Mary Lou Retton of Fairmont won the all-around gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games at Los Angeles as an all-time great gymnast and role model.
Many, many years before that, however, a gentleman named William A. “Bill” Bonsall became the true “Father of Gymnastics” for the state of West Virginia.
The Philadelphia, Pa. native, like Retton an Olympic gold medalist when a youngster, actually started that sport on a men’s club basis at West Virginia University in 1948. He coached while he earned a master’s degree in 1950, then remained the founder and head coach when his program was upgraded to varsity status in 1952.
In all, Bonsall served as head coach for 31 years of the WVU men’s gymnastics program.
He retired in 1980 and remains the only person to guide a men’s program in that sport at WVU.
Men’s gymnastics was dropped by the university in 1980.
“I was devastated,” Bill Bonsall stated in an interview with him and wife Jean last week-
The Bonsalls, who have been married 67 years, are still charter apartment residents of the Village of Heritage Point in Morgantown for about 14 years.
While her husband has some health issues, Mrs. Bonsall said, “He’s a wonderful person to be with.” He will turn 90 on Dec. 31 this year.
“He’s comfortable. He’s doing well and he’s certainly happy. And we are enjoying each day living here at The Village.”
Bonsall’s outstanding career dates all the way back to 1939 when he was a standout at Philadelphia’s Bartram High. He was a member of the school’s first ever boys’ gymnastics team.
Bonsall is BHS’ only graduate who later became an Olympic Champion.
In 1942, Bonsall enrolled as a student at Penn State University and became a member of its NCAA national gymnastics championship team as a freshman. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army the following year during World War II.
After a most interesting three years or so in military service. (To be discussed in No. 2 of this two-story series)
Bonsall re-enrolled at Penn State in 1945.
Bonsall, who also taught classes in gymnastics while coaching, lost no time in picking up where he had left off in his career. He got his master’s degree from WVU to go with his bachelor’s degree from PSU.
He had won for the Nittany Lions the NCAA rings gold medal in 1946, and the NCAA vaulting gold medal in 1948. In addition, Bonsall won a silver medal as an all-around competitor in 1948.
In all, he achieved at Penn State two NCAA crowns, two All-America awards, two second-place finishes in the NCAA all-around competition, and two NCAA gold medals.
Bonsall went on to represent the U.S. in the 1948 Olympic Games in London.
After taking over the gymnastics reins at West Virginia U, Bonsall guided the Mountaineers to three Southern Conference Championships and a fifth-place national finish in 1963.
“I coached a great number of talented men, and I am still very proud of what they achieved,” Bonsall recalled. “It was a long, wonderful career.”
Bonsall, who was a Southern Conference Coach of the Year selection, is a member of the United States Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
He’s also in the West Virginia Sports Writers Hall of Fame, WVU Sports Hall of Fame, and the WVU School of Physical Education Hall of Fame.
This is the first in a two-story series that will conclude tomorrow.