Samford lost a dear friend in early August. Bonnie Bolding Swearingen was a Samford graduate and generous supporter of the university. In President Andrew Westmoreland’s recent tribute to Bonnie he wrote, “Bonnie never forgot Samford. She loved this university, its campus and its people. We give thanks for the legacy of Bonnie’s remarkable life.”
She came to Samford after winning a scholarship through the Miss Alabama contest, graduating in 1955. During her time at Samford, which was then Howard College, she performed in plays and was the drum majorette as well as a cheerleader. According to Samford’s Assistant to the President Michael Morgan, “Bonnie LOVED Samford athletics, especially football.” Her sense of philanthropy started early at Samford as she helped raise money for the new campus while a student.
After Samford, she received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse in California. At that time, the Pasadena Playhouse was the place to go to start your acting career. There, she enjoyed success in television and movies before leaving Hollywood to become a New York stockbroker. Bonnie was one of the first women to earn a seat on the exchange. It was in New York that she met and married John Swearingen, the CEO of Standard Oil of Indiana (now BP America). “Bonnie also devoted her time to significant civic and philanthropic causes. Many leaders of industry, politics and society—including several U.S. presidents—knew Bonnie as a friend,” said Westmoreland.
Bonnie and her husband reconnected with Samford in the early ‘70s and in 1973, John Swearingen was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and spoke at Samford's commencement. Their generosity over the years provided funds for scholarships, a rose garden in honor of Bonnie’s mother Gertha Bolding, Bonnie Bolding Swearingen Hall, Bolding Studio, Sullivan-Cooney Fieldhouse and the Legacy League. Bonnie also underwrote the first student-led Masquerade Ball in 2008. During their lifetimes, Bonnie and her husband John gave just under $3.5 million to Samford University. John passed away in September 2007. Samford held a service celebrating his life the next month.
According to former chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance Don Sandley, “Bonnie loved to donate clothing to our costume collection. She would show up with bags and bags of very expensive designer clothing. The problem was that Bonnie was tiny and there were not a lot of people that could wear them. But, when they did, wow, we had some fancy costumes on our stage. “
Not only did she provide financial support of the theatre program but both she and her sister Marjorie provided encouragement to the students and Samford Arts community. Sandley said, “Marjorie has been an amazing source of support and encouragement to me. We talk often and she acted for me in the Samford production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. That was one of my all-time favorite experiences in theatre. Bonnie flew in for the run and was so supportive. Our students learned so much from working with a very gifted professional like Marjorie Bolding.”
Samford hosted a party for Bonnie’s 84th birthday in the Rotunda Club in 2017. Senior Charitable Foundations Advancement Officer Claude Rhea remembered the event this way, “Samford, led by the School of the Arts, literally rolled out the red carpet for her and her family at this celebration. Student recipients of her scholarship attended and enjoyed visiting with her.”
Dean of the School of the Arts Joe Hopkins said, “We already miss our friend Bonnie Bolding, but she has left an enduring mark on this place and our people. Her spirit and contributions empower scholarship, performance, and the Samford Arts experience. We are grateful for her legacy of encouragement, and we share her confidence that the School of the Arts is becoming a national leader.”
According to Westmoreland “Bonnie possessed an irrepressible spark of vitality and lived each moment to the fullest. If the world is indeed a stage, Bonnie would inhabit the spotlight.”
A private graveside ceremony was held at Elmwood cemetery in Birmingham and a Celebration of Bonnie's Life will take place at a future date.