By Holly Jenkins
Special to the Rappahannock News
Bonnie Jean Behrendt — formerly Bonnie Jean Jenkins, for those who might have sat next to her in class — has finally been presented with her 1966 Rappahannock County High School diploma during a special ceremony Tuesday evening.
Her family members, spanning multiple generations, proudly applauded as she was recognized by Rappahannock Schools Superintendent Shannon Grimsley. With joy and a radiant smile, Bonnie enthusiastically held the document high for the audience to see her hard earned achievement from 52 years ago.
Born in 1947, Bonnie was raised with her eleven siblings on an apple orchard on F.T. Valley Road, just outside of Sperryville. She attended Rappahannock public schools and played for the Panthers basketball team, along with one of her sisters, Marjorie.
A few months prior to her graduation, her father, Fred William Jenkins, was tragically killed by a hunter’s bullet after being mistaken for an animal from a long distance. His death had devastating consequences, emotionally and financially, for his widowed wife and 12 children. Shortly thereafter, they had to move away from their home.
Though she received all of her academic credits for graduation, Bonnie was unable to pay the small fee required at that time to receive the paper diploma.
After moving from the family orchard, Bonnie went on to work for the phone company, got married, and raised a family. Shortly after her retirement from the phone company, her oldest daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Bonnie spent the following 10 years caring for her until she eventually lost her battle to the disease in 2012 at the young age of 38.
The loss of her daughter took a toll on her health and was followed by grief, depression, and early onset dementia. Bonnie’s step-daughter, Lindsey Wangsgard, wanted to do something special for the lady she has lovingly called her step-mom for the last 19 years. Wangsgard recalls how Bonnie regretted not receiving her high school diploma. She would often joke about not having the diploma to prove that she had graduated.
“She has never been mad that she didn’t receive it, but education was very important to her. Of the 12 children, she was one of three to graduate from high school,” she says.
Lindsey contacted Superintendent Grimsley to inquire about her step-mother’s diploma.
According to Wangsgard, “This is something I’ve always wanted to do for her. I have so much respect for her. She was a hard working farm girl, and in her lifetime grew to be a woman who could make something out of anything — and cook anything from anything. She was hard working and had grit unlike any other woman I had met.”
Grimsley promptly checked the archived records and confirmed that one Bonnie Jean Jenkins did indeed fulfill all requirements for the 1966 graduation.
“We were thrilled to be able to track down Mrs. Behrendt’s academic records to verify the story and ultimately award her an official high school diploma,” Grimsley says. “Equity in education is a right of all students and does not carry with it a timestamp. Mrs. Behrendt’s story is one we hope will leave a lasting impression on our community, illustrating the importance that a high school diploma can have on a person’s life.”
The diploma, retroactively issued, was signed by the current issuing administration: Grimsley, Wes Mills (school board chairman), and Karen Ellis (high school principal). It was signed with a 2018 issue date, with 1966 as the graduation date. In addition to the diploma, she was presented with the 1966 and 1965 yearbooks and a copy of her high school transcripts.