Mr. John W. Bonner

Remembering John W. Bonner

Article fromThe Communique

(Official Publication of the Clark County Bar Association)

March 1992

John W. Bonner was born March 29, 1904, at Burtonport, Donegal County, Ireland and passed away at his Las Vegas home on December 3, 1991.  John was six months old when the family moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where his father, Patrick Bonner, worked in the steel mills.  His father travelled west to work in gold and silver mines in Lane City and Kimberly, Nevada, and brought the family there to live.

In 1910, when John was six years old, his father died of silicosis, a common disease afflicting miners of that time.  He was survived by his wife, Sarah Bonner, and five children.  John’s mother moved the family to Salt Lake City, Utah to find work.  The family stayed in Salt Lake City where John’s mother worked as a housekeeper.  Unable to support the entire family, John and two of his brothers were temporarily sent to a Catholic orphanage, from which John and his older brother escaped on two occasions, unhappy with being separated from their family.  In Salt Lake City, Sarah Bonner met and married Jim Staas.  The family then moved to Toole and then to Milford, Utah, John’s mother had two more sons, making a total of seven children.

John graduated from high school is Milford, Utah, and while in school he worked for the Union Pacific Railroad and a variety of other jobs to help support the family.  The family returned to Ely, Nevada where Jim Staas worked the mines.  Shortly after the return to Ely, Nevada, John’s stepfather died, and thereafter, the three older boys, including John, helped support the family.

Following school, John and his brother Charles, traveled by freight train to Los Angeles, where they secured jobs as taxi drivers, agricultural workers, automobile mechanics, and a succession of other jobs along the California coast.  At age 18, John married and had three daughters.  He drove a laundry truck in Ely, worked for a lumber company in Oregon and returned to Ely where he worked in the copper mines, and together with a brother, operated a taxi service between Ely and neighboring communities.

John’s dream was always to become a lawyer.  Virgil Vargas was the Ely City Attorney at the time, and assisted young men who were interested in the law.  Virgil Vargas gave classes to these potential lawyers, and John Bonner was one of his students.  John also studied the law through correspondence law courses, and he attended night classes at Golden Gate Law School in San Francisco for one year. He worked various daytime jobs, including driving a cab, to support his family and attended classes at night.  During this time, he also worked as an Internal Revenue Service agent.

In 1938, John was licensed to practice law in Nevada.  Shortly thereafter, he was elected District Attorney of White Pine County, a position he held for two four-year terms.

Beginning in the 1930’s, United States Senator Patrick McCarran encouraged John to become involved in politics. With Senator McCarran’s encouragement and assistance, John became very active in the Democratic convention as a delegate, and in 1948, he was elected as Democratic State Party Chairman.

John Bonner moved to Las Vegas in 1946.  He first went to work with Attorney Julian Thurston.  Later, John Bonner was partners with, among others, Charles Garner and Pete Rittenhouse.  During this period, Mr. Bonner had a broad general law practice, including criminal defense and prosecution, (including numerous capital murder cases), labor law, mining law and general civil practiced.  In 1950, John Bonner unsuccessfully sought election as Nevada Attorney general, and he was appointed Special Assistant Attorney General for the Colorado River Commission from 1958-1960.  In 1958, 1960, 1970, and 1972, he unsuccessfully sought election as District Court Judge.

In 1961, John was appointed United States Attorney for the District of Nevada by President John F. Kennedy.  He served in this capacity from 1961 to 1966 and was the first Nevada U.S. Attorney to locate his primary office in Las Vegas.  After his service as United States Attorney, he returned to private law practice in which he continued until after his retirement in 1982 at the age of 78.  In 1969, he was appointed Alternate Municipal Judge for the City of Las Vegas, a position he continued to hold until after his retirement.

John was a life member of the Elks Club, a life member of the Lions Club, having served in a number of positions including District Governor for Nevada and Northern California, and a third degree Knight of the Knights of Columbus.  He was an avid golfer and member of the Las Vegas Golf Club until he stopped playing at the age of 83.

A funeral mass held on Friday, December sixth at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, was well attended by the many friends and professional colleagues of Mr. Bonner.

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