One on One: The Man Who Changed 1,000 Lives

In less than three weeks, the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District will be hamstrung with the unenviable task of filling the shoes of a man whose shoes, quite simply, could not possibly be filled.

It’s not because there aren’t new or apt special education teachers being churned out of colleges across the country each spring.

Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School softball head coach Mike Bonasia won;t be leaving the diamond anytime soon, but at the end of the school year he is retiring from his position as the lead educator in the school's Student Adjustment Program in the special needs department after four decades of changing lives. Sean Walsh/Capecod.com Sports

Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School softball head coach Mike Bonasia won’t be leaving the Dolphin diamond anytime soon, but at the end of the school year he is retiring from his position as the lead educator in the school’s Student Adjustment Program in the special needs department after four decades of changing lives.
Sean Walsh/Capecod.com Sports

It’s because of who this man is.

Since the spring of 1988, Haverhill native Mike Bonasia has been the head softball coach for the Dolphins and this spring his girls captured a share of the very-tough-to-attain Atlantic Coast League championship title. It’s only the second time Bonasia – an extraordinarily well-respected coach – has won the ACL crown. The last time was in 2007 and this season, after finishing at 19-3, Bonasia’s girls set a new school record for most wins in a season.

No, Bonasia said he doesn’t plan on giving up the softball job. He could probably give that another 15 years without blinking because being a coach isn’t really a “job” to those who are truly successful at it.

But his curly white hair, once as dark as mahogany when he first started at D-Y Regional High School, is just a shade whiter these days. It has been a long, emotional haul.

For the past 35 years since he graduated from Westfield State – where he lettered in, of all things, varsity water polo – “Mr. B,” as he is generally known in the Dolphin Land hallways, has been a special needs educator for adolescents who, in a very generalized sense, are trying to “learn” while coping with very real behavioral issues.

One might say that “Mr. B” has become steadily adept over the past three decades at hitting fungos by afternoon, but by day he has become adept at ducking, on occasion, from every imaginable projectile that can be found in a classroom setting.

He has had to try and help emotionally fragile teenagers seething in anger at a world that doesn’t seem to understand them. He’s witnessed every type of outburst and let such moments roll off his back because his life has been imbued with a sort of juxtaposed inherent toughness and empathy that can bred only on the streets and in the sandlots of such rough-and-tumble places like the town he grew up in. He has assimilated an entire culture’s worth of issues through the eyes and tattered hearts of children whose lives – some of them – have seen things no human being should ever see or experience.

In the hallways at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, softball coach Mike Bonasia is better known as "Mr. B," or to many as just "B." Sean Walsh/Capecod.com Sports

In the hallways at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, softball coach Mike Bonasia is better known as “Mr. B,” or to many as just “B.”
Sean Walsh/Capecod.com Sports

And there are so many countless success stories from the classroom he’s called home through the 1980s and 1990s and now a full decade-and-a-half into the 21st century.  He is so deeply respected by his peers that three weeks ago his friends and colleagues and former student-athletes held a surprise retirement party for him with people in attendance he has neither seen nor spoken to since Ronald Reagan was in office.

“I was just totally speechless,” Bonasia said this week. “I couldn’t speak. I was astonished. I was in shock.”

If the world’s eyes could have spent an hour or two peering into the seemingly insignificant world of “B’s behavioral room” at some point during the three decades he allotted to try and save these lives from utter decimation, there very well might have been a Proposition 2 ½ override called for just to triple his salary.

It still would not have appropriately compensated the enormous sacrifice he has made with his life to try and help other people’s children survive another day. To be frank, in “Mr. B’s” classroom, not a single molecule of the quixotic idea that is Cape Cod exists. It is a world unto itself and an island within an island whose inhabitants have all been marooned and his one-oared rescue boat contains the only life-preserver left.

It would be difficult to find another coach anywhere with his degree of empathy for the human condition and at the same time one who owns the sort of irreplaceable, educational acumen he’s developed over a lifetime cohabitating with teenagers mired in perpetual survival mode.

A track and field star in the early 1970s at Haverhill High School, Mike Bonasia knew then that he wanted “to be a coach” one day, but it was not until he went to Westfield State that he realized he wanted to teach teenagers who needed his help and guidance the most. He said he never imagined for one minute that 40 years would fly by and within that time frame his presence on this planet would have the sort of impact it has had on well over 1,000 lives, if not more.

He keeps tabs on many of those lives. But the time has come for all the weight of that self-absorbed responsibility to be lifted from his shoulders.

Dennis-Yarmouth is fortunate he still has the youthful gusto and desire to hit ground balls and give steal and bunt signs to even a handful of softball players after school each spring.

An entire school district, two towns and the greater community that exists on this peninsula will be worse, however, for the loss of having his presence and influence fade away from the classroom setting where there are lives most of us never see but who needed men like him the most.

It is his pair of well-worn shoes that may never truly be filled again.

— Sean Walsh is the sports editor for www.capecod.com. His column appears on Capecod.com each Friday. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @coachwalshccbm

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