County Face: Bonnie Pratt of Oakfield

OAKFIELD, Maine — Growing up as the oldest of 12 siblings in rural Maine, Bonnie (Bustard) Pratt learned as a youngster to appreciate what she had and not to dwell on things she did not.

Born and raised on Rebel Hill in Merrill, Pratt said because she was the oldest sibling, she often served as the pseudo parent for her mother and father (Carl and Fern Bustard).

“I learned from an early age to make do with what I had or do without,” she said. “You learned to cook, sew and clean, because you had to.”

She recalled the first time her parents left her alone to babysit her siblings; she was about 5 years old. Today, if a parent were to leave a child that age home alone, she said, the police would become involved, but in 1960 that was more common than not.

“I remember that my aunt would come up and check on me each day,” Pratt said. “She was sure I was going to burn the house down because I had to tend to the fire. It was difficult. We knew poverty, but we never knew hunger.”

Her father worked at Guy Friel and Sons’ wood mill and his employers would often drop off any scrap wood that could not be used so he could have heat in the winter, she recalled.

“I remember Dad would walk to work if the vehicle wouldn’t start,” she said. “That’s just how it was. He instilled in all of us that if you have a job, you work. And you don’t leave that job until you have another job.”

That earnest work ethic epitomizes the way many Aroostook County people conduct themselves professionally.

Pratt, who turns 64 in April, has called Oakfield her home for the past 45 years, alongside her husband Dale, whom she met while the two were still in high school. They will celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary in July.

“I knew when I first saw Dale that he was the one,” she said. “He was clean cut and I knew I could trust him.”

From the time she was a small girl, she said she knew she would never marry a man who drank alcohol or who didn’t carry a “dinner pail” (lunch box) to work each day to show a strong work ethic. A few weeks ago, Dale Pratt retired after working for nearly 43 years for the Southern Aroostook Community School district, where he served in a variety of jobs over the years.

Pratt herself has had a varied career path. While driving mentally challenged students to the Occupational Training Center in Presque Isle each day from southern Aroostook County, in her own personal vehicle, Pratt began volunteering. She found herself with several hours in the middle of the day waiting until it was time to pick the students back up to bring them home, and needed something to fill that void.

“I had a five-hour daily wait,” she explained. “I like to spend my time wisely, so I went to the RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) office and asked if they needed volunteers anywhere in Presque Isle doing anything.”

It was then that she discovered a passion for volunteering that continues to be a major part of her life today. She became associated with the Matter of Balance program, helping seniors re-discover their center of gravity and preventing falls.

For the past three years, she has also volunteered during the holidays with the Houlton Salvation Army, serving as one of their bell ringers during the Red Kettle campaigns.

“I love volunteering for them,” she said. “People will come up to me and tell me how much the Salvation Army has helped them. There are people out there who wouldn’t have any Christmas if it was not for them.”

Because of her friendly demeanor and wispy white hair, some people, especially children, would come up to her and ask if she was “Mrs. Claus.”

Currently, Pratt’s life has come full circle as she is once again helping care for young children, only this time it is her three-month-old granddaughter. She and her husband have two adult children — April Chapman and Noel Bell — and three grandchildren.

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