At 90, Bonnie Clarke still mows her own yard, lifts weights three times per week and drives a bright yellow classic Camero to her volunteer tutoring hour at Magnolia Woods Elementary School.
“I’m not sure what year it is, but I bought it 37 years ago,” Clarke said.
The car suits her personality well, said Joan Pennington, who coordinates a crew of about 80 volunteer tutors at the school.
“She’s dedicated, and that’s very important with kids,” Pennington said. “You have to show up for them. And she sings to them, which they love.”
Clarke has been a reading friend at several Baton Rouge area schools for the last decade, she said, and it’s just the most recent of several interesting jobs for Clarke.
Her first career began at 14, when she and two of her sisters sang on a Memphis radio program that later turned into a gig with Bob Crosby — brother to Bing — and his band.
“We got on the train all dressed in our matching suits,” Clarke said, “and when he saw us, he was shocked at how young we were. From hearing us on the radio, he thought we were older.”
The trio, known as the Cromwell Sisters — she performed using the stage name Jean Cromwell — toured until Clarke was 17. Her eldest sister, much to her dismay, got married, breaking up the group.
Then, in 1941, she started her second career packing gunpowder into incendiary devices at a munitions factory near Memphis.
“I had to get up at 3 in the morning to get to work,” she said, adding that she sang to entertain her coworkers during lunch breaks.
That career led to a third job inspecting B-24 bombers, she said. When that job ended, she went to New York City on the advice of her sister and began singing for radio commercials, “but they didn’t pay in cash. When you sang for a sweater ad, they’d pay you with sweaters. I had so many sweaters.”
When she heard about a paying gig with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra, she tried out, and got the job.
“But I was one girl with a group of men,” said Clarke. “I told him I wouldn’t take the job unless I had a female traveling companion,” she said. “He got one of the girls who worked in the office and sent her with me. She was thrilled.”
For the next two years, Clarke would perform in venues in New York and Los Angeles, moving in the same circles as movie stars and performers. When they suggested she do a screen test, however, she refused.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” she said of the Hollywood life, and the shallowness and manipulation that often came with it.
About two years into her career, she was on the beach in Hollywood when she heard a loud commotion, bells ringing and people crying with joy.
The war was over, which meant her sweetheart, a paratrooper named Gene Clarke, would be coming home.
She quit without a second thought, and the two got married and had four children together.
Her husband worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and was transferred from Memphis to Baton Rouge, where they raised their family and she worked as a language development specialist until she turned 68.
“Then I retired because Gene wanted to go fishing in the middle of the week, and he wanted me to go with him,” she said.
Her husband passed away a few years after that, she said, and she needed to keep busy, and she has. She’s actively involved in her church, toured the United Kingdom with the Sweet Adelines and came back to teaching as a tutor.
“I’ve had the chance to see real improvements in my students,” she said. “I get a lot of pleasure out of it, and I feel like I’m doing something that’s making a difference.”
Well, something else that’s making a difference.
Pennington said more volunteers are desperately needed systemwide, with a long waiting list for children who need a reading friend.
Reading friends commit to reading to a child for one hour per week, she said. “We’d love to do a lot more, but if we can intervene with students that are having trouble early on, we can do a lot of good with a little investment,” she said.
For information on volunteering for the program, contact Volunteers in Public Schools at firstname.lastname@example.org (225) 226-4702.
Hear Bonnie Clarke singing as Jean Cromwell with Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlQwGwXRLfE.