Bonsal Remembered as 'Special Lady'
People who never met her will miss Patsy Bonsal.
Because of her, families around the world sleep in their own homes every night - maybe not mansions, but safe, decent homes they themselves own and helped build.
Bonsal, 74, died Monday at her Pinehurst home. The funeral service will be conducted at 11 a.m. Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
While those who knew her described her as the consummate Southern lady who carried herself with quiet elegance, charm and politeness, she was never the shrinking violet. Bonsal was single-minded in her devotion to community, family and the needs of others.
It was that selfless zeal for the myriad noble causes she held dear that elevated Bonsal to the No. 2 position in Habitat for Humanity International, the worldwide organization that makes home ownership possible for the poor, as vice chairman of Habitat's board of directors.
Bonsal was drawn to Habitat by a simple credo. "It's not God's will to have people living in shacks," she would say. "Every human being has the right to have a safe, decent place to live."
Elizabeth Cox, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the North Carolina Sandhills, said she will never forget how Bonsal's passion and enthusiasm affected others.
"She went all over, speaking to Habitat affiliates and getting them motivated," Cox said. "When I came on board, she was our fund-development program. I saw very few people who could say 'No' to Patsy. She was so passionate about it. I never really saw her talk about how she felt about Habitat without seeing her cry."
Internationally, Bonsal's strength for Habitat was raising funds. In the years she was involved with the organization, she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Habitat for Humanity International.
She never forgot her hometown and the needs of her neighbors. Bonsal agreed in 1988 to help Habitat raise enough money to build one house and said she was too busy to do any more.
Twenty years later, she was still at it. Bonsal was so valuable the local chapter changed its own rules to keep her on the board. It created a position called "the Americus chair" especially for her.
"That way Patsy would be welcome at any meeting, anywhere, anytime," Cox said. "She was such a wonderful, wonderful woman. She was supposed to go off our board, but we changed our by-laws, made her 'Americus chair' so she could attend meetings if she wanted to - but didn't have to, if she didn't."
Bonsal never expected an honor like that.
"The time we took her to lunch to talk about it, I said there was something we needed to talk about," Cox said. "When I told her about it, she started crying. 'I thought you were going to tell me you had to take me off the board,' she said. We couldn't do that to Patsy. We couldn't do that. We changed the by-laws."
The name Americus recognizes the rural Georgia town where Millard and Linda Fuller organized Habitat.
Bonsal and her late husband, Rocky, once spent a week in Americus with other present and former members of the Habitat's International board working hands-on to build a sample third-world Habitat house.
'Entered a Family'
Bonsal's fundraising efforts on behalf of Habitat for Humanity can be credited not only for international homes, but also by families all over Moore County who have keys in their pockets to their own front doors. Her daughter, Kate Tracy, remembers her mother saying Habitat was more than houses.
"What it does is, it creates real members of real communities," she said. "I remember Mom saying, 'Here is a kid who had very little hope, and now they have a room, a warm place. They can go to school every day, and life is comfortable. Life is safe. Think how much more they can accomplish.' She got so much out of that. She really did."
Tracy said her mother cared a great deal about family and strengths of family, but understood "family" in a unique way.
"That's the thing - her definition of 'family' was very different from everybody else's," Tracy said. "She could meet somebody and invite them into 'her family.' It was a broad definition."
It was the way Bonsal looked at families at their home dedications.
"You've entered a family," Bonsal once told new Habitat homeowners. "You've joined a community, and we are all with you as we see you celebrate your lives in this new home that you are about to go into. So here's to you."
Tracy remembers her parents going on a tour of homes in the area.
"When she saw the way people were living, she was so distressed," Tracy said. "She truly believed that if there was something that the community could do, then she wanted to be part of it."
Bonsal and her husband moved to the area in 1960, and she immediately found ways of working for the community.
She was one of the co-founders of Friends of Penick and a member of the organizing group that founded The O'Neal School. She was appointed to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and was its chair for six years. Bonsal would serve on the International Habitat for Humanity Board for eight years.
She often said she'd seen amazing things. She even worked in England with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on a Habitat site.
"It was very exciting," she said. "Not only do you fly around the world, what you do is you find out who people are."
Often, when accepting one of her many awards, Bonsal asked, "Who would have thought ... ?"
Once, she singled out the family of her friend and housekeeper, Rosa May Kelly, whose daughter, Dorothy, qualified for one of the first Habitat homes built during the blitz of 1998.
"Today, Dorothy has two college degrees, her oldest child attends the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and another child just received a full scholarship to North Carolina State University," Bonsal said. "You find out about people with Habitat for Humanity. And they learn how to grow."
Tracy remembers Fuller's appreciation for her mother.
"The last time he came to visit, he took me aside and said, 'You know your mom's a special lady, right?'" Tracy said. "After Dad died, and the Aberdeen people named that street Bonsal Way, despite the fact that it was all her work that made it possible, she considered it my dad's street. She didn't want any of the credit for it; she wanted it to be about my dad."
Bonsal cared what people thought but would really rather just get something done than worry about opinions, according to her daughter.
"She was very involved in (Girl) Scouting," Tracy said. "That started with the council. She was council president. For some who still live here, she was their troop leader. She was involved in national committees - third vice-president of Girl Scouts, U.S.A. She helped make Gertrude Tufts Camp possible.
"On the World Association she went to India 15 times over six or seven years. She was also very involved in the Olave Baden-Powell Society. Olave was the one who said, 'We need Girl Scouts, too.' My 18th birthday present was a lifetime membership in Girl Scouts. She was an amazing lady, always very busy. She had her dress shop - Papillon - where Ironwood is now."
Deep emotion ran through every aspect of Bonsal's life, from Habitat and its families, to love for Girl Scouts and Girl Guides at home and around the world, to her love of reading, according to Tracy.
"She loved books, loved turning the pages," said her daughter. "Open any book in her library at home, and you are liable to find a tissue."
Bonsal was the rare human being whose passion for life found fulfillment in helping others, according to Cox.
"She really felt it," Cox said. "She worked so hard with such devotion. The last few years, she wasn't able to participate so much -- but she helped make us what we are today. I can't tell you how much she taught me about how to raise money to help people. I know she taught other people."
Bonsal seemed always to know that Habitat is not just about building houses any more than Girl Scouting is about cookies and camping.
"She was an inspiration. People see what can be done because of her," her daughter said. "She was an inspiration for me."
Cox said Bonsal did a lot and is going to be missed.
"She was so about engaging people in meaningful work," Cox said. "She would ask anyone for help. She let us know we had social responsibilities to help people, not to just ignore people that are homeless. I've never met another person like her. She was just ... she was just wonderful."
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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