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Bonnie-Jean Kimball’s amazing life

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 | Posted by

At 86, Bonnie-Jean Kimball has a daily yoga practice and teaches meditation. (JOHN BURGESS / Press Democrat)

By DIANA GILBERT / Windsor Correspondent

Bonnie-Jean Kimball may be small in stature, but she has lived a large life. She has packed a lot into 86 years, including time as an opera singer, a university professor, an actress and the administrator of two well-known substance abuse facilities.

And she hasn’t slowed down yet. These days you will find her doing anything from studying Spanish to teaching meditation in her Windsor home.

Kimball was born in 1925 in Minot, N.D., to wonderful parents, she said. “They were very adventurous. But they were also both perfectionists, which is very, very annoying.”

Their perfectionism rubbed off, propelling Kimball to study voice, elocution and dance on her way to becoming the Minot High School valedictorian.

“Minot is the cultural Sahara of the world,” she said. “My whole plan in life was to get out of there.”

And she did. Kimball talked herself into a spot in Northwestern University’s music program, where she was one of the top 15 women academically and as a sophomore secured a place in the Chicago Lyric Opera. She performed for the next four years while finishing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music.

Performance didn’t always come easily.

“In solo class, everyone had to perform for the whole class and the faculty during the first week. I shook when I went out to sing and continued to shake the whole way through my performance. Someone suggested that I drink some gin before I performed, so the next time I did. Since then I haven’t performed without a crutch.”

Kimball loved life in Chicago until she fell in love with the dean of students from the University of North Carolina, who was visiting from Chapel Hill.

“When I fall in love, my brain goes to Rio de Janeiro for Mardi Gras and my hormones take over,” she joked. “We went off to North Carolina together.”

While there, Kimball taught voice classes at the university, but after her marriage deteriorated in the 1950s, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology at Colombia University.

“I think any of us who feel we might have something wrong in the upper story become very interested in psychology,” Kimball said of the career change. She continued to perform while in New York and met her second husband while working for Summer Stock theater.

“My husband was an excellent musician and arranged all the songs for the ‘Sing Along with Mitch’ show. I didn’t know that a young woman from Minot, N.D., should not marry a Sicilian. By that time my use of alcohol and other drugs had escalated, and his family got rid of me.

“My mother came to get me, and I went into the hospital for alcoholism.”

While Kimball worked on regaining her sobriety, she taught music at the University of Southwest Texas and University of Minnesota. Eventually she became the director of a women’s halfway house in Minneapolis, then in 1973 began working in administration at Hazelden, a large rehab facility endowed by the Kroc Foundation.

During those years Kimball also began to write and publish self-help books like “The Alcoholic Woman’s Mad, Mad World of Denial and Mind Games,” published by Hazelden.

“I worked there until I got my right mind and came to California in the end of 1978. I was hired to open a rehab facility at St. Joseph’s hospital in San Francisco.

“The nuns from St. Joseph’s charmed me, as only Irish Catholic sisters can do. They were opening St. Rose Alcohol and Drug Center in Santa Rosa, so I moved up here in 1980.” She left in 1984 and it closed in 1986.

Kimball continued to perform in the Bay Area, playing the lead role in a stage production of “Driving Miss Daisy” and acting in a few commercials. Then her agent got her a spot playing victims on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.”

“I got killed a lot and robbed a lot,” she said. “I enjoyed it.”

During that time she attended high school reunions and in 1994 bumped into a junior high school boyfriend, Curt Kimball, and in 1995 they were married and moved to Windsor. He passed away two years later, and she still lives in their home.

“I learned that differences of opinion, quarrels, they’re not worth a hill of beans,” she said. “The thing that matters when all is said and done is love. I learned that because of the loss of my husband.”

Kimball rebounded from the loss, in 1997 answering a newspaper ad for seniors who wanted to do stand-up comedy. She started writing and performing with a group called “Whoops!” and was tapped by the Station Casino company to perform in Las Vegas once a month until 2003.

Life may be a little quieter than it once was, but Kimball is still as busy as ever.

“My mantra is now is, ‘How can I help?’ I’m very involved in counseling people who are recovering from substance abuse. I also teach meditation in my home for anyone who is sincerely interested.”

She attributes her remarkable physical and mental health to yoga, which she practices daily.

Kimball keeps her mind active by studying languages and writing about spirituality and its role in overcome addictions.

“Fellowship with others who are struggling with addictive behaviors is essential, as is the idea that there’s a lot in the world that I can’t control,” she said. “One of my failings is that I want to always be in charge of the outcome, but the idea is to surrender to a higher power.”

As far as aging is concerned, Kimball likes to quote Bette Davis. “She said ‘Old age isn’t for sissies.’ She got that right.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Santa-Rosa-Towns-Correspondent-Nina-Laramore/221941861178210?ref=tn_tn Nina Laramore

    What an amazing woman is my friend Bonnie-Jean! Great story Diana. You learned even more about her than I knew. I can hear her voice in your quotes.

  • Mary Jo Winter

    What a remarkable woman! Thank you for sharing her story, Diana!

  • Tere Diedrich

    Thank you for this great story it was a wonderful and inspiring way to start the day rock on Bonnie-Jean !!!

  • D.J. Schweitz

    Bonnie-Jean has had a special place in my life for 16 years now, an inspiration for living life to the fullest.

  • Victoria Shipley

    Wow! It is nice to hear if all her accomplishments. Great story.

  • Joanne Crowley

    Bonnie Jean is our next door neighbor. My three young children adore her and call her “Auntie”. We are so blessed to have such an amazing woman living next door.

  • Stan A Angel

    I have known BonnieJean my entire tenure in sobriety, I do not think anyone could be any more fortunate to have a better friend or mentor then in her. If not for the positive light that this lady shines, personally I would of probably not have made it through those early years and it has been my experience that she never gives up on a person…ever.

    BonnieJean has shown me that we all are are worthy of this life that we have a right to be here each and every precious one. She is one of those rare few individuals that has the ability to see the good in others until they can see it in themselves, as she has done this not only for me but for many which I have witnessed first hand over the years. When she is around there is no generation gap, no ego boosting claims of accomplishment (her laurels are many yet she never rests on them) just her endless fountain of positive energy, quiet humility and gracious ability to generate smiles, laughter and a succinctly focused emphasis on what is truly important for a healthier spiritual path and by extension, quality of life for all involved. Although I have trouble showing it sometimes (Learning) I am deeply grateful for her presence, she is, echoing her own words truly “A joy to be with”.

  • Manuel Arevalo

    This is a very special woman. I’ve known Bonnie-Jean over 20 years. I love her and all the unconditional love she has brought to the many in Sonoma County. I love her special ending of her many shares. She always ends with answering a question she asks a person who had a lot of wisdom…The question was: “How do you know when you’ve got a good program?” And the answer was: “Are you a joy to be with….Are you?”

  • Bob Hobbs

    Bonnie-Jean had told me of the interview but I was absolutely astounded at the article. It was an excellent article about a very good friend. The article somehow succeeded in conveying the real essence of a great lady. My complements to Diana.

  • Larry E.Smith

    Bonnie jean I’ve heard her story which was most incrediable since music is a major part of my life,and I remember that she used to dance but “WOW”!!! this is living proof that,we can break down boundaries and go beyond the considered norm,people like Mick Jagger who can do 360’s around people a quarter of his age,this so inspires me to be like Bonnie Jean and people like Jack Lalane who used to keep there mind ,body and spirit healthy and when someone tells us ahhh your old we can go,old is a state of being,I’m 46 and I feel like a teenager,the only difference is I’m responsible for my action,and when I was a teenager I was not available and pretty much shutdown not to my fullest capacity,Bonnie Jean is a true lady of substance and she kicks major Tush :}!!!!!

  • http://bilnelson@msn.con Bill Nelson

    Bonnie Jean is my Aunt and I’m proud of her. I have always looked up to her. Bonnie has succeeded in life and worked to help those around her.

  • Mike nelson

    Hello from the “Cultural Sahara”
    Auntie Bonnie-Jean had left the desert as I came on the scene. My life was dotted with her visits back here, and encouraging words. Today I can go to lunch with acquaintaces in the helping profession and be referred to as Mike, his Aunt is or has —. My gratitude is daily, for the way she has paved the way for recovery.Thank you Diane Gilbert for catching the spirit that is not always apparent over the miles.

  • Koree Chambers

    My life changed the day I met Bonnie Jean,
    through our many moments of being together she led me to the pot of gold at the end of my rainbow.
    I will always cherish our talks and the wisdom you have shared with me

    I am loving you all-ways!

  • pam chambers

    Bonnie Jean is authentic, humble, intelligent, loving….She is an angel in our lives.
    She has blessed me in so many ways, and her gentle influence has helped open doors
    of Spiritual Maturity for myself, my family…there is no coincidence that we have entwined
    gratefully, a friend ….

  • Lucy Spencer

    Bonnie Jean, I loved reading this article about you! Mother called tonight and told me about it, and I had to check it out. It told me many things I’ve been curious about for years. Why? That university dean was my uncle, and I’ve always felt like I missed out on knowing a kindred spirit by being too young to have known you. So I had to write and say “Hello!” and add to the many notes of admiration I’ve found here. Here’s to many more years of abundant living!

  • https://www.facebook.com/roger.bolt.33 Roger Bolt

    The first time I met Bonnie Jean she generously offered me a warm and mischievous smile on her face kind of like the cat who just at the best canary ever. He eyes were sparkling and full of unspoken wisdom from a very full life and her light touch on my arm as she gestured to make sure I was paying attention felt like an angel was playing a game of tag with me…and now it was my turn. She said “Your a bit of a Bohemian, aren’t you?” We both laughed as I said “How did you know?”
    Bonnie Jean can read a human soul like some can read a novel. She sees the good, the bad and everything in between with the vision and understanding that can only come from the life she has had and the lives of the many she has touched. I’m very grateful she has touched mine.

  • Wayne Parris

    The last time I saw Bonnie Jean was at our 60th high school reunion, and as usual, she was our entertainment and was as beautiful as ever. There were about 200 in our graduating class and I’m sure Bonnie Jean did not know me, but I and everyone else sure knew who she was! Well Bonnie Jean, North Dakota is now a “Sahara” with the “Oil Boom.” And I’m waiting for that activity to reach my farm. It was such a joy reading about your wonderfully exciting life, stay in there and keep your fire burning!.

  • PS Brown

    I had the wonderful experience of first meeting miss Bonnie 17 years ago. She brought much joy into my life at a time when I didn’t have much to smile about. No matter how much time elapsed between our visits, she never forgot anything that I had shared with her. The world needs more people like her in it. I cherish her to this day. Funny to see this today, since I just listened to a tape of her this weekend. I carry her in my heart always.

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James Lanaras is our Windsor correspondent.
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