Sun., November 23, 2014
Savannah Morning News column
No parent wants to bury a child. That’s not the way things are supposed to unfold. No one plans for it; no one can. The order is all wrong. It’s messed up. But it happens. And when it does – death is so final, after all – there’s no going back, no rewriting the situation. From that point on you do what you can to remember the spirit of that child, the good times, the memories. You do what you think best suits the person.
Robert Bonder lived fast. He lived large. He lived full.
“It was always ninety to nothing for Rob,” his sister Cherie Dennis, a third-grade teacher at Hess Elementary, said.
To remember Rob, a young man of 31 who loved the creative side of business and real estate and friends but who could also step outside his twentysomething bubble to help someone who needed groceries or a place to live, his family landed on Habitat for Humanity. They would raise money, in Rob’s name, to build a house for someone who couldn’t afford a house. That would fit the bill. That would honor Rob.
And so they did.
For the past 10 years, since his untimely death, they’ve asked friends and family members to contribute to this Habitat project, for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings or in the case of Rob’s grandparents the Chanukah money they would have given him each year. The largest donation never exceeded $2,500. This year the family reached its goal of $50,000, enough to start construction. So the Friday following Thanksgiving family members from Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Florida will gather at an empty lot on Texas Street holding the proverbial shovels and participating in a memorial service conducted by Rabbi Robert Haas from Congregation Mickve Israel. In Rob’s memory they will begin the process of building a new home for a stranger.
“I think he would approve,” said Rob’s father Michael Bonder, who was wearing a blocky gold ring with the letters RB from his son’s Bar Mitzvah.
Rob came to Savannah from Chattanooga to go to SCAD, but two years into the architectural program he dropped out. He and a childhood friend also from Chattanooga bought a four-unit apartment building on Drayton and Macon streets. And that was just the start. Eventually he and other friends, riding the wave of renovation in the historic district, owned 140 downtown apartment units, which they managed through their company, Polaris Property Management. They ran Digital Wireless, a high-speed Internet access company, and started B & B Billiards on Congress Street.
None of that surprised his father, a physician, who relocated to Savannah with his late wife 10 years ago.
“In high school he worked like crazy,” Michael said. “At 16 he was the district manager of Cutco Knives and had a bunch of kids working for him. When he got to Savannah and started working, he made enough money to buy a yellow Land Rover that he drove to Chattanooga. That’s when he told me he’d never give it up. The next day he called me in my office and said, ‘You gotta see the black and white one I found.’
“He was industrious and creative. But he was always involved with family. He kept in touch with cousins. He’d come up to Boston to help his grandparents get to the doctor.”
“People express their grief in their own way,” said Cherie, who used to be on the board for Habitat for Humanity. “This is the first time Habitat has dedicated a house in someone’s name. We think Rob would have liked this. He was so involved with revitalization and with people. We had to take the grief we felt and put it into something that reflected who he was. It’s just our way of making lemonade from lemons.”