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Rick Wofford speaks during a gathering at the former Bonny Oaks School location on Adamson Circle on Saturday, April 28, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Former students gathered to reconnect and celebrate the school, which was the largest child care facility in the area for 90 years, on Saturday.
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Bonny Oaks School alumni document their place in local history

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As a teenager fresh out of high school in 1975, Ronald McClure enlisted in the military. He said the address on his DD214 (the Department of Defense discharge certificate) is that of the former Bonny Oaks School.

"I wouldn't be the person I am today without the Bonny Oaks School. I proudly tell everyone my history of being raised in an orphan's home," said the former Marine from Murfreesboro, Tenn. McClure lived in Bonny Oaks School from 1965-1975, then later returned to the school for a year after his service in the Marines. After driving tractor-trailers for 11 years, he is now employed with Veterans Affairs at the Alvin C. York campus in Murfreesboro.

McClure was among two dozen former Bonny Oaks students, their spouses and school staff who gathered Saturday on the oval in front of the Dent House for a reunion and to share their memories on tape for a documentary about the school.

The Bonny Oaks School was a children's home that sheltered youth from 1895-1985. Children placed there were usually deemed neglected or dependent by the court, not delinquents.

The property along Bonny Oaks Drive was part of the 1854 plantation home of railroad contractor Jarrett Dent. The plantation home, The Dent House, has undergone many reincarnations over 164 years: military field hospital, bed-and-breakfast inn, office building for Chattanooga Church and now houses Polly Claire's Tearoom.

The Bonny Oaks School was home to hundreds of children over its 90 years. It is a significant piece of local history that threatens to be forgotten over time as the last of its students move into their senior years.

For this reason, alumnus Robert "Pete" Hale saw the need for a documentary to record their memories of life in the children's home. Hale came from Clearwater, Fla., for Saturday's reunion to film short testimonies by those present.

"The documentary was a thought I've had as the years have gone by and I observed the influence and memories of kids who grew up at Bonny Oaks. I did not want to miss the opportunity to share our stories," Hale said.

Hale said the film is being put together using historical resources at the Chattanooga Public Library, personal pictures of students and other documentation in addition to these taped memories. The finished product will be presented to the Chattanooga Public Library and be launched on the Bonny Oaks website.

Seated in the shade of towering oak and willow trees on the front drive's oval, reunion visitors passed a microphone, telling stories both poignant and funny about their years at the school. Some recalled climbing in the trees surrounding them and childhood pranks; others spoke of attending chapel every Sunday and daily chores.

Jimmy Tucker of Jasper, Tenn., said life at Bonny Oaks taught him a strong work ethic.

"We had three or four of us who milked 35 cows twice a day. We got up at 4:30 a.m. and milked cows, then again at 5:30 p.m.," said the alum who resided at the school from 1951-1963.

"Bonny Oaks School provided a stable environment for me, my sister and brother," said Betty Cabeen, a resident from 1957-1968. "I became a Christian while I was here and that changed my entire life."

She and her husband, Mark, married in the Bonny Oaks chapel.

Jenny Lambert was never a resident at Bonny Oaks School, but came to the reunion because her aunt, Grace Brown, was a housemother there from the 1950s through the 1970s.

"I went to school with a lot of students from Bonny Oaks," she said. "Pete Hale was class president at Tyner High School."

Hale said he and his half-brother were placed at the Vine Street Orphanage (later known as the Children's Home on Gillespie Road, now called Chambliss Center for Children) when he was 2 years old. He was transferred to Bonny Oaks School when he was 11.

"I have been asked many times how I maintained a positive attitude and sense of humor after 16 years [in a children's home] basically my entire childhood. I believe that there were many adults that affirmed, encouraged and showed that they cared about me as a child in the homes," he said.

He is now paying that forward as he works with foster children programs and is a guardian ad litem in Florida courts.

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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