Markers go to ET banker, Tyler theater

Published on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 23:31 - Written by Kelly Gooch


An East Texas banker and a Tyler theater were honored Wednesday for their impact on the area.

Both honorees - Thomas Bonner and the Tyler Civic Theatre Center - received new Half Mile of History markers. The stone markers are the most recent additions to the downtown Half Mile of History heritage trail, which honors people, places and events that have contributed to Tyler or Smith County.

During a ceremony Wednesday at Gallery Main Street, the markers were unveiled, and various speakers addressed the audience.  

Mayor Barbara Bass said history is available on each stone of the outdoor walking path for the Half Mile of History, and it is exciting to hear about the most recent honorees.

She said they are “one organization and a person (with) two very different purposes in the way they contributed to Tyler, but both a very strong part of our history.”

For instance, she said, there is Bonner Elementary School, as well as the many plays that have been attended at the Tyler Civic Theatre Center and the theater’s impact on children.

“Tyler is truly a greater place because of this person - Mr. Bonner - and our Tyler Civic Theatre (Center),” Mayor Bass said.

Tyler Civic Theatre Center board president Daye Collins also addressed the audience.

She said Bonner was a state representative and speaker of the House who oversaw the legislative session that drafted and adopted Texas’ current constitution.

As far as the theater, past Tyler Civic Theatre Center board president Joyce Paro said the theater was a dream that was brought to fruition and furthered by Alfred Gilliam and Mildred Stringer.

“They have this dream and worked to see it was fulfilled,” she said. “They have brought art and music to thousands. Thousands have been touched in this area by the theater, whether you were in the audience or whether you were backstage washing dishes or gathering props …It’s all been wonderful.”

Additionally, Ms. Paro said, there are many memories with the theater, and “the camaraderie was priceless.”

“It was such a joy to watch the young students evolve into self-confident young people who have gone on to perform in theaters on Broadway, in London, and many have gone to other communities and volunteered their talents in keeping a theater going there. I really believe that the theater has done a great deal to promote Tyler,” Ms. Paro said.

Mayor Bass followed by saying that after she and her husband moved to Tyler, one of the first things they did, at the recommendation of a friend, was get season tickets, and she has enjoyed “years of wonderful productions.”

“It has been a wonderful venue and a wonderful event when you go to the plays,” she said. “Thank you Tyler Civic Theatre (Center) for being there for the community, and we look forward to many more years and many more plays.”

Thomas Bonner was born in Mississippi in the 1830s and moved with his parents to Rusk, in 1850, Tyler Historical Preservation Board Member Bryan Campbell said as he went through Bonner’s biography.

Around that time, he became an apprentice printer with the Cherokee Sentinel, Campbell said. He said Bonner learned by reading and through self-directed study, and in 1854, he left the Cherokee Sentinel to take over his father’s farm.

Then in the 1860s, Bonner entered Confederate service as a captain, in Company C, of Col.

William B. Ochiltree’s 18th Texas Infantry, Campbell said. He later served as a major, lieutenant colonel and a colonel of the regiment, he said.

Once the Civil War was over, Bonner continued to farm until 1866, “when he began reading law in the office of his older brothers, W. and M. H. Bonner,” Campbell said.

“He was admitted to the bar in 1867 and practiced law in Rusk until September 1872, then moved to Tyler, where he entered the banking business with E. C. Williams,” he said. “Williams & Bonner Bank was the first bank in Tyler. He advocated industrialization and economic expansion. He also supported railroad development statewide along with the Tyler Tap and the Kansas & Gulf Shore line. Bonner became a leading East Texas banker, railroad director and financier.”

Bonner also has a history with politics.

In 1866, Campbell said he represented Rusk County in the Texas legislature and in 1876 was elected to the legislature from Smith County. He also served as Speaker of the House.

Bonner served in Austin and then returned to Tyler to organize another bank, Bonner & Bonner, where he served as president until he died in the 1890s, Campbell said. Bonner is buried at Tyler’s Oakwood Cemetery.

 Wednesday’s other honoree, the Tyler Civic Theatre Center, was incorporated as a state and federal nonprofit organization in 1949 and is about to have its 65th consecutive season “of providing outstanding amateur plays and musicals to ‘entertain, enrich and educate through theater,’” Historical Preservation Board Member Jim Robertson said as he read about the history of the theater.

In concurrence with its incorporation was the construction of a 130-seat theater at 400 Rose Park Drive, Robertson said. Alfred Gilliam, who then served as director of the Circle Theatre at Tyler Junior College, was the driving force behind designing a theatre-in-the-round, and Gilliam and Mildred Stringer sketched a square or round theatre, “with a floor stage and elevated seats on all four sides, thereby allowing attendees an up-close and personal interaction with the performers,” he said.

Then “in 1951, the first theater in the United States designed solely in-the-round opened with Alfred Gilliam as the first director of Tyler Civic Theatre Center; a position he held until his death in 1988,”Robertson said. “The theater is acknowledged as the first and longest continually operated theater-in-the-round in the United States.”

In 2002, “with the addition of the Braithwaite Theatre,” the original theater became the “Rogers Children’s Theatre” in memory of Tyler philanthropist Robert M. Rogers, he said.

“It continues to this day to be used on a daily basis for the theatrical education of children and young adults, as well as for performances featuring actors in their age groupings,” he said.

“Over the past 64 years, the Tyler Civic Theatre Center has averaged six major productions per year to an estimated audience of 50,000 individuals. Tyler Civic Theatre Center is a member of Texas Nonprofit Theater Association, the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce and the Tyler Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Board of Directors, the actors and the crew are volunteers who give of their time, talent and treasures to allow the theater to provide Tyler, Smith County and East Texas the finest theater experience possible.”

 The Half Mile of History came out of community input for the Tyler 1st Comprehensive Plan, Mayor Bass said.

“The community spoke through Tyler 1st and said that we needed to promote and display diverse aspects of Tyler’s history to enhance …awareness of its importance. We believe that message…,” Mayor Bass said.

“We all heard that ‘You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been,’ and it’s a very true statement.”

Past theater board president John Anderson said there are many groups, organizations and individuals in Smith County and Tyler that deserve the Half Mile of History recognition and encouraged nonprofits and some organizations to fill out an application.

“It’s exciting to have this placed in a place that is going to be permanent and something that will remain a part of Tyler history,” Anderson said.