Dr. James T. Bonk is one of those special people on a college campus. For thousands of Duke students, he’s that professor you just can’t forget. And for hundreds of Duke tennis players, he is the assistant coach who was always there for them.
It’s ironic that the man who would give thousands of doctors their introduction into the world of chemistry was only able to live out his life because of the world of chemistry.
As a first grader, Jim Bonk almost did not make it to second grade. In the small upper Michigan peninsula town of Menominee, he was a sickly child.
“I had developed a really bad sinus infection and prior to that I had a really, really bad infectious disease never classified,” said Bonk. “I had this mystery disease. I was in bed and missed 11 weeks of school. I was passing blood in the urine and was about ready to check out. It was not good.”
Bonk had seen all the doctors in his little town, so they brought in a specialist who said he had only seen this type disease once before and it was fatal. Something different had to be done as Bonk was running a sustained fever of 104 degrees.
“So they packed me in ice,” explained the man who would spend over 50 years of his life as a teacher and assistant coach at Duke. “And at that particular time, a new drug became available — Sulfanilamide, which was the first antibiotic drug. One bottle had come into the state of Michigan and it was in the lower peninsula. The person who took it died, so there was half a bottle left. It was flown up and I got the second half of that first bottle.
“At that time the doctor had no idea what the dosage was, so he went on the American plan that if a little is good then a lot is better. So he shot me up pretty good with that stuff and it worked. There were some consequences. I was overdosed and developed a heart murmur. In high school I was unable to participate in any sports at all.”
But he was alive, and would become a legend in teaching and tennis.
When Bonk arrived as a student at Carroll College there were three other students who had to do modified physical education because they weren’t strong enough to participate in regular PE classes.
“The instructor really didn’t want to spend a lot of time with us so he gave us tennis rackets and tennis balls and told us to go have a good time,” said Bonk. “So I was self-taught how to play tennis, and by the time I was a senior I made the Carroll College tennis team.”
From Carroll College, Bonk made his way to Ohio State to further his studies in graduate school and to lecture, holding the DuPont Lecturing Fellowship in Chemistry. While in Columbus he became deeply involved with the two things that would mold his future — tutoring and tennis.
“When I went to Ohio State I went down to the tennis courts,” he said. “They had a very good tennis coach in John Hendrix. He was not only a great coach but a fine professional. I introduced myself and worked a little with his team. He arranged for me to coach the university high school team.”
He also tutored Ohio State students and athletes in Chemistry. It was a good job for Bonk, who charged more than the other tutors.
“My logic was no one I ever tutored failed,” he explained.
Bonk felt it was valuable to teachers to tutor students. “I always tell people that are going to go into teaching Chemistry, one of the most valuable things you can do is tutor,” said Bonk. “When you go into tutoring, it is a one-on-one kind of situation and it has the tremendous advantage of immediate feedback. If you give an explanation to this person and you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread and they are sitting there looking totally dumfounded, you know it really wasn’t the best thing since sliced bread. It’s immediate feedback. It’s much better to get it there than it is when you start lecturing to 200 or 300 people. You don’t want to confuse 300 people.”
Bonk started at Ohio State in 1953, and when it was time to leave and head for a teaching appointment at Duke University, one of the more notable people at Ohio State was not happy with his departure.
“I told one of the assistant football coaches on the phone that I had taken an appointment at Duke and I would be leaving,” explained Bonk. “He was surprised I was leaving and told me to hold on and just a moment later (head coach) Woody Hayes comes on the phone with his booming voice asking me, ‘What the hell do you mean you are leaving?’
“He then told me how much he appreciated what I had done for them and wondered if I could come down and spend a few minutes with him. The stadium was just three blocks from the Chemistry building so I said sure and went to visit with him. It turned into a two-hour visit. He was absolutely gracious and he told me if I ever needed a letter of recommendation he would gladly write me one. He really had the best interest of his players at heart.”
Upon Bonk’s arrival at Duke in 1959, he was able to continue his work with tennis because of the John Hendrix connection. Bonk didn’t know it at the time, but Hendrix had previously worked at Duke helping Bob Cox coach the tennis team. “When I mentioned John’s name at the newcomers luncheon, Bob heard it and came flying down the table to find out how I knew John. When he found out I had coached with John, Bob asked if I would help him with the team, which meant I worked a great deal with the team in the fall while he served as an assistant coach on the football team. I think I actually became an assistant tennis coach prior to lecturing a single class at Duke.”
On the academic side of the world Bonk was brought to Duke as an instructor in Chemistry, becoming a professor in 1972.
“I was brought in to take over the freshman Chemistry program. I was never going to get big-time into research. That was not my thing. I was a teacher,” he said. “Today I wouldn’t have a chance of getting hired at Duke. It was more of a teaching university when I first came to Duke. It has now turned into one of the top research universities in the world. It has been a meteoric rise.”
From his days at Ohio State, Bonk knew of the academic advising opportunities available for the football and basketball programs and felt that the so-called minor sports needed help as well. So he began advising athletes from tennis and other programs.
Eventually Eddie Cameron, the legendary athletics director at Duke, talked to Bonk about putting together an advising program that both academics and athletics could agree on. “It was a period of total lack of trust between the athletic department and the academic part of the university,” said Bonk.
Bonk really did not want to take on this additional job, but after discussions with Cameron and the university provost he was persuaded to take on academic counseling for athletes, bridging the gap between the two campus factions. He was told he was the only person respected by people in both camps.
“So I got a secretary and enormous help from Rick Prentis, a student at the law school,” explained Bonk. “He did all of the leg work for the operation. What I tried to do was to bring the athletic department academic advising program under the deans of the university. I really felt there shouldn’t be two different organizations doing advising and giving academic advice. The advice should come from academics. I drilled into the student-athletes that the tutoring program was never meant to be a substitute for going to class; you are expected to go to class.”
“He was perfect for the job because of his mix of high ethical standards and academics plus the fact that he understood the demands on the athletes,” explained Prentis, now a lawyer in Durham. “He was perfect for advising because of his empathy for the students.”
While he taught Chemistry and did some academic advising, his real love of working with the tennis team as an assistant coach continued.
He served as an assistant and associate head coach under Bob Cox, John LeBar (for 12 years) and Steve Strome, then as an advisor and assistant for Jay Lapidus for 18 years. He also served as tournament chairman for the USTA National Boys Interscholastic Championship that was held at Duke for 18 years.
Bonk was considered by many as an expert in the technical aspects of the game. He videotaped a player’s stroke in order to analyze his game and maintained computerized records containing all sorts of data on the players.
But he was much more than that to Duke tennis.
“He’s the stabilizing force behind Duke’s tennis teams for over 50 years,” explained LeBar. “He has dedicated over half his life to the game of tennis and to Duke players.”
Bonk was the guy who worked with the players on their games no matter the time of day.
“I cannot recall a time when he didn’t have time to work with us,” said 1982 Blue Devil All-America Chiam Arlosorov. “He would meet us at the court and feed us balls so that we could work on our games whenever we needed it. It was like a small family in those days and he was a father figure to all the players. You would never see him get upset, and I can’t recall anytime that he was negative about anything.”
“Never said a negative word about anyone,” added former head coach Jay Lapidus, now director of tennis at Duke. “He is always positive, always able to make a positive spin out of your game no matter how you played. With students and athletes he was always very honest and worked with them in a very positive way. He was always willing to spend time with his students. His legacy will be the relationships he had with his students and the tennis team.”
He has been honored by Duke tennis with the naming of Court No. 3 at Ambler Stadium as Bonk Court. At the adjacent Sheffield Tennis Center, the conference room that houses all the tennis trophies and overlooks the playing courts is also named for Bonk, thanks to funds donated by former players.
In Duke’s Chemistry building, Bonk thrived in the large lecture hall in front of his periodic table of elements, all lit up scoreboard-style. Basically all pre-med and science majors at Duke for about a half-century got their first exposure to college chemistry from Bonk.
“He would write everything on the chalk board,” explained Arlosorov, now a doctor in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I can see him dancing across the board with the C’s and H’s on the board making up the formulas.
“You would walk in the lecture hall at nine o’clock in the morning and he would begin a very precise and well-prepared lecture,” explained Marc Flur, a 1983 All-America and the first tennis player inducted into Duke’s Hall of Fame. “In his class if you did the work then you passed the class. His main goal was that each student learned.”
The student body often referred to those Chem 11 and Chem 12 classes by another name — Bonkistry.
“I felt the term was invented by the students, it was not a derogatory term at all,” said Bonk. “It was taking into account that I did all the lectures for Chemistry for so many years.”
The majority of those classes were held in Room 107 of the Gross Chemistry Building, a lecture hall designed by Bonk. It was in that lecture hall that the course numbers Chem 11 and Chem 12 were officially retired in 2001 by Duke president Nan Keohane and Chemistry department chairman John Simon.
“Earlier in the year I had attended a basketball game where they retired Shane Battier’s jersey and that gave me the idea to retire the class numbers for Jim’s lecture classes,” explained Simon, now vice president and provost at the University of Virginia. “It seemed to be a very unique way to honor his career and his legacy.”
“President Keohane wanted me to hang the retired number shirts in the lecture hall,” explained Bonk. “I never did that. I was concerned that since someone had taught this course for 42 years and someone else was taking over, that’s a pretty big burden to dump on whoever is taking over. It’s not fair. I didn’t think you should have big brother hanging over you while you were trying to give a lecture. I still have those shirts somewhere.”
The retirement of his course numbers is not the only time Bonk’s teaching career has been honored. In 1990 he was awarded the Trinity College Distinguished Teaching Award, which recognizes truly outstanding teaching in Trinity College. According to the selection committee, “Bonk has shepherded about 20,000 students through the gateways to his discipline during his career.”
In 2001 he received Duke’s David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Distinguished Teaching Award.
One of Bonk’s favorite memories is also the moment that received the most immediate attention. In the mid-1970s a student organization called Pie Die modeled itself after the mafia and sold “pie-hits” on students, professors and deans, according to the school newspaper The Chronicle. After a Psychology professor took the first pie to the face, Bonk knew he would not be far behind because of the size of his class, which usually included more than 200 students.
“One day I finished a lecture and a side door opened and there was a person charging toward me with a lemon meringue pie,” said Bonk, who ducked and took most of the hit by the pie on his shoulder. “I wasn’t wiped out, I still had my vision. If you’ve ever been hit with a pie, you find yourself rather upset.”
So as the student ran out the door, through the Biological Sciences parking lot and into the forest, Bonk followed him. The fit professor, who ran and played tennis, eventually chased down the culprit — a story that was spread nationwide by the Associated Press and Parade magazine.
“It was a wonderful human interest story,” Bonk recalls. “The younger generation loved the fact that the prof had gotten hit by a pie, and the older people liked the fact that the old man had caught up with the kid.”
Another famous Bonk story is perhaps more fiction than fact. He is a little fuzzy on the details, perhaps on purpose. The story goes that a group of students took a road trip to the University of Virginia for a party and ended up missing a Bonk exam due to, they said, a flat tire. The professor agreed to let them retake the test, but in separate rooms. One of the questions on the test was, “Which tire was flat?”
Bonk still neither confirms nor denies the incident but says, “It was such a good story, I wasn’t going to do anything to dampen the legend.”
Today Bonk, at 81, isn’t teaching class or hitting balls with the tennis team any more. He is in the biggest battle of his life — a battle against cancer. His voice and enduring smile are as strong as ever, but his body just doesn’t have that same bounce.
There is something about him, though, that lets you know he understands the personal impact he has had on so many people and their concern for him now. As former coaches, players and students call him or drop by to see him from time to time, there is a calmness about the man that reflects what his lifetime of teaching on a college campus has been all about. It’s not about him; it’s about the people he’s touched.