Ferne Gater Bonomi

Honored by:Wayne P. Davis
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Ferne was the first Iowa woman elected to College of Fellows Public Relations Society of America - First public information director hired by an Iowa Governor - Leader in promoting the process and principles of professional, ethical, public relations.

Ferne was often heard to say that she was the daughter of an editor and an auditor and that she was a lesson in the way genes and chromosomes come together. Some of her best work as a writer was done in interpreting figures and statistics. She was also the daughter of a poet and a preacher. While her writing was straightforward, it often had a lyrical quality and she was happiest when her work seemed to be contributing to helping individuals, communities, or society rise to a higher level of their potential.

Born in Council Bluffs, when halfway through high school she moved 18 miles south to Silver City where her mother was publishing the weekly newspaper, originally owned by Ferne's grandfather. Graduating from high school at the age of 16 with her mother fatally ill, Ferne became the instant editor of the Silver City Times. Her father sold the paper to a neighboring editor; Ferne ran it until the two papers merged as World War II broke out.

Working her way through the University of Iowa as proofreader on the Daily Iowan and summer reporter for The Cedar Rapids Gazette, she became Sunday editor of The Gazette for two years before returning to graduate from the university magna cum laud and Phi Beta Kappa. She anticipated a further career in journalism. But when she married and moved to Des Moines, the Des Moines Register rejected her on grounds of gender - at the time it hired no women for the newsroom outside the society page. Eventually she found work with the Iowa Development Commission, promoting Iowa's agricultural prowess, tourist attractions, and potential for industrial growth.

Her work came to the attention of Gov. Wm. S. Beardsley who invited her to interpret to taxpayers the work of state government. It was the era before governors had press staff. Some newspapers editorialized against the development; Ferne promised her journalist friends that she would let them know if she were ever asked to do anything political - a promise she never needed to keep. She inaugurated a Report from the Statehouse for newspapers and broadcasters, reporting on taxation highway construction, dependent children prisons, and state mental institutions, which then housed more than 6,000 inmates in facilities built for 4,000. She took to statewide radio station WHO an idea for a documentary on tax dollars at work. The program director accepted and asked her to do narration as well as creative work and writing. WHO supplied all technical help for field recordings and studio work and made copies of the programs for seven other Iowa radio stations as public service.

The two-cent sales tax was then the mainstay of state government. The program Your Two Cents' Worth ran for more than a year with good ratings until Ferne took maternity leave. During that same period she was the state's liaison on a project proposed by WOI-TV - the only Iowa television station on the air - for a 13-week series on the state institutions. She collaborated on the concept and writing. Videotape did not yet exist; the programs were entirely live from the Ames studio; the producer was on camera doing interviews. Ferne drew the choice assignment as assistant director in the control room because only she could distinguish the staff from the inmates. In Our Care won a Sylvania award. She often scripted the Governor's weekly nonpolitical radio reports carried over a network of Iowa radio stations.

While her children were growing up, Ferne joined her husband in a partnership Bonomi Associates, serving primarily statewide associations. Her headquarters was a home office where she could monitor the pre-school years and later be available outside school hours. When the marriage dissolved after more than 20 years, she sought security in employment. It was not easy at her level of experience. The job which opened was with the central Iowa drug abuse agency where she called on the knowledge of street culture she had acquired as a police reporter in Cedar Rapids and was the link between the unconventional staff and the establishment. When the agency management collapsed, the board asked her to resuscitate. The agency operated the only methadone treatment for heroin addicts; closing would have left them adrift and dangerous. Ferne kept the staff of 40 together and called on community resources for help in restructuring and re-funding; the agency survived for some years after she sought more stable surroundings.

For 10 years Ferne was the communication director for the Iowa Association of School Boards, editing a magazine which discussed research and issues in public education conducting workshops for board members and administrators on effective communication with taxpayers, initiating and operating an electronic news and information service for Iowa schools, housed on a national computer network. In 1986, she opened her own firm, Bonomi & Co., to again enjoy client relationships and to work on her own schedule as far past customary retirement she chose. In 1991, she married Wayne P. Davis of Ames, and subsequently relocated there.

In 1992, Ferne G. Bonomi became the first Iowa woman and the fifth Iowan elected to the College of Fellows of the Public Relations Society of America. Members of the College are adjudged to have advanced the state of the profession and to exhibit personal and professional qualities that serve as a role model for other practitioners. Among the evident submitted to the Board:

Over many years, she dealt creatively with complex subject matter, translating it for the intended audience, connecting client objectives to the public interest, producing materials which are clear, concise, accurate, understandable and persuasive. Examples:

- "Put a human face" on social problems, very early. In the 1950s, to transmit the philosophy and challenges of a children's agency [now Children and Families of Iowa], she inaugurated "Caseworker's Notebook," creating fictional conditions to parallel confidential cases. The column was used for instruction in social agencies across the nation.

- Distilled a three-volume state plan to rehabilitate 167,000 handicapped persons into a 64-page handbook using editorial cartoons and altered case histories to illustrate need and process (1968).

- Conveyed the essence of a two-year-country-wide study of needs in six broad areas (health, education, cultural arts, recreation, human services and physical facilities) in an eight-page Report to the Community for Community Focus, Inc., Des Moines. Commented a board member: "I sat down (reluctantly) to do my homework on this report, and found myself enjoying it!" (1989).


- Restructured the national publications evaluation of Chamber of Commerce Executives from simple journalism criteria to a public relations approach, assessing effectiveness against editors' declared objectives and results, thus introducing all member Chambers to professional process; over five years (1977-81) organized and supervised the competition and evaluation of 1000 publications, which included tape-recorded commentary by PRSA members to all entrants, frequently emphasizing professional process and philosophy. This activity with a strategic nationwide audience was a fund-raiser for the Iowa Chapter of PRSA.

- Designed a workshop on basic principles of professional public relations and presented it extensively over 10 years. Examples: A statewide institute sponsored by PRSA (Iowa) and six other statewide associations; annual workshops for the life insurance industry in Iowa (10 years).

- In the first professional statewide survey in Iowa about attitudes toward school board members, identified the characteristics which are most valued by the public, and reflected that knowledge in communication workshops and training materials for board members; presented results at two national conventions.

Since 1981, Ferne has coached candidates for accreditation by PRSA, which is the professional credential in the field, developing a 36-hour prep course which features oral and written problem-solving of increasing complexity. She taught with  a Drake professor and has a success rate of 89% [43 of 48 candidates through 1993], contrasted with a national average of about 70%. Accredited members gave a testimonial dinner in 1990.

Other Activities, projects and honors:

- Special section, Fortune magazine, 12 pages, Iowa promotion. 1954.

- Film, Those Who Wait, for Iowa Association of Mental Health, script, supervise photography, 1959.

- Editor, the Adelphean, national magazine of Alpha Delta Pi sorority, 1959-62.

- Book, Show Me a Man...biography of Ellis Levitt, founder, Dial Finance, 1969.

- Special commendation from Iowa Governor for terms on Governor's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, 1968-1974.

- Outstanding alumna, Midwest Region, Alpha Delta Pi sorority, 1977.

- First award by the Iowa chapter PRSA to a member for contribution of the chapter (1983).

- Gold Medallion award by the National School Public Relations Association, for a project which enhanced the leadership role of school administrators in improving education (1989).

- Listed, Who's Who of American Women 1974-76, 1989-: Who's Who in Public Relations, consistently.

- Plymouth Church (UCC) Des Moines, choir 1961-76, 1986-87; music and fine arts board 1980-82; membership board 1986-89; stewardship campaign committee 1986.

- Des Moines Area Religious Council (100+ congregations) communication chair, 1980-82, 1991-2.

Basic Data: Ferne Elizabeth Gater, born July 27th, 1923, Council Bluffs, IA, parents Roy W. Gater and Leona Bays Gater. B.A., University of Iowa 1948, outstanding achievement in history. Married Robert F. Bonomi Sept. 3, 1949. Sons Robert Duff, 1953, and David Scott, 1956. Divorced March 12, 1974. Residence, Des Moines, 1949-1992. Married Wayne P. Davis April 20, 1991 (retained Bonomi as legal name because of professional identity; uses Davis in Ames). Residence  1003 Kennedy Street, Ames, Iowa.