Robert Harold Bonthius

WORTHINGTON, OHIO — Robert Harold Bonthius, teacher, pastor, writer, community organizer and tree farmer, formerly of Hancock and Blue Hill, died Aug. 14, 2011, at home in Worthington, Ohio. Born in Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 26, 1918, the son of Holland Dutch parents who had served as medical missionaries in China.

Bonthius earned his B.A. with honors in philosophy from Hope College in Holland, Mich. Called to the ministry, he attended San Francisco Theological Seminary, receiving his B.D. and a Graduate Fellowship. He then went on to Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York for his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. His doctoral dissertation became his first book, “Christian Paths to Self-Acceptance,” published by Columbia and chosen Book of the Month by the national Religious Book Club. In 1948, Bonthius accepted The College of Wooster (Ohio) call to be professor of religion. In the next seven years he taught and counseled students, headed a pioneering Carnegie Foundation survey of independent study programs for undergraduates published by Columbia Press, and organized the first multi-county mental health center in Ohio. In 1955, Vassar College invited Bonthius to be chaplain and professor of religion. In this period he became president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. His writings and published materials included sermons, intercollegiate and professional journal articles in theology, psychology and ethics. Bonthius moved from campus to parish ministry in 1959. He accepted the call of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Ore., to be its senior pastor. His ministry emphasized learning more about the Christian faith, worship and pastoral care as power for Christians in their everyday lives, and the historic Calvinist commitment to involve the church in the world around it. In the nation’s “long hot summer” of 1964 he joined the black community of Hattiesburg, Miss., in its voter registration campaign. Near the end of his Portland ministry, the Jewish community of Portland bestowed on him its B’nai B’rith Brotherhood Award for service to city and state. In 1966, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, asked Bonthius to teach clergy of all faiths how to organize for social changes in their communities. The success of this five-year pilot program encouraged him to form the Action Training Network of Ohio (ATN). During the ’70s ATN’s statewide staff of 24 trained over 300 local, state and national groups to make systemic changes regarding racism, sexism, hunger, poverty, public education, domestic violence and the environment. Bonthius and his wife, Fran Truitt, made time to travel the Western U.S., Western Europe and East Africa to learn more about the growing, global, economic gap between rich and poor. In 1980, the couple “retired” to Hancock. Bonthius was the architect and general contractor for their solar energy house. Bonthius was elected president of the Washington-Hancock Community Action Agency. He did volunteer organizing with the Maine Woodsmen’s Association. Bonthius and Truitt served local churches including the Mt. Desert Larger Parish, provided training for 23 Maine community organizations, helped organize the U.S.-Soviet Nuclear Freeze town meetings in Maine, and advocated for U.S. justice toward El Salvador and Nicaragua. In 1983, Catholic and Protestant groups in Nicaragua asked for support in building a just economic society by stopping the U.S. government Contra War against them. Bonthius and Truitt became co-founders of Witness for Peace (WFP). For the next 13 years (to 1996) each took major leadership roles in WFP at the international level. As poor majority groups in Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Columbia have requested international solidarity, WFP has continued to grow: multiplying U.S. delegations and increasing its challenges to U.S. policies that favor the “haves” rather than the “have nots.” During the WFP years, Bonthius became a certified American Tree Farmer, managing their woods for multi-age growth and wildlife, and building trails for enjoyment. The tree farm became a place of rest and renewal for peace activists, friends, and family. In 1990, with others, Bonthius founded the Friends of Taunton Bay (FTB) to stop aquaculture in this fragile estuary and to protect the bay from all types of degradation. He was FTB’s founding president; he served until 1997. In 1998, Bonthius and Truitt gave a conservation easement of their beloved Blue Heron Tree Farm to the Frenchman Bay Conservancy in perpetuity. In 2009, they returned to Ohio to be closer to family members.

He is survived by his wife, lover, and dearest friend Fran; sons, Robert Jr. and Andrew II, of Cleveland, Ohio; son, Coert, of Ithaca, N.Y.; daughter, Rebecca Lyn of Oakland, Calif.; stepchildren, Mary Elizabeth O’Brien and Robert T. Carter; grandchildren, Andrew, Rebecca, Elizabeth, Rosa.

Memorial gifts may be sent to Witness for Peace, 3628 12th St. NE Washington, DC 20077-5213.

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