When State Rep. James “Greg” Bonnen ’88, M.D., arrived to deliver a guest lecture at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics on Feb. 22, it was a customary occasion for the accomplished neurosurgeon, legislator and loyal former student.

What began as a routine lecture swiftly transformed into a memorable moment Bonnen will not soon forget. As Bonnen neared the end of his lecture, John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System came on stage to present a gift, which is quite customary. But what followed was a moment of sheer astonishment as Bonnen was bestowed with the highest honor a former Aggie can receive from the Texas A&M Association of Former Students: the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Bonnen, who has impacted the lives of Texans and the world with his selfless service to the medical field, becomes one of only 338 former students to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award, which is jointly awarded by the Association of Former Students and Texas A&M University.

Five men standing and giving the thumbs up as Greg Bonnen ’88, M.D., is awarded for impacting Texans' lives. There is a dog laying down in front of the men.
State Rep. James “Greg” Bonnen ’88, M.D. (middle) was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award by the Texas A&M Association of Former Students. Bonnen is one of only 338 former students to receive the highest honor an Aggie can receive from the Association and Texas A&M. (Texas A&M Association of Former Students)

The beginning of the Bonnens in Aggieland

In the early 1930s, the Bonnen family embarked on a journey from their corn farm in Illinois to Aggieland, establishing their roots on Lee Street just south of campus.

“My grandfather came to Texas A&M University to teach agricultural economics,” Bonnen recalled. “That marked the beginning of our family’s connection to this place.”

Bonnen’s father, David Bonnen ’58, pursued a degree in accounting before earning a law degree from the University of Texas Law School. After completing law school, David Bonnen served in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps in Baltimore, Maryland. Initially expecting a brief stint, his tour was prolonged due to the Berlin Wall crisis, during which he met his wife, Matina. Upon completing his military service, the couple settled in Angleton, where they raised their four children as David Bonnen embarked on his legal career.

When it came time for Greg to consider his college options, his mother urged him to explore various institutions. However, Bonnen’s heart was set on one: Texas A&M.

“My fondest childhood memories were in that house on Lee Street,” he reminisced. “I would eagerly await the sounds of the band during Midnight Yell, even though I couldn’t attend it due to bedtime. My siblings and I would negotiate for tickets to games outside Kyle Field, or we would sneak into the stadium immediately after halftime when tickets were no longer required. I always felt a deep connection to Aggieland.”

Despite his deep ties to Texas A&M and his family’s legacy, Bonnen admitted he longed to hear his grandfather and father explicitly endorse his decision to attend the university.

“As much as I yearned for their guidance,” he reflected, “they entrusted me with the choice.”

Looking back, Bonnen realized their unwavering devotion to Texas A&M, demonstrated through their actions over the years, spoke volumes louder than any words could convey.

Influenced by actions, not words

As an undergraduate studying biochemistry, Bonnen found himself looking for guidance again. He contemplated going to law school and returning to Angleton to continue his father’s law practice but was looking for a sign to attend medical school.

His sign came in the summer before his senior year when he volunteered as a counselor at the Texas Lions Camp, a camp for children with physical disabilities, diabetes and cancer. During this experience, Bonnen developed a passion for pediatric care, particularly in the last session of the camp dedicated to juvenile diabetics.

“Faculty and students from the University of Texas Medical Branch, came as a part of their medical school rotation schedule,” he explained. “They didn’t know it, but just like my grandfather and father, their actions guided me to see that I wanted to attend medical school.”

That following fall, Bonnen took the Medical College Admission Test, MCAT, in Harrington Tower during a football game despite his attempts to not miss a chance to cheer on the Aggies. He began applying for medical schools while his future wife, Kim, who he had met during his time at the Texas Lions Camp, applied for occupational therapy school. The couple prioritized finding a medical school and an allied health school located on the same campus, which led to Bonnen ranking the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston highest on his applications. Both Bonnen and his wife were accepted into their respective programs on the Galveston campus.

Medical rotations and twisting decisions

Bonnen entered medical school with his sights set on pediatric care but was met with a crossroads decision during his fourth year.

“My wife met a neurosurgery resident and said I might like neurosurgery, which, at the time, I thought was absurd. The hours are tough, and we wanted to have kids. It just didn’t make any sense,” he said. Even after wanting someone to verbalize their guidance in several life decisions at that point, Bonnen didn’t take his wife’s advice.

Instead, he earned a competitive spot as one of four senior medical students in orthopedic residency, which included a year of general surgery rotations. During that year, Bonnen had three weeks that he could schedule off, and chose to strategically schedule a vacation during the last week of the neurosurgery rotation, determined to prove he was not interested in this specialty. His attempt to minimize his exposure on that rotation resulted in getting scheduled to be on call every other night for two weeks since he was leaving them shorthanded.

On the first night of his vacation after three weeks on call in neurosurgery, Bonnen shared with his wife that he had an interest in the specialty after all, but it seemed like it was too late to switch from the orthopedic path. Stars aligned, however, when the chief of neurosurgery left to take a job as the head of the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, Maryland, taking a fifth-year resident with him to complete his training despite that not being the norm.

Bonnen then interviewed for a neurosurgery residency with the newly hired chief of neurosurgery, who, after just a 20-minute interview, shook Bonnen’s hand and said, “I’ll take you.”

Now, Bonnen said, he always gives medical students two pieces of advice:

“No. 1: listen to your wife. No. 2: you will know when a specialty isn’t the right fit. It’s perfectly acceptable to pivot and discover where you truly belong.”

Service to patients and community

After completing his residency and education, Bonnen established the Texas Brain and Spine Center in 2003 and co-founded the Houston Physicians’ Hospital. His dedication to service extends globally, with volunteer missions in Haiti, Cuba, and the Philippines and involvement in numerous church and charitable organizations. Presently, he serves as the president of the board of directors for the Medical Strategic Network, a faith-based ministry providing aid in foreign countries.

In 2012, Bonnen expanded his community engagement by running for and winning a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, representing District 24. As a member and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, he has spearheaded initiatives in higher and public education funding. His support for agricultural endeavors includes research in water conservation, crop and livestock protection, nutrition and disaster response and recovery.

A man and a woman sit at a table singing a document while two men in suits stand behind them.
State Rep. James “Greg” Bonnen ’88, M.D. assisted in the establishment of an Exploration Park at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Texas A&M Today)

Recently, Bonnen championed the establishment of a 240-acre Exploration Park at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, promoting collaboration and enhancing commercial competitiveness in the space and aerospace industries.

Yet, it is his unwavering commitment to service that epitomizes Bonnen’s true legacy. His extensive philanthropic work, both domestically and internationally, coupled with his public service, exemplifies his compassion and altruism as a healer and humanitarian.

For the College and the Aggie community at large, Bonnen serves as an exemplar of Texas A&M University’s values and ideals. Before receiving the Distinguished Alumnus Award, Bonnen was recognized as an Outstanding Alumni for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2023. His relentless pursuit of excellence, dedication to service and compassion for others underscore the profound impact he has made. To Bonnen, however, these achievements and accolades mark merely the start of his enduring commitment to excellence.

“It’s an incredible honor, but I view it as a pledge to uphold future excellence,” he expressed. “I am committed to honoring this recognition throughout my lifetime.”

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