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October 13, 2013

FURFARI COLUMN: Bonsall founded Special Olympics program for state’s handicapped kids

MORGANTOWN — William A. “Bill” Bonsall not only is West Virginia’s “Father of Gymnastics” but also the founder of the Mountain State’s Special Olympics program for handicapped children.

What’s more, the university’s 31-year veteran and only head coach of a men’s gymnastics program that no longer exists, has numerous other credits. Those benefited the state residents as well as schools at all levels.

Bonsall, a Philadelphia, Pa., native and Penn State graduate, organized and served the first three years as president of the West Virginia Prisoners of War chapter in West Virginia. He was in the U.S. Army during World War II for three years.

A member of the forces that landed at Normandy on D-Day, he was captured by German troops on Sept. 5, 1944, at Dinant, Belgium. Bonsall was held there until he escaped to Warsaw, Poland, on Jan. 31, 1945.

  He returned to the United States later that year. After receiving his honorable discharge, he re-enrolled at Penn State. He graduated in 1949, and then came to West Virginia University later that year.

Bonsall, who becomes 90 at year’s end, turned out gymnastics teams that combined for a record of 130-117-1 during his 31-year career at WVU.

He took time from his job to visit high schools throughout West Virginia and urged them to start gymnastics programs. To promote that sport, Bonsall donned a clown suit and staged a demonstration of gymnastic skills during halftime of basketball games.

So you might say that’s another “first” for his lengthy list of program starts. After initiating the state’s Special Olympics program for handicapped kids in 1963, Bonsall directed WVU’s all-campus intramural sports program for seven years. He also taught classes for the institution’s School of Physical Education.

Another feather for Coach Bonsall’s cap came in 1955. He brought the Swedish national gymnastics team to Morgantown for an exhibition appearance at the old Field House (now Stansbury Hall).

Bonsall has been retired from coaching since 1980.

Bill and wife Jean, who have been married 67 years, still reside in Morgantown and adopted West Virginia by choice.

Upon retirement, he was honored with the title of professor emeritus. He had numerous interests, including art and drafting, to keep him and Jean busy after retirement.

They were active for many years in local social organizations, including some at the Village of Heritage Point, where they have lived for 14 years.

The Bonsalls have three grown children and seven grandchildren. The children are Barbara Wood of Fairfax County, Va.; Janet Humphrey of Warrenbury, Mo.; and Paul Bonsall of Charlotte, N.C.

Bill and Jean Bonsall were co-owners of Paige Creations, the largest distributor of post cards in the state of West Virginia.

They sold the well-known business some time ago.

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