to 1,200 students and Dr. Bonnell was there to greet them amid the sound of hammers and the dust of ongoing construction in the converted Snellenburg Department Store at 11th and Market streets. Under his leadership, the College blossomed. By fall 1967, enrollments reached nearly 5,000.
As the College continued to grow, Dr. Bonnell embarked on a 17-year search for a larger more permanent home. In 1971, he secured the historic federal Mint Building as the center of what has become the College’s Main Campus at 17th and Spring Garden streets. When he retired in August 1983 at the age of 72, the number of programs had grown from the initial five to 52. The College had achieved national recognition for its multifaceted approach to addressing the educational needs of academically disadvantaged students.
Josie DiGregorio, who has served as executive assistant for all five of the College’s Presidents, said Dr. Bonnell held a special place in her heart. “In helping to create the College, Dr. Bonnell gave the city and its residents a gift that is beyond price,” she said. She recalls him as “an intellectual but at the same time a very humble individual. He was a really wonderful human being who loved this College and the opportunity it represented.”
DiGregorio attended Dr. Bonnell’s 100th birthday party in April 2012 and spoke with him in recent months. “His body was failing, but his mind was still sharp as ever,” DiGregorio said. “It remained so until the end.”
Thanks to the firm foundation established by Dr. Bonnell, the College now offers nearly 90 degree and certificate programs with an annual enrollment of nearly 40,000 students at its Main Campus and three regional centers in Northeast, Northwest and West Philadelphia.
In recognition of Dr. Bonnell’s service, the College named one of its major buildings on its Main Campus in his honor. It also created the annual Bonnell Award, given in recognition civic and business leaders for exemplary community service and a commitment to access, opportunity and transformational change.
Dr. Bonnell received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from Oberlin College. He attended the University of Bonn in Germany and earned a doctorate in Economics degree from University of Illinois in 1937.He also received an honorary Litt.D. degree from Drexel University in 1969. He taught at the University of Illinois, St. Louis University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Except for leaves of absence during World War II, Dr. Bonnell made his professional career in higher education.
In the early 1950s, Dr. Bonnell was a member of a small group, under the leadership of Dr. W. Laurence LePage, president of The Franklin Institute, which obtained the original charter for the Metropolitan Educational Radio and Television Corporation. He served as a member of the board of directors for that corporation and its eventual successor, WHYY Inc.
He is survived by his children, Thomas H. Bonnell, David W. Bonnell, Ann Maiocco, and was pre-deceased by his son Daniel C Bonnell. He also is survived by his four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A family spokeswoman said many of the family members were away and that a memorial service is planned for the fall.
Meanwhile, the College has created a memorial web page where members of the College Family and others can share their thoughts and memories about Dr. Bonnell at: http://www.ccp.edu/site/about/allen-bonnell.php.