When Rick Bonnell had something good, his colleagues knew it instantly. Sitting in front of his laptop, grinning a toothy smile, Bonnell would clasp his hands together and rub them like he was trying to start a campfire, his colleagues said. Every time the longtime sportswriter did that, his colleagues knew the story was going to be great.
“He was in the job he was made for,” Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler said.
Bonnell passed away on June 1 at 63 years old. He was found at his home, and the cause of death remains unknown.
Colleagues and friends remember Bonnell as a listener, a mentor, a supporter, a friend and “someone who would remember the names of your kids,” Fowler said. Bonnell went to college at Syracuse University, where he studied journalism and wrote for The Daily Orange.
After he graduated from the Newhouse School of Public Communications in 1980, Bonnell immediately joined The Syracuse Herald-Journal, where he covered Syracuse sports before writing for The Charlotte Observer for the remainder of his 41-year career.
Bonnell landed his first reporting job as a teenager in South Corning, New York, covering high school sports for a newspaper in the neighboring town of Elmira. About 40 years later, Bonnell had worked for three publications and had written over 11,000 bylines. He established a name for himself as The Charlotte Observer’s Charlotte Hornets beat writer — one of the few beat writers that could call Michael Jordan and get a response in minutes.
Outside of writing, Bonnell was a devoted friend and mentor, Fowler said.
“He was the first person to tell me if he thought I had done a good job on something,” Fowler said. “He was just kind of a kind person … (who) thought about others a lot.”
When Fowler first began working at The Charlotte Observer, he and his family were looking for a home. Bonnell recommended a house for sale in his neighborhood, and Fowler soon moved in.
Bonnell invited his new neighbor to play tennis, and the pair frequently met at 9 a.m. for matches. But Fowler remembered the “changeovers” — where players switch sides during game breaks — more than the matches themselves because of the conversations they had during those moments.
“He didn’t really care about whether he was winning and who’s losing,” Fowler said. “What I think he cared about was just sort of cultivating a friendship and making sure I felt comfortable.”
Bonnell had a knack for breeding friendships and uplifting young writers. While at The Herald-Journal, he met a then-26-year-old David Ramsey, now a sports columnist at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Bonnell, a few years older than Ramsey, passed along the “little secrets” of working in the industry.
Bonnell provided this type of support throughout his over 40 years as a reporter, across generations of writers at The Daily Orange and The Charlotte Observer. The last tweets from Bonnell’s Twitter account are retweets of stories from younger writers and former Observer interns.
“Every time we had a new crop of interns here every summer, Rick would … officially mentor one,” Fowler said. “But he would unofficially mentor everyone who wanted any advice because he just really liked that.”
Bonnell leaves behind a legacy of teaching, Fowler said. Bonnell made it his goal to make new writers comfortable in the workplace and to compliment their work.
“He would just make sure we tell (young writers), ‘Wow! What a good story you wrote,’” Fowler said. “He would have read it and had some sort of specific compliment.”
Along with encouraging young writers, Bonnell was a determined reporter. Colleagues remembered him as reliable and someone they “never had to worry about.”
When Bud Poliquin became The Syracuse Herald-Journal’s new executive sports editor in 1984, he stepped into the newsroom and found Bonnell sitting in the front row. Bonnell sported a white button-up shirt and black tie Poliquin’s first day on the job.
Poliquin asked Bonnell why he was dressed so professionally, to which Bonnell replied that the former sports editor required writers to dress well. Poliquin, coming from laid-back San Diego, recalled telling Bonnell that he could dress any way he chose as long as he “got the story.” Soon after, Bonnell began dressing casually. And he always got the story.
Bonnell joined The Charlotte Observer in 1988, just in time to cover the Hornets’ inaugural season. Bonnell traveled with the team for roughly six seasons before taking up the role of assistant sports editor. But that stint didn’t last long as Bonnell wasn’t happy with his stationery editorial job and the new beat writer for the Hornets didn’t enjoy the constant travel. The pair switched and Bonnell continued as the Hornets beat writer for the remainder of his career.
Colleagues remembered Bonnell as a tenacious reporter and a thoughtful listener. Poliquin recalled Bonnell leaning in and tilting his head when he spoke to him. Ramsey credited Bonnell’s listening ability as something that made him a great journalist.
Bonnell’s byline appeared on thousands of game stories, features, profiles and breaking news write-ups. But along the way, he crafted a more profound legacy, Fowler said, one that’s left behind in young journalists’ work. He wanted others to have great stories, so he taught writers how to report, how to write and how to listen — the three elements that defined and shaped Bonnell’s career.
“Rick was a rare combination of a tremendous writer, and a tremendous reporter,” Ramsey said. “People that he wrote about got comfortable with him and they would tell him and share great stories.”
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