This article was originally written by Emily Foxhall for Houston Chronicle.
ANGLETON — When people in Angleton think of Dennis Bonnen, they don’t call to mind a powerful leader directing the paths of laws that affect millions of Texans. They think of the neighbor who played backyard whiffle ball, the fifth-grader who petitioned to rename the class hamster, the son whose family reputation preceded him.
Bonnen grew up in Angleton, 40 miles south of Houston, population around 19,500. Residents here cherish the small-town feel of the place. They gather for Friday night football at the local high school, where Bonnen graduated in 1990. Old-timers meet for breakfast at the Kroger. They rush to the same Mexican restaurant, La Casona, on Sundays after church.
And on Jan. 8, when Bonnen, at 46, became speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, those in his hometown — a slice of the estimated 178,600 people he represents in District 25 — swelled with pride.
“It’s hometown boy makes good,” said Patricia Montgomery, 63, the former superintendent of the Angleton school district, who watched Bonnen grow up.
In this sleepy community of modest homes, tire swings and mailbox-lined streets, everyone knows the Bonnens. Residents tick off the family’s accomplishments: His late father, David, was a local lawyer who became city attorney, fighting trains that blocked the roads, then municipal court judge. His mother, Matina, known as Tina, raised the couple’s four children while helping to get the local library built and see it succeed.
The townsfolk saw the Bonnen children grow up, walking each Sunday to Mass. They saw Dennis overcome his dyslexia. They saw him seize his role selling ads for the school paper. They saw him leave for college and then return, run for state representative and win. That was in 1996; he was 24 and the youngest in the House.
Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta, 57, said people in Angleton knew: “He’s one of those smart Bonnen kids.”
It made sense, then, to see their friend become one of the most powerful people in state government. They know his commitment and work ethic, and they understand where it comes from.
Plus, there’s an added bonus to Bonnen’s success: they now have the cell phone number of the speaker of the house, a man who can find Brazoria County on a map.
‘A dry sense of humor’
In the early 1980’s, David Winder moved to Dennis Bonnen’s cul-de-sac. The two boys met by way of Bonnen’s dog Gifford, who wound up in Winder’s yard, and the pair became fast friends, riding bikes and playing any sport they could think of.
Bonnen even then was honest and not shy in sharing his opinions, recalled Winder, 44.
“He had a dry sense of humor,” Winder said. “He got to the point quickly. He was a great friend and when he thought about things, he thought things through.”
Winder’s mother, Linda, taught Bonnen in journalism class. He never sat still, a hint of the energy she would later observe as Bonnen bustled about the House floor.
She grew so frustrated once in class that she struck him — a story he would share in his first speech as the newly confirmed speaker of the House. Fretting over it, she called to tell his mother, who, as the story goes, quipped: “Hit him again.”
This was life in small-town Texas, where your neighbors were your best friends and their moms were your teachers.
“A little-town person has really taken charge,” said his high school soccer coach Earl Osborne, 71. “And I think that’s what happens; he instills the small-town atmosphere into his lifestyle and his decisions.”
Bonnen, as Osborne sees it, knew that, in a small community, when you say you’re going to do something, you do it.
A dedication to community
This was how Bonnen described Angleton: Everyone knows who you are, holds you accountable and has a part to play.
Family values made a deep impression. His dad, who made the Bonnen kids breakfast and shuttled them to school in a station wagon, instilled in him lessons like the need to leave things better than you found them. Do your best. Be honest.
From his mother, he inherited tenacity, passion and dedication to community.
“We do what’s right,” he said, “and you’re going to work hard.”
With his early dyslexia diagnosis, his mother worked with him often. She kept a chalkboard in her bedroom. She knew his teachers. He would not outgrow it but could manage and succeed.
When Bonnen decided to run for office, that too became a team effort.
“We didn’t look back,” she said. “This is what he wanted to do.”
His siblings paved their own paths: Greg, the eldest child, became a neurosurgeon and fellow state representative; Mark a radiation oncologist; and Penelope, with a PhD in genetics, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine.
It was three doctors. And Dennis.
‘It’s like we’ve got a friend there’
The House unanimously elected Bonnen, a Republican, to replace Rep. Joe Straus, who had been speaker since 2009 and did not seek re-election in 2018.
Suddenly, Angleton had a celebrity — one who was still just “Dennis” to people at home.
“It’s like we’ve got a friend there,” said Beth Journeay, 62, president of the Greater Angleton Chamber of Commerce. “He’s that person we can always depend on.”
In his 2018 general election, Bonnen ran uncontested. There had been missteps. But he also had a solid reputation for helping constituents.
There was his focus on requiring motorists to slow down or move over for officials stopped on the roadside. There was his fight to keep state funding for Brazosport College. There was his daily presence in the emergency operations center during Hurricane Harvey.
On Friday, Bonnen was back in his district — in Lake Jackson, where he now lives — for the first time since he became speaker. He participated in a public, lunchtime interview hosted by the Texas Tribune. Bonnen said he stipulated that they hold the event there. The room received him with standing applause.
His mother, the Winders and Judge Sebesta were among the roughly 350 cheering him on.
David Winder had struggled to explain how important Bonnen’s speaker election was to his kids: “That was a big day for Uncle Dennis.”
Winder’s mother added newspaper clippings from his speaker election to a book she makes for each notable alumnus in the Angleton School History Center, which she oversees.
A portrait of Bonnen’s father, who died in 2017, hangs in the Angleton City Council chamber. His mother, 85, with energy, spunk and a generous laugh, still lives in the family house. Until 18 months ago, Bonnen also lived in Angleton, the Brazoria County seat.
Editor in Chief Evan Smith asked what aspects of his family and district had shaped Bonnen, a married father of two.
“Well, it’s everything,” Bonnen said. “There isn’t something. It’s all of it.”
He concluded: “I’m just a kid from Angleton.”