2013 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"All we ever keep…is what we give away."
Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, the oldest of three, was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1950. Her father was a P-51 pilot during WWII, and although he trained as an engineer, he never abandoned his first love…flight. He joined the Air National Guard so that he could fly on the weekends, and when the Korean conflict started, he was activated. Bonnie’s father became a career Air Force pilot and one of the original seven U2 pilots who flew over the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
When Bonnie was 18 months old, the family moved to Germany, the first of many moves throughout her youth. “The idea of home,” says Bonnie, “was cherished…we lived in so many different places that home became wherever our family was together.” From Germany, the McElveens moved every 18 to 24 months, living in Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California, and Nebraska. Moving often can have a negative effect on a child, but Bonnie put all the packing and unpacking in a positive light.
Dislocation, hardships, and loss of friends were overcome as her parents taught her in every move: The best is yet to come. “My parents had an amazing attitude that they instilled in their children,” she says. “They taught us that you need roots, but you also need wings. I had wings at a very early age provided by my parents’ faith, positive attitude, and encouragement.”
Bonnie’s mother was one of eight children and the first and only person in her family to attend college. Throughout her childhood, Bonnie’s mother worked as a teacher. Bonnie believes that having a working mother helped her to become independent and self-reliant. “I actually enrolled myself in the first grade,” she says. “My mother had to be in her classroom to receive her students, and I walked to school on my own, looked for my name on the door, and then found my classroom. I think my mother’s faith in me gave me huge responsibility, independence, and an advantage…and today, I never feel like I walk into a room where I am really alone.”
Achievement in Bonnie’s family was encouraged. In fact, her mother often said, “Failure is not an option…get up right now, and try again.” However, she says that her mother’s pearls of wisdom have been the foundation upon which she has built her life.
These pearls of wisdom included: “Time is precious, use it wisely”; “mediocrity is the greatest sin”; “work is the greatest privilege”; “failure is a comma, never a period”; and “can’t is a word that does not exist.” Bonnie recalls, “One day, my mother had me and my brother and sister write the word can’t on a piece of paper. We then placed our pieces of paper in a shoebox, and she took us out to the backyard with a shovel. We had to dig a hole and bury the shoebox. In essence, she literally made us bury the word can’t. Today when I hear that something can’t be done, I think about that shoebox. The word can’t now serves as a red flag to me because I know I can do whatever I set my mind to with God’s help and if I’m willing to work hard enough.”
From the time she was 16, Bonnie worked part time at a department store in Omaha. When it came time for her to go to college, she was able to select Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, through careful savings and her parents’ commitment that education was the most important investment in the future. At first, she thought she wanted to be a fashion designer. But when she discovered that she was expected to sew, she started having doubts about her major. “My first assignment was to design and sew a pink polyester dress that required a group effort in my dorm to complete,” she says. “That’s when I decided that perhaps my skills would be better utilized in mobilizing others toward a common goal.” Bonnie quickly changed her major to business.
Bonnie was in a hurry to graduate because she didn’t want to be a burden to her parents. She graduated in three years and began working for Bank of America. In 1972, at the age of 22, she moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, to start Pace magazine, the in-flight magazine for Piedmont Airlines. “I wasn’t intimidated to launch a magazine when I had very little experience in publishing,” Bonnie says. “I was young and didn’t know what I didn’t know. That’s a fabulous place to be because it makes you willing to take risks.”
In 1983, Pace Communications was spun off from the parent company that had been backing Bonnie’s work, and she was able to purchase one-third of the stock. Eventually, she was able to buy out all remaining stockholders and remains the sole owner. Today, Pace Communications is the largest independent content marketing company in the nation whose clients include Verizon, Wells Fargo, USAA, Four Seasons, Southwest, Wal-Mart and US Airways, to name a few. Working Woman magazine ranked Bonnie as one of the nation’s most successful female entrepreneurs and Pace as one of the top women-owned businesses in America.
Established, Bonnie moved her energy into the public sector. Her leadership and energy were well recognized and resulted in George W. Bush appointing Bonnie as U.S. ambassador to Finland, a post she held from 2001 to 2003. While there, she led several successful initiatives, including the Stop Child Trafficking: End Modern-Day Slavery, and the Women Business Leaders Summit in Helsinki in 2002 for women from the Baltic region and Russia. For her outstanding services, the president of Finland awarded Bonnie one of Finland’s highest honors—the Commander Grand Cross of the Order of the Lion.
“One thing I learned as ambassador to Finland,” says Bonnie, “is that our can-do attitude is uniquely American. When we encounter failure, we see an opportunity to learn, to grow, and reinvent. The most special characteristic of America is our confidence, hope, and faith in the future. I believe faith still plays a huge role in America…when you know that you never walk alone, you are encouraged, empowered, and uplifted. And when you know your mission in life is to be a good and faithful servant, you realize faith, tenacity, and hard work usually results in things turning out positively.”
In 2004, the president appointed Bonnie as the first female chairman of the American Red Cross. Now in her third three- year term, she has led the American Red Cross through some of the world’s largest natural disasters, including the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, and now superstorm Sandy.
“One thing I believe,” says Bonnie, “is that all we ever keep is what we give away.” She has served on the boards of Habitat for Humanity and the United Way, and as chairman of the American Red Cross, she has been in the Darfur refugee camps, in Madagascar immunizing children, and in Haiti after the earthquake. Bonnie says, “These were life- altering experiences for me.
I may not have changed all of the places I have served…but all of these experiences have changed me.”
Honored by her Horatio Alger Award, Bonnie says, “I feel like Horatio Alger is part of my family. I have had the privilege of being the guest of Buren and Dr. Thomas Haggai (’80) and bringing my mother to the Awards dinner for several years. I believe in the Horatio Alger Association and all it stands for…it has become a part of me. I am in awe of the Scholars and all they have accomplished in spite of their challenges. This award is an amazing privilege and an opportunity to continue to be inspired by and share encouragement with our greatest hope for the future…the Scholars. They have an opportunity to change the world in many ways. Giving of themselves and volunteering is one way they can do that. It would be a great gift to the world to create dignity of purpose for people, whether it’s in our country or around the world.”