A Life: Wayne Bonhag, 1945 — 2012; ‘He Was Able to Make Whoever He Ran Into Feel Special’
Wayne Bonhag, at front, laughs with his family while taking a group photograph in 2010. (Courtesy photograph)
Wayne T. Bonhag in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph)
Lebanon — As the town’s representative throughout a 15-month construction process, Wayne Bonhag devoted incalculable hours toward the completion of the Kilton Public Library on West Lebanon’s Main Street, many of them donated.
His engineering ethos — creative, thoughtful, effective, green — is engrained into the building: The aisles, unlit, are illuminated by motion sensors when a visitor walks by. Geothermal heat pumps heat and cool the library, and a wood pellet boiler provides auxiliary heat when temperatures drop. Window shades automatically rise and fall to heat or cool the building, freeing library staff to focus attention elsewhere.
The list goes on — but on the building’s opening day in July 2010, with so many things of which to be proud, his children said Bonhag was perhaps most excited about the library’s simple children’s reference desk, which Bonhag named in honor of his wife and unveiled to her that day.
“That was just a very special gift,” Bonhag’s daughter, Mary, said recently, sitting in her parents’ home with her mother, brother and sister-in-law nearby.
Mary turned toward her mother, Molly. “It had the surprise element,” Mary told her, “and making a fuss over you, and you don’t ever attract fuss.”
Friends and family say that was Wayne Bonhag: A hard worker who boasted an impressive resume, but who really just wanted the people around him to be happy.
Bonhag died in August at age 66, bringing to close a seven-year struggle with prostate cancer — a battle he kept private for about five years after receiving his diagnosis. But even as he coped with a life-altering disease, he continued searching for ways to deliver smiles and laughter to whoever surrounded him.
“In the last few years, he really enjoyed making his carepeople at Dartmouth-Hitchcock laugh,” Molly Bonhag said. “He would usually go in with a story or a funny joke or something. One time he had a clown nose in his pocket, you know, so when (a caretaker) was doing something and turned their back, he’d pop on his clown nose.
“He was just trying to shake up the troops.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Bonhag had an innate love for history but was groomed to take over his father’s engineering business. After high school, he was drawn to the University of Vermont for its engineering program, earning bachelor’s and Master’s degrees there.
He returned to New Jersey to work for his father’s business, rekindling a friendship with Molly, who he knew from high school. They were married in 1971 and moved to Lebanon in the early ’90s so that Bonhag could begin working for Springfield, Vt.-based firm Dufresne-Henry. By 1997, he had founded the electrical and mechanical engineering firm Bonhag Associates.
The business, his family said, operated out of relatively close quarters in the family home on Poverty Lane, where the three Bonhag children — Amy, Jeffrey and Mary — would often find their father meeting with clients in the living room. As the firm grew, the operations migrated to the slightly larger basement and the Bonhags eventually built an addition onto the house — and then an addition onto the addition.
While Bonhag never lost his love of history, he excelled in his field, and enjoyed it, too, family said.
“He thrived on that, the challenge, and working it out in his brain,” Mary Bonhag said. “He was always thinking and always working on problems in his head, even if it seemed like he was not —” or, Molly Bonhag added, even if he was napping.
“He always had a problem that he was chewing on,” Mary said.
Ellen Raymond, who began working for Bonhag as an intern when she was 20 and grew to become the company’s vice-president, said engineers respected Bonhag for his willingness to consider new approaches to old problems.
“Wayne was not cookie cutter, and that’s probably the best way to put it,” Raymond said. “It’s very easy to do the same thing over and over again. … Wayne was always willing to do it differently. He was always willing to find an alternate approach, to tweak it, to do it different, or to do something that somebody else might have been afraid to do.”
That’s especially unusual to find in an engineer, she said, because “there’s always a time or money consequence to everything we do.”
Plus, she said, “Wayne was always thinking about everything. Even if it wasn’t his repsonbility, even if he wasn’t specifically trained for that, he had touched so many different things in his careers, he could look at things and go, ‘I know I’m not classically trained as an architect … but if you tweaked this building somehow … it could make it better.’ ”
That ability to see the big picture prevailed in the Kilton Public Library project. Bonhag Associates were not the engineers but instead served as client representatives for the town, coordinating the many contractors associated with the project, managing the project’s costs and reporting back to the library board.
Lou Ungarelli, Lebanon’s retired library director who became close friends with Bonhag during the project, said the Kilton Public Library was more to Bonhag than just another building. He felt passionately about contributing something important to the community he was engrained in.
“He spent a lot of time on the project, long hours, a lot of it volunteering his time. I mean, I’d get emails from him Saturday night, Sundays, working on the project,” Ungarelli said, adding that Bonhag was also instrumental in raising private donations for the project. “I was completley astonished every day (that I’d) go onto the job site. ... In essence, the building wouldn’t have been built as good as it was if Wayne hadn’t been there.”
Working on the Kilton Public Library “was a big deal,” Raymond said. “It was a new building that was meant to replace an existing building that was 100 years old. So it wasn’t just a ‘get it done quick’ kind of project, it was a ‘do it the right way’ because we’re building this legacy building that has all this history.”
Bonhag had invested in a solar engineering company in the ’70s, and “always had a love for renewable energy like wood chips and biomass and different things,” Raymond added. The eco-friendly designs that Bonhag steered into the building led it to recently be recognized as a LEED Gold Certified building, one of the highest standards the government uses to measure environmentally friendly designs in buildings. It’s the only LEED Gold Certified library in New Hampshire, according to Bonhag Associates.
“He was very proud because Wayne especially had a huge part of his career spent focused on alternative energy,” Raymond said. “Being able to see that and be part of a project that was going to incorporate all of those different things and put the dream into a reality was a huge source of pride for him.”
Ungarelli met Bonhag when Ungarelli took the director’s post in 2005, and Bonhag introduced himself as a person to contact for future projects. Workers broke ground on the library in April 2009, and doors opened to the public in July 2010.
In between — and afterward — the two men spent a lot of time talking over coffee at Jake’s, “getting into trouble kidding around with people,” Ungarelli said. “He just had that personality — you meet people and as soon as you meet them, you know you’re going to like them.”
And that was no mistake, his family said. Bonhag put effort into building special relationships with people, whether it was creating quirky inside jokes with his future daughter-in-law, intercepting his wife’s phone calls at the house and starting his own conversations, or taking the time to get to know people he’d see around town, like the woman who worked at Jake’s when he and Ungarelli went there.
“He had a way of relating to every person that he came in contact with in the course of his day, whether it was the lawyer or the lawyer’s assistant, or the coffeemaker,” Molly Bonhag said. “Somehow he just was able to make whoever he ran into feel special.”
Well-known in the community for his work on the Kilton Public Library, he was also revered for his volunteerism with many other associations, especially the West Lebanon Congregational Church and Rotary. Ungarelli recalled times when meetings for the library board and the church were both scheduled for 7 p.m., and Bonhag would rush from one meeting to the other in order to tend to both groups.
He was a “workaholic,” his family said, and it could be tough to tear him away from the daily grind. A family photo captioned “Wayne On Vacation,” famous in Bonhag family history, shows him sitting in an Adirondack chair — while working with his laptop in his lap and his cell phone in his hand.
Nevertheless, his life was not without adventure. Longtime friend Walter Pluss, who met Bonhag when the pair were engineering students at UVM, recalled traveling through Europe after graduation with Bonhag on $10 a day, sometimes finding themselves stranded to sleep at train stations or in other comical predicaments — one of several examples of Bonhag’s sense of fun and excitement, he said.
“Whenever we get together, it wasn’t that often (recently) but we always had a big laugh,” Pluss said. “We always had fun even after all the years. ... He was a straight-shooter but he was always very pleasant. He always had some sense of humor.
And family said that Bonhag found peace at a place that the Bonhags refer to colloquially as “the river:” a pair of family cottages on an island in the St. Lawrence River, two hours north of Syracuse, N.Y., where they would spend a week or two every summer.
“He liked being able to look out,” Molly Bonhag said. “Even just going to Lake Winnipesaukee was meaningful to him because there was enough of an expanse to look out.”
A sailor for many years, he enjoyed watching the sailboats pass by at the river, his family said. Even if he no longer sailed himself, it calmed him.
“He was still really enthusiastic about it,” said his son, Jeffrey. “He just really liked ideas. Maybe it was just enough for him to kind of think about the memory and enjoy the memories that he had.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3220.