UNC Charlotte was founded, in part, on the belief that all students, regardless of ability to pay, should be able to obtain a college education. Who better to lead that charge than the founder of the University herself, Bonnie Cone.
At her death in 2003 at age 94, Cone magnanimously gave 60 percent of her estate to UNC Charlotte. "Miss Bonnie," as she was affectionately known, did all she could to develop a high quality university where students could realize their potential. "My greatest joy in life is to see our graduates, our own students, and their life fulfillment," she once said.
One of the Charlotte region's greatest leaders, Cone spearheaded the formation of the University when she was president of Charlotte College, a community college that began after World War II as a veterans' extension program in the basement of old Central High School. In 1965, thanks to the leadership of Cone and others she enlisted, the UNC System welcomed UNC Charlotte as the fourth school in the system, joining UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and UNC Greensboro.
"I believe she is the most important woman in Charlotte-Mecklenburg history," said Dan Morrill, UNC Charlotte history professor emeritus. "Rolfe Neill, former publisher of The Charlotte Observer, once said that three things are driving Charlotte's growth today, and that's the airport, the lakes and the University.
"James B. Duke (a founder of Duke Energy) gave us the lakes, (former Charlotte mayor) Ben Douglas gave us the airport, and Bonnie Cone gave us the University," notes Morrill, speaking on the 2003 video, "Miss Bonnie Cone: A Life Remembered, a Life Revered."
Cone worked arduously to keep the veterans' extension program going when funding ended with only several months' notice in 1949. She reached out to the city of Charlotte and later the state and Mecklenburg County for money to survive and grow.
She forged alliances with other leaders of her day, the vast majority of whom were men. "She saw the need, the opening to fulfill that need, and in an act of real courage, I think, just invaded that community power structure down there and said, 'All right, this is what we're going to do,'" said William C. Friday, UNC system president from 1966-1986.
She never lost sight of the essence of the school: educating students, especially ones with financial and other challenges. "What kept her heart so throbbing to do this was the fact she knew what it (the University) would do for children who didn't know themselves, and would never know, but for that place," continued Friday in a UNC Charlotte interview. Friday passed away in 2012.
Cone also had a gift for inspiring students. "She had the capacity to bring out the very best in the very least, no small task," said UNC Charlotte graduate F. Douglas Biddy, in nominating Cone for an award. In the 1950s, a cadre of high-profile Charlotte businessmen she motivated to finish school eventually would be known as "Bonnie's Boys."
A native of Lodge, S.C., a town not far from Walterboro, S.C., Cone began her career as a math teacher. She came to Charlotte in 1940 to teach at old Central High School. During World War II, she taught math to Navy officer candidates at Duke and later worked at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. She returned to Charlotte to teach in 1947 and within two years was appointed to head the veterans' extension program.
That began her remarkable rise as a Charlotte crusader for higher education. And she's still at it today through her legacy support of UNC Charlotte. Fittingly, benefactors who have designated financial and estate gifts to the University are members the Bonnie E. Cone Society.