Mayor with a heart
Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 9:46 p.m.
ALACHUA - Mayor Bonnie Burgess is a stickler for the three-minute rule. Try to talk more than that at a City Commission meeting and she promptly tells you time is up.
Ironic, since Burgess is herself a gregarious person. She has one of those busy minds full of so many words and ideas and notions firing at once that she sometimes gets lost in a conversational maze - "Wait, I know this is going somewhere."
But follow closely enough - and Burgess believes listening is a key to life - and threads emerge. Eventually they weave together a life that has fused deep black pride with love of the city of Alachua into a civic-mindedness that reaches beyond City Hall and into schools, churches, clubs and history.
"I don't center my life around being the mayor. Alachua is my hometown. It is where I was born and raised, and I love it," she said. "I want people to remember me as Bonnie - the person who loved her community, who gave to her community and who would do anything for her community."
Burgess, 44, has a way of dropping details about herself with such unassuming casualness that it takes a while for it all to sink in. She has a brown belt in tae kwon-do karate, she has been on a mission to Africa, she has studied dance and performs at various venues, she has a radio sports program, she founded the Alachua Historical Society.
Learning the history
The Burgess family was prominent in town. Her grandfather, Willie D. Burgess, worked on the railroad at a time when the train depot was next to Burnett Lake. The family often took the train to South Carolina to visit relatives.
The trips with Burgess's grandmother were a rolling history lesson through the South's segregation. Burgess learned that when her grandma was younger, she had to carry two pans on the train because blacks were not allowed to use the bathrooms. The lessons left an impression as hard as the steel track.
Willie D. Burgess eventually worked in the former Alachua High School - the town's black school that is now Mebane Middle School. Both of Burgess's parents, Lillian and Lymus, were educators. Lillian Burgess taught at Mebane and wrote the school's alma mater. Lymus Burgess - who was recently named to the FAMU Football Hall of Fame, taught and coached at Mebane. He was then dean and principal.
"I have a rich lineage," Burgess said. "There were lots of firsts in my family, and that is something I am proud of."
Given that background, the Burgess kids - Bonnie, brother Lymus Jr. and sister Sheila - were expected to do well in school.
Burgess did. What she could not do was follow her dad's footsteps in football. Instead, she played basketball and ran track at Columbia County High School.
That Burgess attended Columbia rather than Santa Fe High in Alachua was a result of tragedy. First, her mother, and then her father, died in 1972. She went to live with relatives in Columbia County.
True to form, Burgess had tried to turn her father's death into an energy that will benefit others.
"He had just had a kidney transplant. My brother gave him a kidney and Dr. (Robert) Cade at (the University of Florida) did the surgery. He was doing well and then he had a heart attack," she said. "Now, I do anything that I can to promote 911, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, emergency rescue. I witnessed him passing. We were watching Monday Night Football and he went to run bath water for my brother. I heard a noise and went into the bathroom. He was lying there and I felt so helpless. I don't want any anyone else to experience what I experienced."
Burgess attended FAMU for two years but decided, "I needed to go find myself because I wasn't getting what I needed."
What she needed was modeling.
Moving to Knoxville, Tenn., Burgess graduated from the Southeastern Modeling Academy. She traveled the country on various gigs, including a fleeting background shot in a Dr. Pepper commercial from the era of the "Drink Dr. Pepper and you're proud" jingles.
The next stop was a few years at a health spa in Van Nuys, Calif. Then Burgess re-established herself in Alachua.
Coming back home
"I needed to come back south. There is just something about the South," Burgess said.
She began working as a clerk at UF in 1985 and eventually worked her way up to her current position - office manager for the College of Medicine's department of neurosurgery.
Burgess also is getting that long side-tracked degree - she is set to earn a bachelor's in psychology and management from St. Leo University.
A lot of parallels exist between managing an office and managing a city commission, Burgess said. Having insight into psychology helps in both arenas.
"I figure in order to manage people, you have to be able to understand them," Burgess said. "I think my biggest asset in managing an office is having compassion for people. It's making sure you have goals and aspirations for your employees. You can equate that with goals and aspirations for your citizens."
State Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, has known Burgess for years. Her aunt, Marion Strappiere, was a mentor and inspiration of his. Burgess worked on his campaigns and even coached Smith's youngest son in youth basketball.
Smith said he recognized qualities in Burgess that would make her an effective commissioner and encouraged her to run.
"She cares about her community. She has great heart. She has common sense. She's had experiences that translate into effective policy-making. She relates to a wide audience. She has the best smile I know," Smith said. "During the Wal-Mart thing she has taken a tremendous amount of heat. Whether she is for you or against you she will give you an audience. Then she has the ability and the nerve to understand we are in a business where you make your best call and stay with it."
A pivotal voter
Burgess was elected to the commission last year in her second attempt. She is widely viewed as the swing vote in the controversial development issues that erupt in Alachua.
Politics is a boxing match in Alachua between the slow-growth Alachua Leadership Alliance and an establishment that rarely met a development it didn't approve. Burgess was the vote that knocked out the proposed Alachua West development - scoring one for the Alliance. But she was the key vote in approving a proposed Wal-Mart warehouse, a project the group vows to fight in court.
Burgess doesn't mind walking in the middle of the road, though at times it is more of a tightrope.
"People throw darts and laurels, and it's mostly darts - phew, phew," she said, bobbing to dodge imaginary darts.
Someone who has lobbed both at Burgess is Alliance President Robert Perez. Perez said he doesn't always agree with the positions Burgess takes, but he respects her.
"I had a tremendous amount of faith and confidence in Bonnie right up to the Wal-Mart vote. I don't expect her to vote the way I want but if she was going to do that, she needed a lot more information to do it on. She basically caved in to some political future kind of things from a lot of the state legislators involved," Perez said.
"But I think she genuinely cares. She has an exceptionally educated perspective. She really tries hard to look at all sides of things. And I think she has a vision. You can't ask for more than that, really."
Burgess said she believes the city is going to keep developing, and she wants to make sure the poor, seniors and children get some benefit from it.
The town, for instance, does not have a senior center or a community center. Those yellow "Safe Place" welcome signs for kids who feel threatened - not one exists in the city. As Alachua grows, it will need its own fire-rescue service.
Those are the issues Burgess said she wants the commission to address.
Burgess finds her own way to help. She is a lay leader in her church, Paradise United Methodist. The church holds neighborhood walks against drug use, ensures kids have a place to go after school, serves food to the hungry on Saturdays.
Once a week Burgess can be heard on the radio with Charles E. Goston, president of Black College Monthly magazine. They have a sports program covering historically black colleges and universities.
While sports is the focus, the pair also talk with college presidents about academics, provide information about applying to the schools and highlight educational offerings of each of the 119 historically black schools.
The show is every Thursday from noon to 2 p.m. on WGGG in Gainesville and WMOP in Ocala.
Burgess said she has been civic minded since she was a girl. But a United Methodist Church mission to Zimbabwe, Africa, in 1998 made her all the more passionate about it.
"That changed my life. It gave me an opportunity to connect with a people who I thought I knew heritage-wise. I thought I would see people dressed in beautiful colors, but it wasn't the case. It was people living without dreams, without a vision, without hope," she said. "What I saw will always be etched in my mind and I thought, 'We have this right here in America.' The exact same thing. I said then I was going to make a commitment."
By her reckoning, Burgess has already given Alachua residents hope. An 80-year-old black woman attended her first commission meeting recently to ask for speed bumps on her street, emboldened to do so because she knew "little Bonnie Burgess" would make her welcome.
And the fact that Alachua has shaken off enough of its own segregated past to elect two current black commissioners and hire a black city manager, Clovis Watson, offers still more hope.
But Burgess isn't done yet.
"Mother Theresa was my role model," she said. "That's how I envision myself - helping people who do not have a voice."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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