This unconventional love story started almost 30 years ago at Fitzgerald Field.
While watching her son play baseball, a mom wondered what it would take to get the lights fixed. A fellow fan suggested she apply for Benicia’s parks commission. She did and was surprised when someone later congratulated her on her appointment.
“Nobody even interviewed me. Nobody even called me to tell me I’d been appointed,” Bonnie Silveria says with a hearty laugh. “I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do.”
That was 1984. As she learned what to do, she discovered a passion she never realized she had.
“I just fell in love with the whole process,” she says. “I went in with such tunnel vision. I just wanted to get the lights fixed, but once I was there, I wanted to know more about the process, how you get things done.”
Since then, Bonnie has also served on the city’s Planning Commission, General Plan Oversight Commission, Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, Historic Preservation Commission, Urban Growth Boundary Committee, and chaired the fund to buy books for the library.
And that’s just a partial list of her volunteer work. Bonnie is currently active with Soroptimist International’s regional fellowship program and its local chapter, Benicia Main Street, Benicia Historical Society, Carquinez Strait Preservation Trust and the Benicia Library Foundation.
Although she ran for City Council in 1994, she was not disappointed when she lost. “About half-way through my campaign, I realized I didn’t want to be on the Council. I could see that I could do more from behind the scenes than sitting up there,” she says.
She took time to talk to Benicia Magazine one October morning before heading to a friend’s home to line the shelves in a newly remodeled kitchen. She was also working on a Soroptimist fundraiser just a few days away and had recently arranged flowers for another friend’s wedding.
Bonnie, 69, also has a bookkeeping business. A life-long Benician, Bonnie and her husband adopted a son and raised him here. Their son’s death in 2010 was devastating. “He brought us 43 years of happiness,” she says, tearing up. “He gave us two beautiful granddaughters. He was a firefighter and we were so proud of him.”
Within a few minutes, Bonnie is laughing again as she talks about the lessons she has learned from years of volunteering, working and living in Benicia.
What have you learned from all you’ve done over the years? I certainly haven’t learned to keep my mouth shut or my hand down (laughs).
I have the potato peeler theory, which I’ve had for many years now. There are two kinds of people: the potato peelers and the complainers. The potato peelers are the people who follow through, who do what they say they are going to do. I don’t start listening to complaints until the potato peelers start complaining.
What drives you to do so much for city and community groups? I just think it’s important as you age to stay involved. I look at the people who were my mentors and how they helped me through the years, so now I’m looking for old-age mentors, people who are involved, who keep going places. I want to be like them.
And you have to keep making friends. To do that, you have to be involved.
What stands out among all you have done over the years? The East Sixth Street park (Ethelree Saraiva Park). When I got on Parks and Recreation, we were planning parks in Southampton. I saw such a need for a park on the east side of town. Kids there didn’t have any place to play. I worked on that for eight years. That was my baby, and I didn’t have many people standing beside me saying we need that.
I still feel a sense of pride when I drive by there.
How long did you serve on the parks commission? I was on it for 14 years. I wouldn’t have left that, but I could see things coming back around. When you serve on a board or commission for a while, you become very possessive of your decisions. I look back and realize if I’d been more open-minded and listened, it would have been better. But it was time for me to go. …
Some people say about me, ‘She doesn’t want to change.’ But it’s not that. I am not against change, but some things we’ve studied and decided not to do for good reasons.
How did you get involved with raising money for library books? Marilyn (then-mayor Marilyn O’Rourke) asked me to attend a meeting with Carol Starr and Susan Lynn from the library. They told me we had to raise $300,000. That’s the most money I ever had to raise. I was driving home from that meeting thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’
We ended up raising $320,000. I went to my friends at the Soroptimists and said I can’t do this alone, and we went to every service group in town and the town came together and we did it. It was one of the best things I ever worked on. First of all, it was a great group of people and everyone, everyone—well almost everyone—loved the library and supported it.
It’s become such a great place for everyone. When we were kids, you couldn’t go to the library to hang out. The librarian would call the police if you were hanging out front. I was there the other day and young people were hanging out, one was playing the guitar, and I thought it was just great. Some things do change.
What led you to volunteer with so many activities? One thing leads to another. You get to know people, and it’s a way of staying connected. I keep saying I’m going to scale back. My mantra is I don’t want to be in charge. But I show up for something and then I want to take charge.
What did you sacrifice over the years to do all this? Housework (laughing). The chance to have people say, ‘She keeps the cleanest house in town.’ That used to be a big thing. Home-cooked meals.
Really, my husband—that’s who has sacrificed. Though for a lot of it, he worked out of town. In the 1990s, he worked at Beale and came home on the weekends. I wasn’t going to spend time watching TV or cleaning house, so I would go to meetings during the week.
You have said Benicia was more of a blue-collar town when you were growing up. What caused that to change? The Industrial Park and Humble Oil. When they built that refinery, we didn’t have a paid city staff then. It was volunteer city leaders who went out and recruited Humble Oil. Of course, we all thought we were going to blow up and die. I remember that I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there would be all this noise and I’d see the flames—much larger than you see these days—and think we’re all going to die (laughs at memory.)
The Industrial Park didn’t just happen overnight. So somebody really had foresight and took a gamble.
Also, Southampton is one of the best things that ever happened to Benicia. A lot of old-time Benicians would cringe to hear that.
How did Southampton change the town? I grew up in Benicia, and we knew it was a wonderful town but nobody else knew it. When we went out of town, we would say we were from Vallejo because, remember, back then First Street was a red-light district.
Southampton brought a new way of thinking because of the number of white-collar buyers. It brought that thought process to citizens: Yes, you can go to college. That wasn’t the thinking back then – you weren’t encouraged to go to college. Girls just didn’t need a college education. We were going to get married. No one ever encouraged me to go to college, and I was a good student.
Southampton might not be the historic district, but it was the catalyst that allowed people to move beyond “This is the way we’ve always done it.” It brought a new thought process, people who had lived someplace else and knew other ways to do things, to Benicia.
What’s next for Benicia? We’re going to become an older community, and I won’t see it, but you likely will see that they’ll have to close more schools. We’ll be like Tiburon because we have nowhere to expand. That’s the downside of limited growth.
As long as the market stays down, we’ll get some young families. But we are an aging community and we’re not keeping up with providing for that older community. There needs to be a task force to look at that. There should be day trips—to Napa, San Francisco, even shopping trips to the outlets. Even if you still have a license, you might not be comfortable driving everywhere on your own.
What do you do to relax? I like to read, I like to visit with my friends. To be with friends is very relaxing. I like movies. Naps—I love naps.
What do you enjoy reading? I used to read a lot of fiction, but lately I’ve been into a lot of biographies. I know everything you’d ever want to know about the Vanderbilts. Also the Astors, and I got really into Gypsies for a while. I didn’t realize they were persecuted during World War II by Hitler.
What’s next for you? I want to finish some stuff I started a long time ago. I have a room upstairs that I’m trying to redecorate. I’m always saying I hope this thing or that thing will get done before I’m gone.
A lot of things I set out to do are done, and that’s been nice.
I’d like to see us all come together for a common cause and get something done, like the library.
What do you expect to be doing in five years? Hopefully the same stuff I’m doing now. Hopefully I’ll have good health so I can.