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Mental health center director recalled as steady, well-respected leader

WILLMAR -- Colleagues and friends remembered Dr. Eugene Bonynge this week as a steady hand whose leadership helped shape Woodland Centers as one of Minnesota's most comprehensive community mental health centers.

Bonynge, the executive director of Woodland Centers, died unexpectedly Sunday at age 57. Survivors include his wife and two children.

Dr. Rick Lee, clinical director at Woodland Centers, said Bonynge will be "sorely, sorely missed."

"It's been quite a blow to us," Lee said Wednesday.

Richard Falk, a Kandiyohi County Commissioner and chairman of the Woodland Centers executive board, said he was notified Sunday night of Bonynge's death.

"I was just shocked," he said.

Bonynge had been diagnosed last fall with colon cancer that was expected to be treatable, Lee said. He said Bonynge was halfway through chemotherapy treatment and came to work most days.

"His death was unexpected," he said. "The prognosis for the cancer was considered to be very good to excellent."

The funeral is at 1 p.m. Friday at Faith Lutheran Church in Spicer. Lee said Woodland Centers will close at 12:30 p.m. Friday so co-workers can attend the service. Residential programs and the crisis and detox center will remain open.

The executive committee plans to wait until next week to decide on a temporary appointment for Bonynge's position.

"Some time next week we will meet and pick an interim director," Falk said.

"We're getting through this week," said Lee, who had worked with Bonynge for almost 13 years.

Bonynge, a psychologist with both master's and doctorate degrees, devoted almost his entire career to mental health services in Willmar. He was on the staff at Willmar Regional Treatment Center before joining Woodland Centers in 1989, serving first as a licensed psychologist in the crisis intervention center and day treatment program and then as clinical director, a position to which he was named in 1992.

In 1996 he became the center's executive director.

Woodland Centers, which provides community mental health services in Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Lac qui Parle, Meeker, Renville and Swift counties, was in the midst of a financial crisis at the time but Bonynge helped steer the organization back onto solid footing, Falk said. "He has done a magnificent job."

Lee described Bonynge as "pretty unflappable."

"He has been a calm hand at the wheel," he said. "That was his strength. His job was to keep his eye on where things were going to be six months or a year from now. He didn't get caught up in fads or trends. ... He was not a flashy guy but he was well-respected in the community."

Bonynge also had a presence around the state. He served two separate terms as board president of the Minnesota Association of Community Mental Health Programs and was a board member of the Southwest Minnesota Adult Mental Health Consortium.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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