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Bonnie Kepplinger, dead at 76, competed on ‘Chopped,’ was ‘mama’ to homeless

Bonnie Kepplinger competed on "Chopped" when she was 74, one of the oldest people to do so. She was trying to win money for a soup kitchen for homeless LGBT youth. | Food Network

Bonnie Kepplinger grew up the daughter of a small-town concrete magnate and attended Barat College in Lake Forest. But, drawn to the city, she loved Chicago in all of its broken-nosed glory.

She and her husband bought a former boardinghouse a block from Wrigley Field back when gang members outnumbered the rooftop clubs. Once, when she found a drunken man out cold on her porch, she asked Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers, the well-known Cubs fan, to help hoist him up.

Ms. Kepplinger, 76, died at home Feb. 26 of complications of age.

At 74, she’d been one of the oldest contestants to compete on the Food Network cooking competition show “Chopped.”

Bonnie Kepplinger loved living in the middle of the urban pageant of Wrigleyville. | Facebook

She had a soft spot for homeless youth, especially the LGBT kids served by Chicago’s Night Ministry. For the past decade, she volunteered at a ministry shelter, The Crib, in the basement of Lake View Lutheran Church, 835 W. Addison, where she taught cooking classes and whipped up meals.

At The Crib, “There were a lot of kids who would call her ‘mama’ or ‘grandma,’ ” said her son, Greg Vaughan.

“Everybody’s somebody’s baby, and I want to treat those kids the way I would want people to treat my baby,” she’d say.

Ms. Kepplinger didn’t watch TV. So when the Night Ministry asked her if she’d compete on “Chopped” for a $10,000 prize for the winning contestant’s favorite charity, she threw herself into it, bingeing months of back episodes for her 2015 appearance — on a program about recycling Thanksgiving leftovers.

“I want to win for these kids,” she said. “I mean, $10,000 could buy a lot of Sloppy Joes.”

“A real, live angel,” was how “Chopped” host Ted Allen described her.

Though her turkey-and-potato croquettes were tasty, Ms. Kepplinger lost the culinary showdown to a cooking nun.

But the Food Network still replays the episode, and it always leads to new donations for The Crib, said Gail Bernhoff, a Night Ministry manager.

“I love that this devoted Catholic chose as her mission to help kids whose own parents may have kicked them out of the house,” Allen said. “Bonnie clearly brought a lot of good into the world.”

Eight days before she died, “she had her caregiver bring her over [to The Crib] to feed the kids,” said her niece Susan Kepplinger.

“She was very down-to-earth, warm, funny,” Bernhoff said.

Bonnie Kepplinger studied English at Barat College, graduating in 1963. | Provided photo

She grew up in Beloit, Wis., where her father William founded Ideal Concrete. The business grew with the postwar construction boom. And though her mother Ruth sometimes treated herself to a mink coat, it was clear years later that her mom remembered leaner times. Her mother “would darn her little powder puffs” and reuse them, Greg Vaughan said.

Young Bonnie studied English at Barat and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She taught at Chicago’s Amundsen High School and the Francis Parker School, according to her friend Mary Kathryn Black.

By the late 1960s, she was a textbook developer for Scott Foresman, the education publisher. In 35 years there, she worked to diversify books by including authors of color. In the early 1970s, she helped write “Guidelines for Improving the Image of Women in Textbooks,” which advocated terms like “mail carriers” instead of “mailmen.” It drew the ire of conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., who proclaimed, “Somebody has got to rescue us from the women’s liberation movement,” according to the book “Words and Women.”

She married a former co-worker, Eugene “Gene” Vaughan and, in 1981, they bought a house in Wrigleyville. A year later, when she was 40, Greg was born. Three days after the baby arrived, she invited Black to join her and her son for a game at Wrigley Field.

“Walking home,” her friend said, “she said, ‘Greg lasted longer than [Cubs pitcher] Fergie Jenkins.’ ”

The couple’s house became a staging ground for adventures when her Wisconsin nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews came to visit. They’d go with her to shop, tour museums and see “A Christmas Carol.”

Even if all she made was soup, she had a stock answer when people complimented her meals.

“A pound of butter!” she’d say. It was an old quote from her grandma.

Ms. Kepplinger is also survived by four grandchildren. A memorial visitation is planned for 10:15 a.m. Saturday, with a funeral Mass at 11 a.m., both at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, 708 W. Belmont. Afterward, family and friends plan to gather for a party at her house featuring some of her favorite foods: deviled eggs, smoked salmon and chocolate-covered strawberries.


Bonnie Kepplinger enjoyed making these Frango Shortbread Cookies at Christmas.

1 lb. Frango mints (cut in 2 pieces)
1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks)
½ cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2¼ cups flour
½ tsp. salt
¾ cup finely chopped pecans

Mix all ingredients except mints to make dough. Ms. Kepplinger used a Cuisinart. Wrap a bit of dough around each ½ mint, covering the chocolate. Bake 10-12 minutes at 375 degrees on a greased, thick pan. To avoid burning, check bottoms after 8 to 10 minutes. Cool 5 minutes before scraping from pan and serving.

At 74, Bonnie Kepplinger was one of the oldest competitors on “Chopped.” | Food Network