"I discussed this one day with Dr. Kraus [ Dr. Hans Kraus, of the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the NYU-Bellevue Medical Center] as we rested on a ledge we were climbing thousands of feet up in the mountains, and I asked him whether there weren't some tests I could give the kids to show their improvement over a year. He advised using the Kraus-Weber test." This is a series of six tests for minimum muscular fitness devised by Dr. Kraus and Dr. Sonja Weber and used in the Kraus-Prudden study which showed the physical superiority of European to American children. Each one is a simple movement like bending over and touching fingers to toes, and sit-ups.
The following year Bonnie tested her little exercise class, which by then numbered 40, and was dismayed to find that 50% of the new students failed to pass the simple test. This was the beginning of her role as Kraus-Weber tester of schoolchildren which spanned seven years and a half-dozen countries and culminated in her being summoned, with Dr. Kraus, to the White House last summer to discuss the muscular superiority of European over American children. During all those years she was also running her expanding exercise school, and after she turned professional, every penny she spent on the Kraus-Weber testing came from the profits of the school.
"If you wait for a grant, time goes by, and this was—and is—a national emergency," Bonnie said. Then, utilizing a gift for dramatic exaggeration that often enrages her critics and competitors, she added: "I don't see this country lasting 30 years unless we get on the ball right away. We can't be equal with Russia in physical fitness for the next 20 years. We were once the greatest nation, today we're the weakest in the world. We've taken the physical life out of America. Now we've got to go right back to the beginning: we've got to exercise. There are not enough facilities or time for competitive sports to do the job."
Some physical educators, annoyed by Bonnie's flamboyance, still claim that she is a fanatic who can't know what she's talking about because she has no training in the fitness field. Her professional background, Bonnie readily admits, consists of 10 years working with Dr. Kraus and 10 years as a professional concert dancer. Many of her professional critics have capitulated, however, and have made pilgrimages to White Plains to observe her methods in action.
Bonnie's formal education ended with graduation in 1933 from the Horace Mann High School. But among her other qualifications is the fact that Bonnie has been a sort of Babe Didrikson. She has participated and excelled in almost every sort of physical activity imaginable, including breaking horses. At the age of 4 she was studying ballet two and three times a week in Mount Vernon, where she lived with a younger sister ("She was called pretty, I was called healthy") and her parents. Her father, a busy newspaper advertising representative, fondly hoped that a vigorous regimen of dancing would wear Bonnie out so she would refrain from climbing out of the window in the middle of the night. It did make for fewer nocturnal sorties.
When she grew older Bonnie was on every team there was, and had a reputation as a tomboy.
"When I wanted to find out if I liked a boy, I'd climb a tree, and challenge him to follow me. If he couldn't make it he was out, as far as I was concerned." Presumably one of them made it, because she was married in 1936 to Richard Hirschland. (They were divorced two years ago.)
After her marriage, she took up skiing and mountaineering and, for a starter, climbed the Matterhorn on her honeymoon. When she and her husband settled in Harrison, N.Y., she became a member of the ski patrol and organized what she called the Addle-pate Ski Club. "I ran it for 11 years, had over 1,000 kids as members and never a fracture. We demanded six weeks of work on the ground before we let them take to the snow. I started the first Junior Ski Patrol." She was given the Eastern Amateur Ski Association safety award which had never before been presented to a woman.
Bonnie had firsthand experience with accidents when she was 22 and came down Suicide Six near Woodstock, Vermont and smashed her pelvis. "Something like that happens to you, but it doesn't follow that you've got to quit," she explained casually. Although her injury healed and she was able to get around by wearing a brace, the pain was so intense that she consulted Dr. Kraus. Part of his treatment for her consisted of exercises, which she reasoned could be used preventively before an injury as well as afterward. "There's such a connection between the almost and the O.K.; I turned what I learned there about pathology to the not-so-pathological of the so-called normal."