Senior Page: After A Career In The Air, Bonnie Brydges Turns To Sustainability In Retirement

by Elizabeth Van Wye
Bonnie Brydges.  COURTESY PHOTO Bonnie Brydges. COURTESY PHOTO

Change is something Harwich resident Bonnie Brydges understands. For nearly 50 years, she traveled all over the world as a flight attendant, first for Pan Am and then United Airlines. Now that she is retired, she is working to make change herself, focusing on helping the planet she jetted around so often to become a better, healthier place.

A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Brydges graduated from San Francisco State in 1963 and worked for two years as an elementary school teacher. Her father worked for United Airlines and she decided she too wanted to try combining traveling with working. Pan Am Airways, which she chose for their focus on international travel, required stewardesses, as they were called then, to be fluent in another language. She had studied French in high school and college so she signed with them and was based first in Miami and then in New York.

Brydges moved to Chatham to be near family in 1973 and continued flying. In 1990, when Pan Am was facing dissolution, she interviewed with and was hired by United Airlines, based in London. She recalled living with her son in Portsmouth, England for three years before returning to Harwich in 1995.

"We traveled all over England together," she remembered. "I had a wonderful time there!"

While living on the Cape, she commuted twice a week to Boston to fly to New York or Washington, often starting her journey from home at two or three o'clock in the morning. Once there she would connect with one of the international flights she was assigned to work that week. She took the Plymouth and Brockton bus to the airport and the daunting commute continued until 2015 when she retired.

She loved Asia and said she flew "a lot" to Japan and then China. Returning from her travels, "I do remember being really, really tired," she said. She also recalled being stopped by the police as she drove to the bus in Hyannis at 2 a.m. "They were wondering what I was doing out there then!" she recalled with a laugh.

"It went so fast!" she said in a phone interview. "The life itself is so different from other careers.There is constant change, often working nights, and time gets a little warped!" she recalled with a laugh.

In 2017, after she retired, Brydges went to see a movie at the Chatham Orpheum Theater that changed everything. The documentary she saw was part of a series of films sponsored by Sustainable Practices, shown on the first Saturday of each month. In the film, called "A Plastic Ocean," a team of scientists visited 20 worldwide locations from 2012 to 2016, graphically uncovering the causes and consequences of plastic pollution and working on solutions.

Brydges was inspired to help. When Madhavi Venkatesan, the director of Sustainable Practices, asked for volunteers to work on a plastics ban for Cape Cod, "I signed up to get involved," Brydges said.

At Sustainable Practices, Brydges is a member of a team of dedicated community-based volunteers. The group is focused on "promoting local stewardship of our environment and the long-term sustainability of the Cape," according to their website,

Inspired by the work of founding member and director Madhavi Venkatesan, Brydges has played a key role in helping to facilitate the adoption of the Municipal Plastic Bottle Ban in all 15 Cape towns. Additionally, in 2021 the group initiated the Commercial Plastic Bottle Ban campaign, currently adopted in nine Cape towns. And in 2023, they broadened their outreach and are currently working on banning plastic takeout containers and cutlery.

She is proud of what the group has accomplished.

"Harwich and Yarmouth have passed all three bans," she said. Governor Maura Healy recently cited Sustainable Practices for its work to ban single-use plastic water bottles and single-use plastic takeout containers throughout the Cape. And other towns in Massachusetts are reaching out to learn more about how it was done here, Brydges said.

While working as a flight attendant, Brydges had seen how the human footprint was growing larger everywhere on the planet.

"The longer I flew the more plastic and single use everything I saw." She recalled that when she started with the airlines, everything was stored in reusable glass containers, "including the 'little nips'," she said. Now "we are awash in our garbage."

Retirement hasn't slowed her down. She walks every day at sunrise and loves to garden when she can find the time. Her son Bryan Murphy, a cranberry farmer, lives in Harwich as does her grandson. She is an active member of the UU Meeting House in Chatham and attends numerous programs of the Learning Series sponsored by the Eldredge Public Library as well as that of the Snow Library, calling them "wonderful!"

"We can all make a difference in some way in our communities," Brydges said. "It's never too late to get involved."