The Way We Were: Bonnie Nelson Gum

The Way We Were: Bonnie Nelson Gum
Bonnie Gum and her son, David, when he was two years old

Young Bonnie Nelson “couldn’t wait to move to Jacksonville” from Kingsland, Ga., after her high school graduation in 1933 and vowed, “If I ever get there, I’ll never leave.” Born in Italia between Yulee and Callahan in her grandmother’s house, Bonnie recently celebrated her 104th birthday on Sept. 12 with a party, coconut cake, and her son David entertaining everyone by playing the piano at St. Catherine’s Laboure Manor.

Bonnie Nelson Gum
Bonnie Nelson Gum

Bonnie has a long lifetime of memories. She recalled riding in a horse and buggy from Callahan to Italia to visit her Grandmother and has been in Jacksonville longer than most people’s four score and ten-year lifetime allotment.

Bonnie’s young life was challenging. When her father died and her mother was working to support the family, Bonnie, as the second eldest of five children, spent a lot of time caring for the younger ones. Her surviving youngest sister, now age 92, still lives in Kingston and the siblings chat on the phone every day at 4 p.m. Their mother, for whom she has great admiration, ran Robinson’s Tourist Home on the north end of Hwy. 17 in Kingston, Ga. Part of the house had been turned into a store with gas pumps in the front. They had a huge grape arbor, pears, oranges, pecans and a garden, and they sold this bounty at the store. “My mother could take $5 and make it look like $50. She didn’t allow us to have pets or go swimming, but she believed in education,” she said. Bonnie credits her mother with teaching her to be independent and “be your own boss.”

After escaping to the big city of Jacksonville she attended Massey Business College, located where the Edgewood Theater was in Murray Hill, and then worked at the Greyhound Bus Station on Forsyth Street downtown as a cashier. She also typed menus and provided other clerical duties for the Interstate Restaurant. It was there she met her husband-to-be Charles Gum, a bus driver. “He came in one time and didn’t have a button on his sleeve. So, I sewed it on for him. I think he just wanted to date me. He didn’t drink, he was very honest. We went out for 11 months, and then he asked me to go with him to pick out a ring,” she recalled. “If I knew then what I know now, I’d have picked out a whopper!”

Charles Gum
Charles Gum

The Gums married at Main Street Baptist Church on June 12, 1940 and moved into a small apartment on W. 23rd Street. In January of 1950, they bought a new house on Old Hickory Road in South Shores, an area near Bishop Kinney High School wedged between San Marco and St. Nicholas. The house has “killer river view,” said her son, David Gum.

During that time, Bonnie worked downtown at Furchgott’s Department Store before going to work for the Tax Assessor’s Office where she “pounded the keys for computer input on a computer as large as a room.” The Gums joined Southside Baptist Church in 1950, and Charlie became Supervisor of Safety and Utilities of Public Works, which is now JEA. They adopted David when he was 9 months old in 1953.

“We always told him we wanted him,” said Bonnie. “We chose him. He looks so much better than any child we would have had. He had curls all over his head. He was the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.”

Charles and Bonnie Gum with their son, David
Charles and Bonnie Gum with their son, David

Lessons in independence Bonnie learned from her mother served her well when her husband passed on in 1963 at age 49 from pancreatic cancer.  She lived alone until 2 years ago when her son David moved in with her to assist her with the house and the yard. She was mobile until about 5 or 6 years ago, he explained, adding that, luckily, he lived in the South Shores neighborhood and could help her out.

David now lives in his childhood home which he is renovating. When asked if he was doing it himself, he replied in a droll manner like his mother’s, “I surround myself with talent.” To which his mother responded, “You need to stick to playing the piano.”   

Gum, a professional musician who has played locally for years in piano bar settings such as Tree Steakhouse, Seasons 52, Epping Forrest, Club Continental among others, is now, as he joked, “a solo phenomenon.” Previously he “hit the road” with several bands including Cowford County, Bonnie Gringo, David Allen Coe and performed with the house band at Molly McGuire’s in Savannah. Gum currently plays on cruise lines, at Nocatee, and has numerous “assisted living gigs.” He said his parents encouraged his musical career with their gift of “a college and a musical education.”

After graduating from Wolfson High School in 1970, Gum toured with bands, then got a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of North Florida in 1977. He lived in Atlanta for several years before returning to Jacksonville to perform in commercials, one with local tv personality Dick Stratton encouraging viewers to buy a piano for Christmas. Later he appeared in the pilot for a TV show filmed at Villano Beach called “Magic Beach.” Later, however, his acting career declined, he said.

Bonnie Gum and her son, David
Bonnie Gum and her son, David

David has always been interested in local history and has done extensive research on local rock and roll. He has written articles for The Resident Community News about San Marco in the 1960’s and Phillips Highway “way back in the day.”

By listening to his parent’s advice and wisdom, he pursued a career he enjoyed. “I’d make him change his clothes and practice the piano for 30 minutes every day after school,” Bonnie said. Another early musical influence was his father’s Dixieland Band, Charlie Gum’s Orchestra. “Dad’s musical abilities rubbed off on me,” he said.

A conversation with Bonnie and her son jumps from the present to the past like riffling notes of a musical scale, yet their memories come together with harmonious melodies. Bonnie recalled giving David an allowance of $2 a week when he was 8 years old. His responsibilities included sweeping the porch and cleaning the bathtubs. When he was older David earned the princely sum of $1 an hour working at the Southside Fish Company, which was on Beach Boulevard across from Bishop Kinney and gone since 1970. David, like every Southern child of the time. recalled having to go cut a switch to get spanked with when he was naughty. Bonnie and David laughed together telling of David’s note to his parents when he ran away from home. It read, “Dear Grouches, I’m running away and going to live at the beach with Pop (his fraternal grandfather) because you won’t buy me a Mighty Mo.” While David explains, “it was a canon,” Bonnie interjected, “We weren’t too worried. His little clothes were draped over the sofa, and he was hiding behind it.” David laughed, “I already had a Johnny Reb canon.”

The pride and joy of this mother son duo is evident in their fond recollections as well as the new moments they still share at ages 104 and 66, respectively. Bonnie said that David is the best son ever, and she only has affirming comments about him. “He is a professor of everything. We always said, ‘Don’t be a half-done Willie. Whatever you do – do it right.’ I’m not just bragging because he’s my son. He can rattle those piano keys and sing too. I can’t carry a tune. And he’s a great cook with a gourmet taste. He brings me his stuffed peppers and crab cakes. I love his eggplant casserole.”

At least three times a week, David visits his mother, who he describes as a “humorous, cheerful lady with an infectious laugh.”

Bonnie Gum and her son, David
Bonnie Gum and her son, David

When asked, the secret to her longevity, Bonnie gave this sage advice: “I stayed out of the sun and ate a lot of vegetables.” However, her son revealed that she eats bacon for breakfast and dinner.

Although she can no longer read as much as she likes, Bonnie said she enjoys television, but not what she calls “Mickey Mouse stuff.” She loves the words and the melody of the song “Tennessee Waltz” and although she doesn’t consider herself a social butterfly, she enjoys visits with friends from her church and lots of old friends from Kingsland, as well as her cat Stevie – “a handsome cat” – that David brought for a visit on her birthday; her granddaughter Sarah Eckonen and great grandson Zeke, who visit several times a year from Hendersonville, N.C., and she enjoyed David’s performance at St. Catherine’s on Nov. 21.

If there is one word to sum up the vitality and warmth of this woman, it is probably her name. She has lived up to the Scottish origin word “Bonny” as described in the dictionary: “pleasing, attractive, sweet, lively and good.” That is Bonnie Nelson Gum – bonnie lass, bonnie mother, bonnie lady.

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