Former principal, dean Tonelson dies after short illness
By Amy Jeter, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
599 words
8 August 2006
The Virginian-Pilot (KRTBN)
Copyright (C) 2006 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News

Aug. 8--NORFOLK -- As principal of Maury High School when Norfolk's public schools closed to avoid integration, A. Rufus Tonelson received more than one bomb threat.

He answered the calls with humor.

"Put the bomb in the gymnasium because we need a new gym," he said once, according to family legend. Another time, on a rainy day, Tonelson told the caller, "If you can light a match in this weather, go ahead and blow it up."

For Tonelson, who opposed the school's closure, flippancy was a form of defiance.

Tonelson, who went on to become a dean at Old Dominion University and a Norfolk marriage commissioner, died Sunday after a short illness.

He was 94. "He was a legend here," said Gary Ruegsegger, the Norfolk school division's senior coordinator of grants and author of a history of Norfolk schools. "When people mentioned Rufus Tonelson's name, they kind of bowed their heads."

Much of Tonelson's life centered on two schools, separated by little more than two miles.

He attended Maury High, and his teaching career in Norfolk schools led him back there as principal in 1955.

"I just remember it was kind of like knowing your father was at the helm of the school," said Michael Spencer, a former Maury student and principal who now is the school division's chief operations officer.

When Norfolk closed its schools for five months in 1958, as part of Virginia's Massive Resistance to integration, Tonelson arranged for classes to take place in churches and synagogues, said his son, Stephen Tonelson. After Maury reopened, Rufus Tonelson guided the school through desegregation.

Celestyne Diggs-Porter, then a teacher at Booker T. Washington, said Tonelson was respected in the black community.

"The race situation at that particular time, he handled it with decency," Diggs-Porter, 94, said.

In 1966, Tonelson moved on to ODU, which he had attended when it was known as the Norfolk Division of T he College of William and Mary. He was among the first three students to enroll there and played on the school's initial basketball team.

He worked his way up to assistant to the president for school and community relations. Tonelson also served as timekeeper for the basketball team and eventually was selected to ODU's Sports Hall of Fame.

Tonelson retired in 1976 but never really left ODU.

"I don't think he missed a single basketball game," ODU President Roseann Runte said. "He would always be surrounded by a group of people."

At Maury, a sportsmanship award is named after Tonelson, and at ODU, an athletic scholarship, a faculty award and the garden at the Webb Center all bear his name.

Both of his sons became educators. Louis Tonelson retired as principal of Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, and Stephen Tonelson, an education professor at ODU, recently was appointed to the Norfolk School Board.

Stephen Tonelson said his father loved ODU because he believed it provided him with his only option for higher education. The idea that others should have the same opportunity fueled his fight for school desegregation, Tonelson said.

"He was most proud of the fact that the integration went well," Tonelson said. "He wanted to leave the legacy of courage and tolerance and the importance of learning."

-- Reach Amy Jeter at (757) 222-5104 or


Copyright (c) 2006, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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