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Mike Bonn leaves lasting legacy in Plum City's music program

Kris and Mike Bonn pose for a photo in their home. David Clarey / RiverTown Multimedia

At his home off of the Chippewa River in Durand, Plum City's former music teacher Mike Bonn bounced between stories of playing in a variety of bands throughout the early years of his life and his passion of music with his numerous students.

Whether it was recounting the work he would put into elementary school Christmas programs or the days he spent playing in bands that ranged from country bands in Nashville to variety rock bands at weddings, Bonn's passion for music exuded through all the stories — but shined through the most when discussing his work with students.

"I was really proud of how the [students] were proud of themselves, and they were very proud to have music be a part of their lives," Bonn said. "That speaks volumes, that's all a teacher can ask."

But after 27 years of teaching, Bonn has had to bow out due to a diagnosis of the degenerative muscle disease Lou Gehrig's, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. Those who worked with him throughout his tenure at Plum City say his impact on the music program has given it a sterling reputation that stretches throughout the area, but more than that, they say he lit up school rooms with his fun and joking nature.

A family man and a music dynasty

Shaughn Laehn started working as a teacher in Plum City at the same time Bonn did. They even lived in the same apartment building, but despite the proximity they didn't quickly develop as friends.

Laehn said that Bonn and he would "bounce school stuff off of" one another, but over time they grew closer.

"I think Mike is a real family man," Laehn said. "Mike spoke often about his family, not just his kids, but his parents too."

Laehn saw Bonn go from being one of two music personnel in the school district to one, after Bonn's predecessor, colleague and close friend Merlyn Aude retired in 2010.

"He had to adapt and do some things different," Laehn said. "It was very stressful, but we didn't talk about it. I know it was a bigger time commitment."

Bonn said people questioned whether or not he would be able to maintain the high school program's excellence — Aude had been head of the program for 34 years.

"I was able to continue with a high proficiency program, the program stayed strong," he said. "Everyone was afraid 'oh, what happens when Merlin retires?'"

Plum City's first grade teacher Kelly VonHoltum said the program and its continuation between Aude and Bonn has been "kind of a musical dynasty."

"Our band and choir were known far and wide for the quality and quantity of kids that went out," VonHoltum said. "That became a cool thing to do for kids."

Out of the 80 kids in the high school, Bonn said in his last year over half were involved in one music program or another. In the middle school, only about five or six were not involved.

VonHoltum said the elementary school Christmas programs in particular would stand out, and Bonn said that would be the busiest time of year for him.

He would put the program together himself — he once crafted a program called "The Incredible Program" about four reindeers with super powers — and often write his own songs for the various grades. His wife Kris and he would decorate the gym themselves the night before, and eventually the program grew so popular that he expanded it to two showings.

Bonn said he wanted parents with night or swing shifts to be able to attend their kids' concerts.

In his last year working at the school, Bonn recalled that the senior students put on a unscheduled final song during his last concert. They sang his favorite song, "Your Song" by Elton John. He said it was the best concert he's ever been a part of.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the room," Kris said.

Diagnosis

Bonn officially received confirmation of his diagnosis in August, after months of numerous doctor's appointments across two different facilities, battling his insurance company over the treatment and a back surgery — done before Bonn had any inkling of ALS — that he and his family hoped would solve any issues.

Throughout the lengthy medical saga, and since the diagnosis, Kris said they've done their best to stay positive, but she admitted "they have good days and they have bad days."

They both discussed how they battle mounting medical bills and a new perspective on their future together.

Bonn doesn't mince words when describing his thoughts on his diagnosis; he admits the struggle in his day-to-day lifestyle, the pain he feels watching Kris manage all of the house chores and, most of all, he misses teaching the kids.

"I miss being able to show them my passion for music," he said.

He and Kris are determined to make the most out of the time he has left with a manageable condition. He plans on participating in a family hunting trip, and she has recently taken him to a number of community festivals in the region.

A group of community members have organized a fundraising benefit for their medical bills on Nov. 3 in Plum City. Bonn said he initially disagreed, but was convinced by Aude to let the community help him. Since the diagnosis has been public, the support has come pouring in, the Bonns said.

"The community here has been just amazing," Kris said

Through it all, Bonn said he wants to emphasize his life philosophy — to go through life with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

A benefit supporting Bonn's medical expenses is being held 4-7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3 at the American Legion Hall in Plum City. The activities include a 50/50 raffle, meat raffles, bucket raffle, a silent auction and others.

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