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Head Comforter, Organizer Extraordinaire

School Secretary Begins 50th Year

Alto Elementary secretary Bonnie Gokey hangs up the telephone after assuring a parent she’ll get his son, Mikey, to the office to be picked up for a dentist’s appointment as soon as recess is over.

“Right now I’m just trying to get my medicine cabinet squared away,” she tells a visitor. “Years ago we had a nurse for the whole district. Helen, I think her name was. But back then it was basically a Band-Aid here, an ice pack there. Now, oh. So much asthma. So many inhalers.”

Gokey picks up the phone again and calls Mikey’s teacher. “And would you let Natalie know her mom will pick her up inside today? Yep. Inside. OK, bye.”

A teacher comes into the office to ask about school pictures. “No group pictures on the first day. Those will be on make-up day,” Gokey tells her. “And I’m probably going to have to have them do it in the lunchroom, because the gym is not available.

“I’m a good multi-tasker, she says with a wink and a laugh as she buzzes in another visitor and glances over the counter at a sniffling youngster who says he has a tummyache.

“Yes, this is the cure,” Gokey says. “They come to the office, sit down and relax. Get a magic Band-Aid and a miracle ice pack and they’re all set.” She glances at the boy again. “That’s why I’ve stuck it out so long.”

Bonnie Gokey gets a hug from Alto Elementary parapro Becky Carothers, who first met her as a student there
Bonnie Gokey gets a hug from Alto Elementary parapro Becky Carothers, who first met her as a student there

Head Comforter, Organizer Extraordinaire

In the global club of ultra-competent, miracle-working, multi-tasking brilliance that is the school secretary, Bonnie Gokey is the archetype. And 2017 will mark her 50th year as the head comforter, the organizer extraordinaire and chief traffic cop of the major, often chaotic but always efficient intersection that is the main office of Alto and elementary schools everywhere.

Gokey started at Alto Elementary in 1967, when she was still a senior at Lowell High School and an apparent stand-out in her typing class. She was born and raised in Alto.

“The principal then, Dirk Minnema, was the minister of the church where my sister got married, so our family knew him,” she recalled. “When I graduated, they asked me if I wanted to stay.”

She started with a typewriter — “not electric,” she pointed out — and said the first copy machine she worked had a hand crank and stained her arms and clothing from the ink of the carbon paper.

“I was purple,” she recalled. “My mom finally made me a smock so it wouldn’t ruin all my clothes.”

‘These Are My Kids’

Other than the minor wardrobe adjustment, Gokey has no complaints. She said she never considered switching careers, and other than taking six months off when she had her daughter, the now great-grandmother has been content to recharge during school breaks with camping and lake property trips.

“You can only clean house, do laundry and mow the grass so many times,” she said. “I was always ready to come back.”

Gokey checks the temperature of first-grader Todd Lyonnais
Gokey checks the temperature of first-grader Todd Lyonnais

Nonetheless, Gokey said she plans to retire at the end of the year. She almost made the move sooner, but the other Alto secretary was transferred, and this is Principal Paul Papes’ second year at the helm.

“I just couldn’t leave,” she said. “Too many changes, and so much for someone new to learn.”

Papes said Gokey’s “unparalleled institutional knowledge” has helped him greatly in his new position. “(She) has a genuine passion for helping others, and her fun and welcoming personality is valued by all. Alto Elementary has been very fortunate to have her as a ‘rock’ at the school for many years. ”

Now, Gokey says, she’s ready to have more free time. She looks forward to having a little extra in her pockets when she will no longer have to supply bus drivers with chocolate.

“Costs me a fortune,” she said with a chuckle.

But she will miss the students.

“These are my kids. I’m like Grandma to all of them,” Gokey said. “There are times when they make wrong choices and I have to reprimand them. I can’t just let it go. But we sit together and we talk. And they respect me.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.


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