Remembering Jerri Bonebrake
by Lynne Rostochil
Last week, we heard of the passing of Jerri Hodges Bonebrake, Bruce Goff’s devoted secretary during his years at OU. Her death is a sad loss for anyone who appreciates architecture and an entertaining yarn — she had many of them!
Jerri and Jean Eckenfels standing in front of a drawing by architect and former Goff student, Dean Bryant Vollendorf. Friends of Kebyar Southeast (FOKSE) gatheringHighlands, NC — 1999
(photo by Nelson Brackin, former FOK president)
After graduating from Hill’s Business College in Oklahoma City, Jerri returned to her hometown of Norman, where the soft-spoken and naive 18 year old went to work for Goff in 1948. During those years, the School of Architecture was, according to former student, Joseph Henry Wythe, “isolated from the main campus of the University of Oklahoma by being located in a former Navy classroom building at the airbase north of town. But the isolation did not end there. The School was one of several under the College of Engineering with Dean Carson at the head…. (Carson) shuffled papers and paid little attention to what was happening off the main campus.”
Another student, Bruce Plunkett, offers this about the building itself: “What a disappointment I felt as I sat in my car, looking at the two-story frame buildings with paint peeling off the corner boards…. It was with a heavy heart that I walked up the sidewalk and opened the screen door (no air conditioning) and entered the long hallway that extended all across the front of the school.”
Jerri must have felt similarly when she entered the rickety building for the first time for her interview with Goff. However, appearances were deceiving. Within the walls of the withering building “abstract art lined the walls; window ledges held fishbowls filled with ivy; and across the ceiling, twine had been woven back and forth into geometric patterns. With very little money, someone had transformed an old navy barracks into a work of art, a creative atmosphere where students could thrive.”
Years later, Jerri recalled this interview with Goff, an event that would change the course of her life forever:
I met Mr. Goff when I was 18 and on my first job interview. He conducted an unorthodox interview. His desk was covered with books. Immediately, he started showing me the works of Corbu, Gaudi, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Mies van der Rohe.
Finally I said, “Well, you know, sir, I don’t really know what architecture is.”
He laughed, and said, “Well, neither do a lot of people.”
He didn’t ask very many questions, but he did ask if I could take shorthand. I wrote some shorthand symbols down, and he looked at them strangely and turned the paper around, up and down, back and forth, and then he handed it back to me and said, “I don’t understand that either, but I could if I wanted to.”
Later, I realized that he didn’t really care whether I could take shorthand or not, he was simply making a point.
Like his students, young Jerri was soon captivated by Goff and his vision for a new kind of learning that included music, meditation, hearty discussion, critical thinking … and, oh yeah, engineering and architecture. That didn’t stop the still-teen from initially feeling very insecure in her job, though. During her first few months with Goff, she often felt that she wasn’t performing up to his standards and dreaded it when her boss would call her into his office. Every time he beckoned, she thought, “This is it, he’s going to fire me.” But, instead of firing her, he’d invite her to share her opinions about something or just wanted to chat. With time, Jerri’s comfort level and confidence grew and she became a fixture in Goff’s inner circle of students and professors for the next seven years — even with that, she always respectfully called her mentor “Mr. Goff.”
Zigurd Zarins, Palmer Boggs, Jerri, Bruce Goff, Mendel Glickman, and Takenobu Mohri OU School of Architecture, Building 604, North Campus Norman — 1953
(courtesy the FOK collection)
Jerri was among the lucky ones who regularly attended Goff’s weekly “seances” — music listening sessions highlighting a myriad of styles and artists, from Debussy to Duke Ellington — that Goff thought might foster his students’ creative process. (Ellington, a friend of Goff’s, even visited the architecture students at OU). Jerri later recalled one particularly interesting gathering: “We had a recorded concert every Friday night. Mr. Goff had hundreds and hundreds of records, and he played them extremely loud. I remember that he played a lot of Russian music. If you were an employee of the University of Oklahoma in the ’50s, you had to sign a loyalty oath. Anything to do with Russia was taboo. And one Friday evening a policeman came up and asked why so much Russian music was being played.” I remember Jerri telling more of this story during one of our visits. While Goff bravely and calmly handled the curious officer, Jerri and her cohorts scrambled in a quiet panic, taking cover under tables and in closets for fear that they might be outed as “Commie lovers,” a real fear during the Red Scare years when any perceived sympathy toward the USSR might result in being blacklisted.
In spite of this incident, Jerri, like many of Goff’s students, found herself embracing a true passion for creativity, art, and music that she never knew she had. And Goff’s gift for instilling that passion increased as his reputation grew. According to Jerri, “(Goff) wanted the students at school to know what was going on in other universities. And so we had traveling exhibits that came in from many universities around the country. And, of course, we had one that went out. I kidded Goff one day, ‘You know, when our exhibit comes back it is always followed by a string of transfer students.'” That’s how so many students from all over the country and beyond found their way to the university on wind-swept Oklahoma plains.
Goff had an unreliable, three-wheeled car during his years at OU, so Jerri, who owned a less interesting but much more dependable vehicle, was often his main mode of transportation around town. Therefore, perhaps it’s no surprise that when the master himself, Frank Lloyd Wright, came a’calling one time, Goff sent young Jerri to pick him up from the airport. According to an interview Jerri gave to Squadder Koby Click shortly before her death, she had heard so much about Wright and was absolutely terrified of meeting the larger-than-life architect. Dreading her assignment, Jerri nervously drove to the airport, every mile wondering how she was going to entertain this giant of a man on the long drive back to OU. By the time his plane landed, she was one big emotional wreck waiting on the tarmac. Greeted by the brilliant Oklahoma sun as he emerged from the plane, Wright, wearing his trademark cape and a beret, slowly began to descend the stairs to the tarmac. Jerri was immediately taken aback to see what a small man Wright was. “This is the guy?” Jerri thought to herself, now wondering why she had been so terrified. With each step Wright took down the case, the more he seemed to shrink and the less Jerri felt intimidated by this so-called giant. All of that changed, however, when he touched terra firma. With a very dramatic, Wrightian gesture, the master grandly swept his black cape over his shoulder, announcing to the world … or to Jerri and the others waiting on the tarmac, anyway … that greatness had arrived on the prairies of Oklahoma. So much for considering him a small man, Jerri thought, and off the architect and young secretary went to OU.
On this visit, Jerri also played a small role in facilitating the creation of Oklahoma’s only entry on the World Heritage Site list (in 2016). According to Jerri, “Mr. Goff’s office was at the far end of the hall from mine. He brought Mr. Wright in and then left. I was asked to place a call to Harold C. Price, Sr. Mr. Wright sat at my desk and ‘doodled’ on a piece of paper while I placed the call. I handed the phone to Mr. Wright — and the Price Tower in Bartlesville was born.”
One of the stories she told that still makes me chuckle took place during another Wright visit a couple of years later. Once again, he came to OU while on a lecture tour and spent time with his old pal, Goff, and the students. On the day he was to leave, they all gathered under a tree for a picnic when one student gifted the architect with a delicious homemade pie his wife had made. Wright had to leave but obviously wanted the pie, and it took him and several of Goff’s students awhile to figure out how Wright could transport the delicate gift in his briefcase without it spilling everywhere. Over 50 years later, Jerri still giggled at the memory of so many brilliant minds striving so heartily to ensure the safe arrival of Wright’s pie. I hope he enjoyed it!
After Goff left OU in 1955, Jerri married Bob Bonebrake and moved to Oklahoma City. Like so many of Goff’s former students, Jerri stayed in touch with her favorite boss in the ensuing years and was with her mentor when he died at the age of 78 in 1982. Afterward, she worked to keep his architectural legacy alive by giving interviews, participating in Goff-related events, and serving on the Board for the Friends of Kebyar (FOK), an organization devoted to all things Goff. In response to her tireless work to preserve Goff’s memory, Tulsa architect Charles Ward once commented that “(she) would unhesitatingly propose him (Goff) for Sainthood … as would I if I only knew how!”
Julius Shulman, Jerri, and George Seminoff Shulman’s lecture about photographing Oklahoma’s architecture [Artspace] at Untitled, Oklahoma City — 2008
(photo by Lynne Rostochil)
In recognition of her commitment to preserving Goff’s legacy (and perhaps for wanting to nominate him for sainthood!), Jerri received the AIA’s B.H. Prasad Honorary Award in 2005.
According to current FOK president, Bill Scott,”Jerri was a wonderful person and I will treasure the little time I was able to spend with her. We toured Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House and then Herb Greene’s Prairie Chicken house. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and let her do the talking. She was a font of information as she had been there when both were built. I would also like to take a moment to recognize her devotion to the Friends of Kebyar, a group based on interest in the work of Bruce Goff. She was a great asset to the group and will be missed.”
Jerri once summed up her effusive feelings about Goff and her unforgettable OU years this way: “There are many, many highlights but the really good overall memory is of a most unique school that existed when and where it did, headed by a creative genius who always stressed the creative spirit in each individual.”
Thank you, Jerri, for sharing so many stories of your time with Goff and for all of your efforts to keep his memory alive.
Jean Eckenfels and Jerri at the FOK Celebration Bruce Goff: A Creative Mind exhibition Norman, OK — 2010
(photo by Nelson Brackin)
Jerri and FOK members Bruce Goff: A Creative Mind exhibition Norman, OK — 2010
(photos by Nelson Brackin)
FOK member Larry Stockard and Jerri in deep discussion Bruce Goff: A Creative Mind exhibition Norman, OK — 2010
(photo by Nelson Brackin)
Sources and further reading:
Jerri’s quotes about the Red Scare and her first meeting with Goff from Rand Elliott’s interview with Jerri, Bart Prince, and Jennifer Thiele Busch here.
Jerri’s memories of Wright speaking with Harold Price, Sr., for the first time come from an article in Volume 19.1, Issue Number 66 of the FOK “Bruce Goff Memorial Dedication Journal” — 2001.
Joseph Henyr Wythe and Bruce Pluckett’s memories about the School of Architecture building come from articles in Volume 19.1, Issue Number 66 of the FOK “Bruce Goff Memorial Dedication Journal” — 2001.
Bill Scott’s memories were posted on Jerri’s obituary page.
Charles Ward’s comment was posted in the Winter 2011 issue of Sooner Magazine.
Quote about the inside of the OU School of Architecture building by Lynette Lobban, who wrote more about Jerri’s first impressions of Goff and her time working with him at OU. To read more of this fascinating interview, go here.
The Friends of Kebyar is comprised of former Goff students, architects of all ages, and lovers or Organic Modernism like me. They put out a quarterly journal that is always packed full of information and great photos of buildings, art, people, etc. To learn more about FOK, go here.