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A life remembered: Bonnie Cumberland

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lifestyles Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd Dispatch
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Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

A colorful card with a flower on the cover. Distinct swirls in the handwriting. Hundreds of people have received such a card, read that flowing writing.

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Brainerd City Council President Bonnie Cumberland sent many in her lifetime.

To say thank you. You’re appreciated. She’s thinking of you. Get well. Merry Christmas. Stay strong. You’re doing a good job.

The messages were endless — the thought of each, genuine.

Cumberland was found dead in her home Monday night. She was 67.

The city of Brainerd lost its No. 1 advocate, said many who knew her.

The education community, a cheerleader for learning and retired Brainerd High School (BHS) marketing teacher.

The faith community, a proud volunteer and weekly attendee.

“She made me a better person just by emulating her care and concern for other people,” said close friend and City Administrator Theresa Goble. “I can’t count on both hands the amount of times I got encouraging notes from her.”

When the former Brainerd mayor and longtime city council member didn’t arrive for Monday’s regular council session, Brainerd police officers were dispatched to her northeast Brainerd home. After finding her car parked there, officers ended up breaking down the door. They found her inside. The cause of death has yet to be determined.

Never married, Cumberland leaves behind a slew of people who considered her family.

At Brainerd City Hall, staff will miss that smile and warm greeting.

“She loved Brainerd. She wanted it to move forward. She was a great leader,” Goble said.

Goble’s connection with Cumberland started in 1991 when Cumberland was first elected onto the city council.

“The minute you see her, she’s a friend. She’s like no friend you’ve had before,” Goble said.

Cumberland never forgot a birthday or anniversary. Each occasion was celebrated with candy or other goodies she would drop off.

“When she walked in the door, we all smiled because ‘Bonnie’s here,’” Goble said.

Cumberland considered Brainerd her home since she moved here in 1968, said her only brother, Scott Cumberland, who was seven years her junior.

“She was very involved in caring and concern for the well-being of the town,” he said.

The knack for sending cards likely started back in grade school, when Cumberland started writing to a pen pal in England, he said.

Faith was a vibrant part of Cumberland’s life. She went to services every Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church, sitting in the same spot: the back row of the overflow area.

When friend and fellow BHS retired teacher Doug Johnson saw her spot empty last Sunday, he thought something came up for the busy volunteer.

The news of her death leaves him stunned.

“There was a magnetism in her spirit,” he said. “She was very positive. It was there. Her smile was infectious.”

The two taught together for three decades. Both early arrivers, they chatted each morning before class.

“Students were connected and drawn to her,” he said. “She reached out to students that had a special desire to be in the business world. She filled a very important niche in their lives. ... She was born to teach.”

In church, Cumberland was president of the congregation a few years ago, and most currently a New Pathways volunteer and an active Gospel reader during church.

“For Bonnie, it was more than just going to church. She felt she was part of church. It was her family,” said the Rev. Dave Holte. “She was an easy person to love.”

Johnson said he’ll see that empty pew in the overflow area and miss Cumberland’s smile every Sunday at church, her friendly hello and hug.

Another home Cumberland made for herself was at BHS, where she retired in 2002 after 34 years as a marketing teacher.

Brainerd Superintendent Steve Razidlo, who was principal of the high school when Cumberland retired, said she left behind a legacy of support for young people.

“She supported students from every corner of the district, every background. Those who felt they didn’t really have a home or group to belong to, they found a champion in Bonnie,” he said.

Razidlo added, “If you look at the stars in the heavens, one light just went out.”

Dick Ashmun said Cumberland shined not only as a teacher, but a student herself.

Ashmun was Cumberland’s professor while she studied marketing in the undergraduate program at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1960s.

Cumberland’s confidence made her stand out, he said.

“Among students, she was quick to make friends. She was smart, very intelligent,” he said.

Pat McDonald, a former marketing teacher and DECA adviser from Irondale High School, knew Cumberland through several district, state and national conferences.

“When she was elected mayor, I congratulated her and told her how fortunate Brainerd was to have her at the helm. Bonnie, being her humble self, said she thought she was the lucky one and she hoped she would live up to the expectations of the position,” McDonald said.

At city hall, rarely did a meeting take place without an early arrival on the part of Cumberland.

Lucy Nesheim, a friend who served with Cumberland on the city council, helped campaign for Cumberland when she first ran for mayor in the early 1990s.

Cumberland was smart and dedicated, Nesheim said.

“I thought she would be a wonderful mayor. And she was,” she said.

In the late 1990s, when Cumberland served as Brainerd mayor, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was active in her community, serving on the Brainerd Public Utilities Commission. Cumberland was Brainerd Citizen of the Year in 2001. She was co-president of Alpha Delta Kappa, a teaching sorority. She was an honorary chair for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life.

Giving of her time was more than just something to do — it was a way of life.

Perhaps Cumberland herself summed up her life philosophy best in a 1997 interview with the Dispatch.

“As long as I can, I’m going to live my life like a torch. Then, I’ll pass it on.”

JESSICA LARSEN, staff writer, may be reached at jessica.larsen@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.

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