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Gail Caldwell Bonner looks back at historic crowning

She was named Spokane’s first black Lilac Princess 50 years ago

On March 20, 1963, Gail Caldwell Bonner woke up with a fever. Her mother called Marycliff High School, where Bonner was a senior, to report that her daughter would be unable to compete that night in the school’s Lilac Princess competition.

One of the Marycliff sisters insisted Bonner show up. She said: “We’ll put her in the sick room until it’s time for her to go on stage.”

They did, and Bonner’s fellow students overwhelmingly voted for her to represent Marycliff as Lilac Princess in the city’s annual Lilac Festival.

Bonner became Spokane’s first black Lilac Princess, making local history in a seminal year in the national civil rights movement.

This summer, Bonner, who now lives in the Atlanta area, attended her 50th Marycliff High School reunion. She and her classmates looked back in awe at what they accomplished in 1963.

“I am very, very proud of what we did,” said Cammi Vedder Engelhard, organizer of the reunion. “The fact we were colorblind and elected a girl to be Lilac Princess who was outstanding, smart, talented – and beautiful.”

You must travel back to 1963 to understand the historical context in which Marycliff’s Lilac Princess made history.

Begin with the Caldwell family. Bonner’s parents, Jesse and Evelyn Caldwell, were from Alabama.

“My father had to leave Alabama, because he went to a store one day, and there was a little 12-year-old girl he knew there. He was only 17 or 18. He called her by her first name, instead of ‘Miss.’ His father was warned that the KKK was coming that night. He had to leave, and that’s why he joined the Army Air Corps,” Bonner said.

The family moved to Spokane in 1944 where Jesse Caldwell finished out his Army Air Corps commitment and landed a civil service job at Fairchild Air Force Base. The couple had six children; Bonner was the second to the oldest.

When Evelyn Caldwell first explored Spokane, she saw Gonzaga University and said: “My kids are going to this college.”

The Caldwell family eventually settled in east Spokane; Bonner and her siblings attended St. Ann’s Catholic Grade School and later, the five Caldwell girls went to Marycliff High School; their brother to Gonzaga Prep.

Bonner’s mother worked as a waitress at the Spokane Club when only white movers and shakers were allowed in; they were served food and drinks by mostly black staffers.

“She waited on people, but she was never a servant,” Bonner said of her mother.

Segue to Marycliff, 1963 – an all-girls Catholic high school on Spokane’s lower South Hill. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration ran the school. They were highly educated women whose religious order had outreach programs in the Deep South and overseas in China.

“We had an awareness of the value of one person doing anything they wanted to do,” said Joan Flaherty, of Spokane, who was Sister Mary Thomas when she taught at Marycliff in the 1960s and 1970s. (The school closed in 1979.)

Bonner, her older sister, Shirley, and two other girls were the only black “Marycliffers” during Bonner’s years there.

The two Caldwell sisters sang in the school’s prestigious ensemble, the Cecilians, and Bonner served as class president her freshman and sophomore year.

Bonner said she never felt discriminated against at Marycliff, and Spokane felt sheltered from racial conflict, too, she said.

She and her siblings refused to travel to Alabama with their parents to visit family members. They knew that in the South, black children attended separate schools, drank out of “coloreds-only” water fountains and rode in the back of the bus.

In 1963, they watched with horror as police in Birmingham, Ala., used attack dogs and fire hoses to quell civil rights protesters.

“We could not relate to segregation at all,” Bonner said. “We were as far away from the South as possible. We wondered how people could be so mean.”

The racism in Spokane in 1963 was subtle, but it definitely existed.

Judith Holter, one of Bonner’s classmates, remembered: “Every year, one of the socialite mothers from the South Side had a mother-daughter tea for all the class officers and their moms. But when Gail was elected our class president, she and her mother were not invited.”

At the Spokane Club, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, Bonner’s mother once heard a gentleman say: “If they don’t like it here, let them go back to Africa.”

Bonner remembered: “She was pouring his coffee and ‘accidentally’ missed the cup and (coffee) spilled on his lap. That was my mommy.”

And in 1963, though the Lilac Festival had been in existence since 1938 and had deep ties with Fairchild Air Force Base, one of Spokane’s major conduits for diversity, there had never been a black Lilac Princess.

“I was not just a black child, but a dark black child. Dark children weren’t considered beautiful,” Bonner said. “A princess of any kind would have to be white with pink cheeks, blond hair and pretty. So it never crossed my mind it would be a possibility for me.”

In 1963, senior girls throughout Spokane coveted their school’s Lilac Princess crown. It was the most visible honor available before Title IX opened up sports and before young women were taken seriously as scholars.

Although women were enrolling in college in greater numbers in the early 1960s, pressure still existed to earn a “Mrs. degree” by college graduation.

The Lilac Festival was such an important regional event that newspaper journalists attended Lilac Princess coronations at each school throughout the spring; the winner’s photo – and a brief story – ran the next day. The Lilac Queen Coronation was a citywide event, held in the old Coliseum. The Sunday before the Lilac Parade, the newspaper ran full-page color photos of the queen and her court.

Two parades, one in the morning and the other at night, were held each May; in the early 1960s, 80,000 spectators crowded the streets of downtown Spokane to watch.

So of course, Bonner realizes now, she felt sick that March 1963 day at Marycliff, her body expressing her fear through flu-like symptoms.

Bonner was one of four finalists, all accomplished young women. You couldn’t just be beautiful to be elected Lilac Princess. You had to be smart, too.

Danette Mulrine acted as Bonner’s Lilac Princess campaign manager.

“We knew if people listened to Gail, they would like her. There was a warmth, sincerity and intelligence that came through. All of us felt that’s what people would see – and not her color.”

Once on the stage at Marycliff, Bonner felt calm, her fever broken. She based her speech on the song made famous by Doris Day, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be.)”

She won.

Holter remembered: “Our senior adviser, Sister M. Corda, told me that the lady from the Lilac Association was so shocked at Gail’s selection that she ‘froze’ as she held the tiara. So Sister Corda took the tiara from the lady’s hands and placed it on Gail’s head.”

The Spokesman-Review ran Bonner’s photo the next day, along with a brief story that mentioned Bonner’s accomplishments at Marycliff – and her 5-foot-2 inch height – but nothing was said about the fact she was the first black princess. The radio reported it however, and townspeople started buzzing. Marycliff parents talked about it with their daughters.

“It wasn’t that my parents were prejudiced, but from their perspective, and from their age, and knowing what the real world was like, they knew that she could possibly be subjected to things hurtful to her,” Engelhard said.

Some hurtful things did happen.

Engelhard remembered: “A gal (went) to a downtown store that next day and was being helped with clothes, and the woman was ranting: ‘How could they possibly elect a Negro?’ And this girl took umbrage and said she voted for her, and she was proud.”

Some scary things happened, too.

When Bonner noticed a man in a car following her for two days after being selected, she told her father. He said: “Some people aren’t happy with you being chosen.”

She later learned the family had received death threats, and Bonner’s father hired a private detective to shadow her during her princess reign.

At the citywide Lilac Festival Coronation on April 18, 1963, Bonner again nailed her speech. She was not crowned queen –– Sheila Bayley of North Central won – but Bonner said: “I felt good that I had represented my school well.”

Fifty years later, Bonner focuses on the positives.

“The best thing I remember was when the mothers were invited to go to the luncheon, held at the Ridpath. Instead of my mother having to serve, she was served. She was able to sit there in her beautiful suit, her hat on her head. She was a queen that day.”

The other princesses treated her beautifully, and she enjoyed Lilac Festival appearances.

“Riding the float was really fun,” she said. “I saw so many black faces out there, little kids, and I’m waving and it dawned on me: ‘They know they can be a princess, too.’ ”

The public speaking and social skills she learned that year lasted her a lifetime.

“Things happen for a reason,” Bonner said. “If you’re meant to do something, you will be pushed there to do it.”

Bonner and her older sister, Shirley, realized their mother’s dream by attending Gonzaga University. Shirley Caldwell (who died in 2011 at age 67) starred in GU plays directed by Dorothy Darby Smith, a legendary theater figure in Spokane.

Bonner sang in the choir, was chosen for Spurs, a campus service club, and named homecoming princess. She majored in English and minored in philosophy and theology.

During and after college she worked for Washington Water Power Co., now Avista, one of that company’s first black employees.

She married Charles Bonner, who was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base, in 1970, and they left Spokane a year later. Charles Bonner, 68, is retired now from both the Air Force and Lucent Technology.

Bonner, 68, worked for IBM “in many capacities including several management positions until I retired in 2010,” she said.

The Bonners have two grown sons and four grandchildren. She’s active in her Catholic church, volunteering with young people and singing in the choir.

“It’s been a good life for which I try to remember to thank God daily,” she said.

Although Bonner has traveled to Spokane throughout the years to visit family – two of her sisters still live here – she had never attended a Marycliff reunion until her 50th last month.

Mulrine said: “When Gail walked in, everyone moved toward her. She was just stunning.”

Engelhard said: “You had to wait in line to talk with her.”

Bonner loved the reunion for the memories and gratitude it stirred from an era long ago.

“I’ve always been in awe that at that point in history, they would have been bold enough to do that,” Bonner said. “I truly believe that at the tender age of 17, from the innocence of their being, they did what they thought was the right thing to do.”