Three community leaders were recognized Tuesday night for dedicating their lives to serving others, making the world a better place and spreading live and compassion through continuous acts of kindness.
The Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented during the 30th Annual Deen day Smith Service to Mankind Awards, an invitation-only soiree hosted by the Statesboro Herald and supported by numerous sponsors to thanks and recognize community members who work hard, without seeking compensation or reward, to make the lives of others better.
Local businessman Bruce Yawn, who is a Deen Day Smith Service to Mankind Awards recipient and the 2011 Statesboro Herald Humanitarian of the Year, introduced the three 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award honorees, starting alphabetically.
Dr. Charles Wesley Bonds II, Ed.D
“We would be amazed if we actually knew just how many people one of tonight’s Lifetime Achievement Award winners has inspired by encouraging them to read,” Yawn said. “From an early age, he was fascinated by books, reading anything he could find. This love grew into a lifetime of dedication to literacy. To this day, his elderly mother likes to talk about how he always had his nose in a book growing up.”
Bonds “… loves words, arranging words, playing with words, and he has taught countless students the fascinating practice of losing one’s self in a really good novel,” he said..
A native of Headland, Alabama, Bonds earned the nickname “head” from his father, who recognized this man’s intelligence at an early age when would read auto manuals aloud, he said.
Bonds attended Alabama State University, earning a B.S. in Elementary Education with a minor in Social Science. He then attended Georgia Southern, where he obtained a M.Ed. (1972) and his Ed.S. (1974) in Reading Education. Afterward, on a stipend from GSU, he obtained a Doctorate in Reading in 1978 from the University of Florida.
After teaching in Wrens and Valdosta from 1966-1972, he moved to Statesboro to become Georgia Southern’s first black professor in 1973. He retired in 1996 as full Professor Emeritus, becoming the first black professor to earn full professorship.
Bonds is known as the “Reading Professor” because he would give “reading buddies” (stuffed animals) to children as he read to them, sharing exciting tales and intriguing young minds, dressed in “full academic regalia,” Yawn said.
Bonds taught reading for the GSU Upward Bound program and was honored by the program director for “commitment to educational excellence,” he said.
Bonds headed up the federally funded Right-to-Read Project; serving as coordinator for the Learning Analysis Center and as the adviser for the Black Student Alliance, the AAC Club and choir, the Good News Bible study, and several fraternities such as Alpha Upsilon Alpha.
He also founded the National Honor Society in Reading Education, which is affiliated with the International Reading Association. In 1994, he received a well-deserved University Service Award for these accomplishments.
He is an author who has co-written three books, and written multiple articles for the Georgia Journal of Reading, the International Reading Association, and the local “A Bulloch Tapestry.”
Bonds, legally blind, has suffered blindness from myasthenia gravis a rare immune system disorder since 1994.
He lives in Statesboro with his wife of 49 years, Dr. Lella Theresa Gantt Bonds. The couple has one adult son and one granddaughter.
At Original First African Baptist Church, he served as deacon, assistant superintendent, choir member and Sunday school teacher. He co-founded its Brotherhood Ministry and the food ministry, which is now called Outreach. For 16 years, he served on the Bulloch County Board of Education, District 5, and oversaw the construction of all the recently-built schools. He held membership in the Bulloch Historical Society (13 years), United Way, Sta-Buc, NAACP and several other civic organizations. In 2016, GSU erected a Georgia commemorative marker in Sweetheart Circle hailing Bonds as the first professor to integrate GSU faculty.
He has received in the past many service awards such as the Deen Day Smith Service Award in 1995; the BSA/NAACP Essence Award for Distinguished Service; the Alpha Upsilon Alpha Appreciation for Dedication to Reading and Literacy award; 4th annual Black Image Award; AAC for Services Rendered; NAACP Appreciation for Services in Reading; The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Citizen of the Year Award, Grand Marshall, MLK parade; and the GSU African-American Caucus.
Dr. Bonds also has written black history articles for the Statesboro Herald for three decades, and has “quite definitely earned his spot in Bulloch County’s own history,” Yawn said.
Debra Eisner Chester
In introducing Debra Eisner Chester, Yawn said “Some people spread positivity and joy with everything they touch, and (Chester) has had her hand in several efforts to make Statesboro beautiful and healthy place.
She and her late husband Steve devoted many hours and finances to support local artists and their displays at the Averitt Center for the Arts. They sponsored numerous shows, including the annual Statesboro Regional Art Association’s Invitational, he said.
“Not only has she given a tremendous amount of financial support, but also many hours of time and effort by attending the Gallery Opening and often purchasing the SRAA art work during the time the invitational was on display.
A a longtime member of the Georgia Southern University’s Garden of the Coastal Plains Chester has held office as chairman of the Educational Committee (2005-2007) and was Garden Board President from 2007-2013.
“Not only was she instrumental in building the Board; she continues to strive to bring in influential, hardworking members,” he said.
Chamber of Commerce Community Leader of the Year.
“Friends say Debra is a very humble lady who has always been involved since coming to Statesboro to attend Georgia Southern College in 1969,” he said. “She has given her life to making Statesboro a better place.”
Chester served as president of the Statesboro Service League, as well as being involved in the organization’s Historical Preservation Committee, organizing and orchestrating the annual Tour of Homes.
“She spearheaded the beautification and aesthetic improvements on Savannah Avenue, and is a valued and productive member of the Downtown Statesboro Development Association.” He said. “But Debra’s biggest contribution to the community, however, is her creation, support, managing and promoting the best little local farmer’s market in the region – the Downtown Statesboro Farmer’s Market.”
Yawn said Chester’s “efforts have brought the farm to the table by organizing a seasonal, weekly event where vendors of locally grown and made products can meet in a central location and offer delights to the public.”
The event includes live entertainment, food vendors, incentive programs for low income consumers and first-time customers and has even branched out to reach customers online and university students on campus, he said. “The Downtown Statesboro Farmer’s Market partners with others to educate people on healthy eating and encourages them to buy locally, all due to Debra’s steadfast promotion and support.”
Chester continues working to promote downtown businesses and encourage others to take interest in the town’s historic preservation and economic development, he said.
She is a board member of The Boys and Girls Club and hosts international college students and visitors in her home, Chesterfield, connecting guests to the community and introducing them to Statesboro.
Chester has been honored for service by the Daughters of the American Revolution, is a past Deen Day Smith Service to Mankind Award recipient, and has been “recognized by other civic organizations too many times to count for doing things like helping fund the park across from the old Bulloch Memorial Hospital site,” he said.
A member of Statesboro’s First United Methodist Church, she helped form the 901 Contemporary Service, and is a member of the board of Trustees.
She is a Lay Liturigist during Sunday services and taught the Sunday School class, "Current Events"
She has lived here since 1969 and was married to the late Steve F. Chester. She has one daughter.
Dr. Lane Van Tassell
Dr. Lane Van Tassell has “influenced, helped, guided and mentored countless young people over the last 48 years since he first arrived in Statesboro in 1970,. Yawn said.
“Not only did he have three biological children; he and his wife adopted five more over the years, giving them opportunities, education and love. Their home provided a stable and nurturing environment for a number of foster children as well,” he said.
Van Tassell worked hard to help children that needed a good home, working with Bulloch County agencies such as Pineland and the Department of Family and Children Services to foster those in need, and at times, provide permanent homes, he said.
“Even after having seven children, four of whom were adopted, Lane opened his home and heart to yet another,” he said. “When caseworkers asked, they adopted a fifth child – a seven year old, all the while having a house full already with children rani in age from teenagers to college students.”
The Van Tassels also opened their home to many high school exchange students from around the globe, “offering them a taste of a warm, loving and fascinating American family life.” Yawn said “Lane has helped countless young people find jobs and encouraged them to go to college. His own children all attended Georgia Southern.”
Lane Van Tassell has done countless acts of service in Bulloch County, most of them quietly, and many times anonymously, he said. “ Despite the many responsibilities of raising 5 daughters and 3 sons, he somehow found time to serve so many others in his community. He devoted his life to teaching at Georgia Southern University where he retired after 33 years.”
Van Tassell came to Bulloch County in 1970, having accepted an offer to teach at GSU after having completed his doctorate in International Relations at Claremont University in Southern California.
“It didn’t take long for him to fall in love with Statesboro and Southern.” He said. “ He immediately became a GSU fan, taking his kids to almost every sporting event at the college.
“Over the next 33 years, Lane served as a political science professor and administrator - Dean of the Graduate School.
Lane has always been involved with making life better for young people, focusing in education, sports and encouragement. Always actively involved, he volunteered coaching Little League baseball and basketball through the Statesboro-Bulloch County recreation department while his children were involved. He kept coaching even when he had no children on the teams, and eventually found himself with grandchildren on the teams, ending up volunteering for three decades with the Statesboro Parks and Recreation Department.”
Van Tassell was PTO president at Marvin Pittman Elementary school and on the PTO board for over a decade. He often volunteered at Marvin Pittman, teaching Spanish to elementary school students.
He was instrumental in starting the Statesboro High School baseball, soccer, and basketball boosters. He "kept the clock” for over a decade at Statesboro High School Basketball games and drove the bus for the Statesboro High School cheerleaders for several years in the 1980's.
“He currently drives Statesboro High School students in need of transportation assistance to school every morning,” Yawn said/
Van Tassell started the Model United Nations program 47 years ago at the high school level and continues to volunteer with this program both at the middle school and high school as the secretary general.
Fluent in Spanish, he often interpreted for families that were in need of a translator in a court cases, and with Babies Can't Wait-Early Intervention.
When he first came to Statesboro, he was actively involved in getting African American citizens registered to vote. “He spent many hours with Carey Howard in the Whitesville community, helping address issues of concern, and was instrumental in organizing a credit union for low income local residents to obtain loans,” he said.
Lane currently serves on the board at the Boys and Girls Club, as well as, the Food Bank where he picks up food every week from local businesses around Statesboro. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints where he has served in various leadership positions and is currently teaching a weekly Sunday school class.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.