Behind her chipper smile and self-deprecating brand of humor, Bonnie DeHoff Fakes cannot quite disguise the fact that, after 69 years of a remarkable life filled with numerous peaks and a few valleys, she remains a doggedly determined individual whose enthusiasm knows no bounds.
"I was born Oct. 2, 1945, baptized Oct. 2, 1955, and married on Oct. 2, 1971, and I think I should die on an Oct. 2," laughs a beaming Bonnie.
Among the highs, alongside "Grand Ole Opry" superstar Roy Acuff she sang before thousands of American G.I.s in Vietnam, came oh-so-close to being the first civilian to blast into outer space, taught thousands of public school students across six decades and relished a 42-year marriage with her late mate Ray Fakes that produced five fine children.
The Murfreesboro native, who lives on a 100-acre hay farm outside of Lebanon, commutes to the Boro about three days a week to manage DeHoff Christian Bookstore, which has been located on NW Broad Street since 1952.
"Daddy bought this building on a leap of faith. It's been a good ride. We have second-and third-generation customers. We try to be a full-service Christian bookstore," said Bonnie, who co-owns the store with brothers Paul of Houston, Texas, and George DeHoff Jr. of Murfreesboro.
"I've worked here since I was 7 or 8. I had nice handwriting and was writing checks when I was 7 years old, and Mother would sign them. That was my first job.
"I'm general flunkie. I pay the bills, wait on customers. I'm great at gold stamping. It's never boring. We just have a good time. Everybody does everything. We all do it all," Bonnie says of her cohorts, Debbie Gauger, Sandra King and Justin Reed.
Their clients she says are "Churches of Christ, ministers and Sunday school teachers, and lots of Baptist churches use our material. We have great Christmas gifts. There's nothing better than a Bible with your name on it [preferably stamped in gold]. We have gift books, something to suit everybody."
The bookstore's motto remains set in stone: Golden Rule Service.
"That was Dad's idea, treat people like you want to be treated," she said.
Touring Vietnam with Roy Acuff
So along the way how did this daughter of a famous preacher serve a brief stint as a girl singer in Acuff's band?
"My boyfriend Ray, later my husband, was a big country music fan," begins Bonnie. "On our dates we would go to the Cross Keys restaurant in downtown Nashville for supper and then to the 'Grand Ole Opry' [at Ryman Auditorium]. Back then you could buy a ticket and stay from 7 until 12 and watch Marty Robbins close the show at midnight with 'El Paso.'
"On Christmas Eve 1966 all the stars were there. Roy Acuff came on, and Ray said to me, 'I heard on the radio that Acuff is holding auditions to go on a USO tour in March. You ought to go down and audition.'
"I told him, 'Every female country singer is an alto, and I'm a high soprano. I've sung in a capella groups but I've never performed professionally. Besides, he wants a professional singer.'
"Ray said, 'Acuff's funny. Sometimes he uses people off the street.' Well, thank you,' I told him."
Calling the Acuff-Rose Publishing office on Monday, Bonnie explained to the woman on the other end of the line why she was calling and mentioned she had a college degree. The lady said that she would call her back.
"Twenty minutes later the lady called me back to tell me, 'Mr. Acuff can see you at 10 Tuesday morning for the audition.' I said to Ray, 'They'll laugh me out of the place, but I'll go to make you happy, but you are gonna owe me a steak dinner of filet mignon if I lose.' He said, 'OK, you're on.'"
The following morning Bonnie performed the Don Gibson country hit "Oh Lonesome Me" for Acuff in his office.
"They listened. When I got through, Mr. Acuff said, 'Thank you for coming down. If you win, you'll have to be vaccinated for a bunch of shots.'''
Lo and behold, she won the audition.
"I think to this day I got the job because I looked like everybody's little sister back home.
Mr. Acuff told me, 'You were right in pitch.'
"He was an interesting character, a consummate showman. He expected the musicians to do their part. He told me and June Black, the other girl singer, 'You girls, you're gonna be the most conceited things when you come back. These guys are so female starved, they're gonna wait on you hand and foot.'"
On March 14, 1967, the 21-year-old vocalist departed the U.S. for a 25-day tour of Southeast Asia, performing two weeks in Vietnam in Saigon, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Pleiku and the Mekong Delta, doing two shows a day, six days a week. The troupe also played a week in Thailand. The crowds numbered from a few hundred to more than 10,000.
"Ray gave me some good advice before I left," recalled Bonnie. "He said, 'Walk out there like you own the joint. And I did and I enjoyed it. I was making $110 a week and would have done it for free."
Besides the Gibson hit, she sang "Hey, Good Looking" and "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" on the program. Among her carriages to concerts, she flew on C1-30s, C47s and helicopters.
"It was the most valuable experience of my life. I'd toured in a combat zone, in hospitals, seeing guys just come off the battlefields. I ate lunch with G.I.s from all over the U.S. They asked for my autograph, and I signed rifle butts, a restaurant wall of an officers' club, hats, shirts and $20 bills.
"The heat was unbelievable, getting up to 135 degrees. I lost 15 pounds. One guy thanked me over and over, telling me, 'We had to come here. We know you didn't have to be here,'" reminisced Bonnie.
A career in education
The daughter of George and Marie Turner DeHoff began her education at Murfreesboro's Crichlow Elementary School. Before her freshman year her father accepted a job to become president of Magic Valley Christian College in Albion, Idaho, thus she graduated from high school in Albion and then earned her B.A. degree in English and history from Magic Valley in 1964. She later completed a master's degree in social science at Middle Tennessee State University.
After the family returned to Murfreesboro in 1965, Bonnie taught a year at David Lipscomb High School in Nashville for a year and then took a job in the admissions department at Cumberland University for six years. In 1968 she competed in the Miss Tennessee Pageant, qualifying by winning the Miss Wilson County title.
Her life took a major turn one day in 1972 after she walked into the office of Lebanon High assistant principal Sue Young. Young asked, "Bonnie Fakes, what are you certified to teach?"
"I said, 'history and English' and then she said, 'Good, you're gonna be my new English teacher.'
"Sue put me in the English department. Forty-one years later I finally got out of high school. I had lots of nice kids. They gave me a great education," grinned Bonnie, who taught English I, II, III and IV, creative writing, world literature, occupational English and study skills.
Aiming for outer space
Not quite halfway through her teaching career, Bonnie, the fearless, threw her name into the ring for the Teacher in Space Project in 1985.
"I was cooking super and listening to the evening news on TV. President (Ronald) Reagan announced a competition for a teacher to be the first citizen passenger on an American spacecraft. I just about dropped everything," she recalled. "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. NASA you don't know it yet, but you've found your girl.'"
There were a myriad of requirements to qualify, and the 13-page application included 11 pages of essay questions and necessitated a detailed description of the space shuttle.
"I wrote it and rewrote it, and I wrote it from my heart," she said. "I was intimidated by the fact that we thought a science teacher would have an advantage."
NASA mailed out 50,000 applications and about 13,000 were returned.
Two Tennessee teachers made the final 20: Bonnie and Nashville educator Carolyn Dobbins, who like Bonnie was raised in Rutherford County (Eagleville).
The next step meant being grilled by 18 people in Nashville, an ordeal that was videotaped and then sent to NASA. Ultimately, the 20 finalists went to Washington, D.C., where each met with a panel of judges. Among Bonnie's judges were Pam Dawber of "Mork and Mindy" TV fame and astronaut Gene Cerman, the last man to walk on the moon.
"We went home on Friday and had been told that if we were selected, we would get a call on Sunday. I didn't get a call. I was really disappointed," she said.
Disaster in the sky
On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the teacher/mother was stuck at home on a snow day with her four children, one of them sick.
Her babysitter, Bessie Owen, called and said, "Bonnie, the shuttle has blown up!"
"I just turned on Channel 5, and I knew instantly that everybody on the shuttle was dead. I was in disbelief," she reminisced.
"Travis and Laura [her two oldest children] saw it. Travis, who was in the second grade, said, 'Mama, did the shuttle blow up? Are they dead?'
"I told him, 'Yes, honey, they are.'
"He said, 'I know I said I wanted you to go, but I really wanted you to stay here.'"
Following the national tragedy, Bonnie served as a NASA Space Ambassador and presented educational space programs across the country. She also compiled the "Teacher in Space Cookbook."
Writing came naturally to Bonnie, following in the footsteps of her father, who began compiling Sunday school material and workbooks in 1939. He eventually completed about two dozen hardcover books and 50 workbooks with his "DeHoff Bible Commentary," written between 1976 and 1982, serving as his major accomplishment while his "Christian Doctrine" workbook No. 1 has sold more than million copies.
He also broadcast more than 5,000 shows on WGNS Radio with "The Christian Hour" from 1950 to 1958 and then "The Bible Hour from" 1964 to 1977.
"Daddy knew every book in the store and who had written them and probably knew all the authors," she said of her father, who preached in Murfreesboro at the East Main Street Church of Christ from 1945 to 1958 and then at the Bellwood Church of Christ from 1965 to 1976.
Family ties that bind
Bonnie and her husband Ray met in 1965 at MTSU in a class on the "History of the South." They courted for six years before marrying in 1971, a union that continued for almost 43 years, until his death last August. The couple raised their family as members of the Maple Hill Church of Christ in Lebanon, where Bonnie continues to worship. Ray, a Civil War history buff, worked for more than 40 years as the general purchasing manager for Precision Rubber Corporation.
"People ask me all the time, 'How are you doing?' I tell them, 'Ninety-nine percent of the time I'm just fine, and one percent of the time I go on a crying jag," she says candidly. "It gets better with time. I stay busy and have good friends who take my mind off it. It's my history, a wonderful history, but it's over, and I have to move on. He was a great husband, and I loved him dearly, our children loved him dearly, and we had a wonderful life together, but that's now gone."
Their children are Travis, who manages the farm and served in the International Police Force for two years in Afghanistan; Laura, a teacher in Johnson City who has two children (Hoover and Dubya) and like her mother before her was named a Lincoln Fellow in 2009; Paul, a lobbyist for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in Washington, D.C.; Matthew, director of the radiology department at St. Thomas-Hickman; and Bonnie Beth, the agriculture teacher at Oakland High School, whose husband Lucas Holman is the ag teacher at Riverdale High.
A year deep into retirement, Bonnie confesses that she is never bored and keeps busy mowing the yard, gardening (she loves daylilies), composing songs and sewing (she sewed her wedding dress as well as those for her daughters).
"I love reading. I'm sleeping with Abraham Lincoln, Phyllis Diller and a couple of catalogs," she jokes. "If my sister [Theresa Ann DeHoff of Franklin] ever retires, we will probably write trashy mystery novels, and I have grandbabies to stay interested in and more things than I can plan to do."
As for upcoming challenges, she hopes to partner with newly-retired Lebanon High principal Myra Sloan to create a display of photographs of teachers who taught at Lebanon High School for 20 years or more. And she continues to wrangle with words, and, sometimes, music.
"I'm working on my aunt's autobiography, and there's a book in the store that we want to redo, 'Church Bulletin Material No. 2.' And I want to buy an electronic keyboard and put my musical compositions into written form and get them published. I'd love to get my hymn out and hear a congregation sing it. Who knows? Maybe Dolly Parton will record it," said Bonnie, an optimist whose cup overflows with pluck.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.
DeHoff Christian Bookstore
Where: 749 NW Broad St. in Murfreesboro (two blocks west of Highway 231 and Highway 70 intersection)
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday (closes at 4 p.m. Wednesday) and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday
Contact: Phone: (615) 893-8322, 1-800-695-5385. Web site: dehoffpublications.com.