When students and colleagues remember Bonnie Hufford, they forgo the usual terms. She was not just a lecturer in the school of journalism, or an advisor, or a volunteer — she was family. She was an adopted mother to her students, a sister to her colleagues, and an aunt to the children of those whom she taught or worked alongside.
It is fair to say that Hufford, who passed away on Oct. 2 at the age of 66 after a decades-long battle with cancer, was one of the most beloved of all UT instructors during her 31 years at the university. In fact, just two years after she joined the College of Communication and Information in 1985 as one of its first female faculty members, Hufford won the College’s Favorite Professor Award.
It is hard to overestimate the impact Hufford had on the UT community, as well as the thousands of Knoxville residents she served as an award-winning volunteer. For her volunteer work with the American Cancer Society, Hufford received both the St. George National Award, the organization’s highest honor for outstanding community service, and the Mary Lasker Award.
The Tennessee High School Press Association named their top award for media advising the "Bonnie L. Hufford Media Adviser of the Year Award" in recognition of Hufford’s 21 years of service as the association’s director, during which she encouraged young students in their careers in journalism.
But those who knew Hufford, who was called “Ms. Bonnie” by her students, know that the awards were less important to her than the people she served and taught.
After news broke of her passing, colleagues remarked on Hufford’s infectious joy and sense of humor, as well as her striking popularity among her students, many of whom became her lifelong friends.
Mark Littman, professor of journalism who was next-door-neighbors with Hufford for many years in the Communications Building, says that when he thinks of her legacy, he pictures the line of students that always appeared outside her office.
“Whenever I would come to work, there would almost always be a student in her office, very often a student waiting outside, maybe two, and it just kept going like that,” Littman said. “One of the things that was wonderful about her was that she wanted to get to know the students. They weren’t just a paper handed in and graded and returned.”
Though Hufford taught editing, infamous as being among the most feared and hated of all required courses for journalism students, Littman says that she had a way of making the class fun. As a symbol of her peaceful and collaborative nature, Hufford would use a blue pen to grade students’ work, and the blue pen came to represent her ethos. It even made it onto her license plate, which read “BLUE PEN.”
Littman says that the relationships Hufford made with students in her editing courses rarely ended in the classroom.
“She became kind of an advising service, and the advising service wasn’t just academic,” Littman said. “She apparently was so clear and so enjoyable to be in class with, that I don’t know how many students came to her with academic problems. I think they came to her as much as anything for personal problems, or just for the friendship.”
Ashley Yeager, who graduated from the College of Communication and Information in 2007, met Ms. Bonnie in an advising meeting and the two quickly became friends.
“I was nervous, because I had heard that she was a very tough editing teacher, and so I was kind of scared to go into this academic advising meeting with her,” Yeager said.
“And it was completely opposite of what I expected, and we just had this wonderful chat. I mean, she was the type of person who could really ask you what you were interested in, and she would really listen.”
Hufford listened intently as Yeager told her about her twin passions for science and writing, and put her in contact with Prof. Littman, who showed her a path towards combining the two. Now, over a decade later, Yeager is an associate editor at “The Scientist,” with a career that she credits to the early guidance of Hufford and Littman.
As is typical with Ms. Bonnie, however, their relationship extended well beyond the advising appointment and even Yeager’s time at UT.
“I thought of her kind of as an adopted mom, like she adopted me as her daughter,” Yeager said.
“She knew the kinds of foods l liked, she knew where I liked to eat, and so she would take me out to eat or I would go to her house and she would always have the things that I liked. I mean, she just kind of really nurtured me, because college can be a challenging experience on so many different levels, and I think she sensed that and so she would just try to make our time together special.”
Yeager and her older sister Melanie Cozad, who became another adopted daughter of Hufford’s during her time as a PhD student, maintained contact with Hufford after they graduated. They would have her over for Thanksgiving and other holidays, sharing memories of the so-called “Misadventures of Ms. Bonnie,” remembering the times when they would nearly get kicked out of public places for laughing too hard at whatever story was being told.
It was Yeager’s sister who called her to share the news of Ms. Bonnie’s passing.
“We had kind of been prepared for the news, but it still doesn’t take the sting out of it,” Yeager said. “We both cried on the phone, just because like I said, Ms. Bonnie really is our adopted mom.”
Hufford made these family-like connections with her colleagues, too. Rob Heller, professor of journalism who worked with Hufford for 30 years, remembers his kids enjoying the cookies Ms. Bonnie would make for them each Christmas, which they ate in the backseat of the car on their annual vacations.
“It wasn’t a proper trip unless my kids had those big enormous gingerbread men that would last almost the entire trip down to Florida,” Heller said. “It was just a thing that they always remembered and I know she did that for everybody who had kids. You know, she was like everybody’s aunt, right? You know, part of the family in some ways.”
Heller recalls that Hufford became the favorite of many of the students she came in contact with.
“I always heard students talking about her as essentially their favorite throughout their entire time at Tennessee,” Heller said. “They were her kids, right? I mean, that’s really what it was. They were like her children.”
To commemorate Ms. Bonnie’s “legacy of excellence in editing,” the School of Journalism and Electronic Media announced Tuesday the creation of a fund in her name which will be used towards undergraduate scholarships and to help students attend the Southeast Journalism Conference, an event that Hufford enjoyed attending with students in her time at UT.
In addition to her many other volunteer efforts, Hufford was deeply involved in the Relay for Life, an American Cancer Society fundraising event. After surviving leukemia as a younger woman, Hufford was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of plasma cells, in 2009.
To honor her strength in the face of disease, Hufford was chosen as a Hero of Hope, a position that allowed her to travel around the region sharing her testimony of her fight against cancer at various Relay for Life events.
Michael Holtz, an alumnus of the CCI graduate program who serves as a leadership volunteer with the American Cancer Society, said in an email statement that the ACS was greatly saddened at the news of Hufford’s death.
“Volunteers and staff alike are devastated by the news of Bonnie Hufford’s passing,” Holtz said. “Bonnie’s voice may be silenced and her work stilled, but her legacy lives on in the hearts of all of us who knew her.”
Like many of Hufford’s friends, Holtz came to see her as family in the time that they worked together, even coming to her when he had his own cancer diagnosis.
“On a very personal level, Bonnie was like a second mother to me. I first met her in 1992 when I moved to Knoxville to begin the College of Communications graduate program. While I was a student for only one class, on international relations, we became fast and lifelong friends,” Holtz said.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer in March 2012, Bonnie was one of the first people I called because she had the wisdom and experience of fighting her own battle for decades. We were members of a club no one asked us to join.”
Prof. Littman says that the School of Journalism was similarly saddened by the news earlier this month, though Hufford had lived longer with her bleak prognosis than anyone predicted.
“There was great sadness throughout the school and throughout the college when news came that Bonnie had died,” Littman said. “It was, I’m sure, a wonder that she lived as long as she did, which just goes to testify to her spirits. She willed herself to live, and I think in large part so she could help the students.”
That Hufford fought for years to live for her students and serve her community is a testament to the life she lived and the legacy she leaves behind.
“Isn’t it wonderfully admirable that students loved her?” Littman said. “That (students) would trust her, want her opinion, want her advice on all kinds of things, want to be near her, want to emulate her … Gosh, isn’t that a life well-lived?”
Hufford’s visitation will be at the Adams Funeral Home in her hometown of Sidney, Ohio, on Oct. 17 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Her family has asked that donations be made to the American Cancer Society or to the UT School of Journalism in her honor.