At 86, she’s had a long life of breaking the mold

  • Wed Nov 2nd, 2011 2:38pm
  • Life

By Theresa Goffredo, Herald Writer

Selma Bonham radically alters any concept we might have of aging seniors.

When she was 85, she was the oldest runner to take first place in the 10K Run of the Mill race in Mill Creek this year, beating all the male and female competitors.

At 70, she beat cancer. She did that again at age 71 and 77.

As a peace activist, she has participated in flash mobs to protest war.

As a leader in Citizens for a Better Mill Creek, she helped fight — and win — against a Wal-Mart being built in town.

Today at 86, Bonham still drives her 15-year-old granddaughter to and from dance lessons and occasionally models for Goodwill.

As rogue as she is, Bonham keeps at least one tradition:

“I will cook the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving,” Bonham said. “The whole works. I do the whole bit. Just like the grandmas did.

“Some traditions I keep, some not.”

Bonham, whose life is filled with a richly textured pattern of breaking the mold, learned from her parents — mostly her mother — that a woman’s life should stretch beyond the home.

Bonham’s mother, Ida Moses, worked making parachutes during World War II and was able to earn enough to send her four children to college.

Selma studied in a field dominated by men, earning an undergraduate degree in geology and mineralogy from Penn State in 1947 and receiving her master’s from Stanford University in 1949.

Though she described herself as “just shy of being a pacifist,” Bonham had to be thankful for the war effort.

“I opposed all the wars except World War II,” said Bonham, who joined the peace and advocacy group the Gray Panthers in 1986 and served on their board. “It was unavoidable. It wasn’t a war of choice.”

Bonham worked for the U.S. Geologic Survey in Washington, D.C., putting in 20 full-time years. The last 10 years there, she helped prepare studies for the Defense Intelligence Agency and learned some Russian to understand Russian geological studies.

She met Dr. Lawrence Douglas Bonham in 1950. The two married in 1951. The couple had three children, Janet, Doug and Lynn.

While raising her children, Selma still worked part time. She also maintained the exercise program she grew up with as a female: dancing.

But when her kids were far enough along in school, Selma Bonham went back to work full time. One day a colleague suggested they go running.

In 1980, Bonham ran her first 10K, or six-mile, race. She was 50.

“I had no idea I could run a 10K,” Bonham said. “I’m not an athlete but I realized how much I could accomplish by sticking with it. I surprised myself that I could run a 10K.”

Bonham, whose long hair was tied up and who sat sipping tea at the University Book Store in Mill Creek, said it has been her fitness that helped contribute to her quick recoveries from cancer.

She was diagnosed in 1995 with cancer in her jaw. She remembers that after the surgery, she had a room overlooking the runners on the Georgetown University track and vowed to run again.

A different kind of cancer attacked her nose in 1996. She fought it again. In 2000, her husband died unexpectedly.

Cancer returned to her nose again in 2002. Radiation was successful and she’s been cancer free since then.

Bonham has also run many 10Ks in that time. She finished the Run of the Mill in Mill Creek in first place 10 times. This year, she was 85 when she finished the race as the oldest runner, beating out a woman who was 74 and a man who was 76.

Bonham said this year’s Run of the Mill was her last. She has reached all her goals.

“It was so wonderful to end my running career on a high note,” Bonham said. “But it was time for me to quit. There is one knee that is complaining. But I’ve lucky to have been able to do it for this long.”

This in no way means Bonham will quit exercising. She still walks, does the treadmill, moves to Jane Fonda aerobics tapes, lifts weights and basically does something active every day.

“Running has contributed to my fitness and brought me a lot of respect too, I have to admit,” Bonham said. “It’s most satisfying when you hear ‘I want to be like you when I grow up.’ I love to hear that.”

In 2008, Bonham entered and was among the winners of a Macy’s essay contest called “Better With Age” for women 50 and older. Bonham was 83.

As an essay winner, Bonham was invited to go down the runway and compete to become a Macy’s model in their fashion-show fundraiser. So Bonham put on her running shoes and ran down the runway. She was one of the 15 chosen as a Macy’s model.

From that experience, Bonham began modeling for Goodwill in 2009.

Goodwill has a vast collection of vintage clothing and the store puts on fashion shows to raise money for their programs.

Bonham has been in several Goodwill shows and says wearing their outfits is like dressing up for Halloween but for a good cause.

“I love to be part of doing something worthwhile,” Bonham said.

So whether it’s modeling for a good cause or being a member of one of three book clubs or planning a Thanksgiving dinner, Bonham said she has no chance to get bored.

“You learn,” she said “that what you can do was more than you thought you could do.”