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[whitespace] Theme park founder's roots run through Willow Glen

Michael Bonfante was a Willow Glen High grad, 1959

Willow Glen--The county's newest theme park is all about growing things, and some of its roots go down deep to Willow Glen.

Bonfante Gardens Theme Park founder Michael Bonfante spent some of his formative years in Willow Glen, attending Willow Glen Middle School (then known as Markham Middle) and Willow Glen High School until he graduated in 1959. Bonfante and some of his friends from that time say that, while no one knew he would open a family-oriented nonprofit theme park in Gilroy in June of 2001, his affable and hard-working personality was already evident.

"He's probably not much different than he was then," says Pat McDonald, now Mariottini, Bonfante's high school girlfriend.

Bonfante, 60, was born in Hollister but moved to southern Willow Glen in 1953. Bonfante's friend Alan Oteri says he remembers meeting Bonfante for the first time in Willow Glen Little League and then bumping into him again in high school. Oteri, who now lives in Gilroy and helps his son run Gilroy's Garlic World, ended up working for Bonfante at the Nob Hill Foods grocery store chain. Bonfante worked for his father and uncle at the company during and after high school and later ran it after his father's death in 1977.

"He always had money because he always worked," Oteri says of Bonfante in high school. "He was interested in cars. He had a 1958 Chevy and he used to let me use it if I helped him wax it."

Mariottini also remembers Bonfante's love of cars.

"I remember when he got his license," she says. "He always had the spiffiest car. That sometimes was a date for us, to go out and polish his car."

But she remembers his financial situation a little differently than Oteri.

"He never had any money because he always lent money away," Mariottini says. "It's nice for them, but it's not nice when you're dating him."

Bonfante denies giving away all his money, but he agrees that he was lucky enough to be able to work.

"It wasn't a lot of money in today's world," he says, but enough to afford the car. Of course, that meant he was his friends' designated driver.

"I think my claim to fame was that I drank more milk than anyone in the world," Bonfante says, explaining how he bought a case of 33-ounce milkshake glasses and stashed one at each of his friends' houses. He would fill them and drink the whole amount at once, more than a quart's worth. "I was able to convince myself that drinking so much milk would give me the same feeling as drinking two or three beers."

Bonfante remembers playing football and basketball for Willow Glen High and enjoying being a guard on the basketball team.

"I think his first love was probably basketball," Oteri says.

Bonfante also received good grades in school, Oteri says, and was well-liked by his teachers and classmates.

"He was a kiss-ass in school," says Oteri, laughing and talking about some pranks he and his friends played. "Michael was sort of a ring leader, but he'd never get caught."

Except one time, he did. Oteri remembers one year there was a particularly bitter rivalry between Willow Glen and Lincoln High Schools. Bonfante organized a trip to the opposing school and the Willow Glen group burned big letters "W" and "G" into the front lawn. The culprits ended up having to pay for it, Oteri says, adding that he didn't participate that time.

"Michael was a good organizer, a good project person. He was goal-oriented and he loved to build things," Oteri says, describing the time after he graduated from Willow Glen High that Bonfante spent building a small shopping center in Morgan Hill on land he had bought himself.

Oteri says Bonfante never had any formal training in architecture or construction. "Building just came naturally to him. The tree thing came much, much later, though."

"The tree thing" is Bonfante's love of nature, particularly trees, that sparked his dream of building a theme park for families.

"The idea for the park came after developing my passion for trees and how important it is that kids learn about how important they are," Bonfante says. "I had to find something to lure the kids here."

Bonfante chose amusement rides and activities that would attract children to a space designed to celebrate trees and other plants, in the hopes that those surroundings would infuse youth and their families with his own appreciation of the outdoors. He sold the family business to Sacramento-based Raley's Supermarkets in 1998 because none of his four children were interested in working for Nob Hill and he wanted to devote all his time, energy and money to the theme park.

The 75-acre park showcases approximately 10,000 trees, including 25 "circus trees" in highly imaginative shapes, and nearly a half million plants. It features 40 rides and attractions, including the "Mushroom Swing," "The Garlic Twirl" and a 1927 Illions Supreme Carousel. It also has five specialty gardens, 11 restaurants and snack bars and 11 retail shops.

Mariottini says Bonfante always had a quirky sense of humor, showing up for an evening out at the show with her parents wearing Bermuda shorts (his slacks were in the car; he just wanted to see the reaction) and bringing her a single huge cala lily that she had to carry around at their senior dance. But he also "was a hell of a hard worker," she says, and ended up introducing her to the man she married.

Oteri says he and his wife have season passes to the park and enjoy going to eat dinner at Uncle John's Barbecue restaurant.

"It's a nice place," he says. "Once you see it, you'll see his workmanship and pride. He ran his company the same way."

Bonfante Gardens, 3050 Hecker Pass Highway, is open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Labor Day. It's open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Sept. 4 to Dec. 16. Tickets are $28.95 for adults, $25.95 for seniors 65 and over, and $19.95 for children 3 to 12. Parking is $7 per vehicle. For more information, call 408.840.7100 or visit www.bonfantegardens.com.
Kate Carter

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Web extra to the July 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro.

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