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Meet Bonnie Hamlin: A Volunteer in a League of Her Own

Updated: May 10

by Abby Cohn


In honor of LWVO’s Centennial, we are documenting our past with interviews, archival excavations, and blogs. See LWVO Celebrates One Hundred Years of Community Service, LWVO 1924-2024, Celebrating LWVO Life Member Mary Strauss.


Bonnie Hamlin has a wry explanation for why she’s devoted 42 years of service to the Oakland League: She has an incurable case of “helium hand.” The syndrome, she says, compels her routinely to lift her hand to volunteer whenever needs arise.


But in truth, Bonnie wouldn’t have it any other way. “My life has really revolved around volunteering,” she says. “I sort of made the League my career in a lot of ways and just have had so much fun with it.”


Over the decades, Bonnie’s helium hand has resulted in her roles, among others, as the Oakland League’s president, vice president, treasurer, development committee chair, office volunteer coordinator, and newsletter editor.  She’s also held several positions with the state League.


In recognition of her remarkable contributions, the League will honor Bonnie at its June 13 centennial celebration at the Camron-Stanford House. LWVO will also honor fellow longtime League leader Ernestine Nettles, while The Oaklandside, a local news organization, will receive the 2024 Making Democracy Work Award.


Bonnie’s tireless efforts to fulfill our mission of defending democracy and empowering voters have been a boon to the League and residents of Oakland overall. One of her crowning achievements came in 1996. As League president, she helped secure the city council’s passage of the Sunshine Ordinance, which improved the openness of government by requiring that the public receive timely notice of public meetings and their agendas. Before that, information about agenda items wasn’t available until the Friday before the council’s Tuesday meeting. “That simply wasn’t enough time for the public to become familiar with the reports that were written for the council by city staff to be able to prepare any advocacy that they wanted to do,” Bonnie explains. The Sunshine Ordinance aimed to “make it actually physically possible for people to participate.”


Bonnie likewise was a strong advocate of the charter amendment that authorized Oakland voters instead of the city council to fill unexpired council vacancies. She has been long involved in providing voters with nonpartisan information about elections through the League’s Pros and Cons presentations, and the online voter information websites Smart Voter, Voter’s Edge, and now VOTE411.


Bonnie politely demurs when asked to estimate the untold hours she has dedicated to the League. She says she’s gained much in return. Through the League, Bonnie says she has met interesting, committed people, many of whom have become lifelong friends. League members, she says, are “unpretentious, intelligent, thoughtful people, and welcoming.” Her League experience has given her insight into the inner workings of city government and campaign financing, and inspired her to teach herself how to lay out newsletters and work with databases, among other skills.


What drew Bonnie to the League in the first place was its professional handling of the early televised presidential debates. And like many League members, she comes with an interesting story.


A Washington, D.C., native, she attended the Sidwell Friends School and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College with a degree in zoology and chemistry. She had a dream of becoming a physician but eventually abandoned the idea after being warned of the struggle to succeed in what was then a male-dominated field. Instead, Bonnie earned a master’s degree in education from Northwestern University and worked in scientific and IT research before she married her husband, Earl, and moved to California in 1971.


In Oakland, she threw herself into volunteerism, becoming an active member of the Montclair Presbyterian Church, where she still sings in the choir. In 2019 she and Earl received recognition from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce for outstanding service to the community.

She was the founding president of Oakland’s sister city association with the Russian port town of Nakhodka. Though Bonnie has stepped aside from official League duties, she remains faithful. Now living with Earl at Piedmont Gardens, she recently worked with a group establishing a League unit at the senior living community. She also serves on the Piedmont Gardens resident council. “My old helium hand is not letting me rest,” she jokes.

 

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