In recognition of her decades of service to Lodi, Bonita “Bonnie” Cassel will be inducted into the Lodi Community Hall of Fame by the Lodi Boys and Girls Club Board of Directors in March.
“I just took it as a real compliment, and I very much appreciate the recognition,” Cassel said. “I have spent 40 years in the community in various phases of being an educator, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, so it’s nice to have this organization appreciate it in this manner.”
Currently a resident of Clements, Cassel has lived in the Lodi area since 1978. As a member of the Lodi Unified School District Board of Education from 2006 to 2018, she represented Area 1 which includes Lockeford, Houston and Victor schools, among others.
Susan Macfarlane, who won the Area 1 seat after defeating Cassel in the November 2018 election, said Cassel is “more than deserving” of being inducted into the Lodi Community Hall of Fame.
“I’m very excited for Bonnie, she’s worked very hard for our schools and our community for years, and she deserves all this recognition and more,” Macfarlane said.
“I have some big shoes to fill, but I hope I do half the job she did. I’m really happy for her.”
Cassel graduated from University of California, Davis in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in history, and from 1984 to 1985 she attended California State University, Stanislaus, where she received her teaching credentials. She graduated from CSU Sacramento with a master’s degree in history in 1991, and in 2001 she received her graduate educational administration certificate from University of Oregon.
From 1985 to 2002, Cassel taught at several LUSD schools including George Washington Elementary in Lodi and Morada Middle and Bear Creek High in Stockton.
Cassel was nominated by her friend and former co-worker Ren Pham-Peck, a counselor at Bear Creek High, who said that Cassel always advocated for what was best for the students.
“She always led by example, being kind to kids who needed extra help and reaching out to them. She’s always gone above and beyond,” Pham-Peck said. “She’s just always had a soft voice and advocated with such grace for our students.”
Inspired by some of the teachers she studied under while she was still in school, Cassel said she decided early in her life that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I’m from a generation where there were two professions for women: You could be a teacher or a nurse,” Cassel said. “But I’ve always been very happy I went into teaching, I have no regrets. It’s been a fabulous career.”
Cassel also chose to become a teacher because she wanted a profession where she could give back and help others, she said.
“I actually got into teaching a little bit later than most people, but that’s made it all the more special for me,” Cassel said.
During her time at Bear Creek High, Cassel served as chair of the social studies department, Western Accreditation for Schools chair, a mentor teacher and a beginning teacher support trainer of teachers. In 1996, she was honored as Bear Creek High’s Teacher of the Year for “exemplary teaching and leadership.”
Cassel’s career in education was not limited to just LUSD, she said, as she worked for San Joaquin Delta College as an adjunct professor from 1996 to 2005.
“I taught primarily in night classes at Tokay or Lodi High School,” Cassel said. “I taught U.S. history, but I also taught women’s history.”
The first Delta instructor to teach women’s history off-campus, Cassel said her first class was made up of all women, some of whom she still sees around Lodi.
Much like herself, Cassel said many of the students in her first women’s history class were the first women in their families to go to college.
“For a lot of them, women’s history was the first class they took at the college level. They have graduated, and they’re in professions now,” Cassel said with pride.
After she left the teaching profession, Cassel said she decided on a whim to join the National Parks Service as a ranger and started as a volunteer interpretive ranger at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.
“They basically told me if I survived the summer — they had a very rigorous program — that’s what I would need for a future in the National Parks Service,” Cassel said.
Since then, Cassel has spent her summers serving as an interpretive ranger for the National Parks service at national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Mt. Rainier, she said, as well as Sequoia & Kings National Park, where in 2013 she was chosen as “Best Ranger” for her attitude, work ethic and expertise in research and writing.
“I’ve pretty much worked at a different park every summer since then,” Cassel said.
Although Jennifer Cassel — Bonnie Cassel’s daughter — now teaches advanced placement literature and composition and advanced placement art history at Tokay High School, she taught alongside her mother at Bear Creek High earlier in her career.
“We taught in classrooms, side-by-side, and we team-taught a group of seniors. It was a really cool experience,” Jennifer said. “I have always been really grateful for that experience.”
Jennifer credits her mother for inspiring her to pursue her own career in education, which she still loves after 26 years as a teacher.
“I always tell people, I’ve known a lot of really great teachers, and my mom is the best teacher I’ve ever known,” Jennifer said. “I’ve also attended a lot of (school) board meetings, and I saw her do a lot of really inspiring work there, as well. She’s also a great mom, and an awesome grandma, too.”
School board member George Neely also spoke highly of Cassel, saying that during her time on the board she advocated not only for the schools she represented but for all schools, often visiting school sites and working with teachers to improve the students’ education.
“I’m a big, big fan of Bonnie Cassel, and I always have been,” Neely said. “Even before I was on the board, when I was the antagonistic one in the audience at meetings, she was always a board member I could talk to. That’s why, when I was elected to the board, one of the first things I did was I met with her. I think it’s great that the community is finally recognizing her for all that she’s done.”