Obituary: Stephen J. Tonsor III


Emeritus Professor of History Stephen J. Tonsor III, of Chelsea, formerly of Ann Arbor, died Jan. 8 at the Chelsea Retirement Community, Towsley Village.  He was 90 years old.

He was born Nov. 26, 1923, in English Township, Ill., the son of Stephen J. Tonsor II and Rose Mary (Schmidt). He was a professor of history at the University of Michigan for 30 years, retiring in 1984, and a veteran of the United States Army. He served in the Signal Corps in the Pacific in World War II, and was honorably discharged in January 1946 as a staff sergeant.

Tonsor started his college education in Carlinville, Ill., at Blackburn College, a Presbyterian work-study college. After his second year, he was drafted into the United States Army. He completed his undergraduate degree on the GI Bill at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in 1948, and received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois in 1955. He studied abroad at the University of Zurich and as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Munich, and received his position at the University of Michigan as a professor of history, by letter, while in Germany.

While a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Tonsor and his wife worked for three summers as fire look-outs on Ruffneck Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains. He loved traveling and spending time outdoors, especially hiking and mountain climbing, and he was passionate about gardening. A member of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Detroit, he enjoyed attending its German-language mass.

In addition to his work as a scholar, he was well known in the broader community outside the university. In scores of articles and reviews, he addressed both academic and nonacademic audiences. The numerous themes he treated — youth and education, the meaning of equality, religion, historiography, culture, and others — resonated widely and brought Tonsor broad recognition. The Distinguished Teacher Award he received in 1962 attests to his devotion to teaching at all levels, from undergraduate introductory surveys to upper-level and graduate courses. Tonsor guided many graduate students in their pursuit of graduate degrees in European intellectual and cultural history of the late 18th and 19th centuries. His generous hospitality was warmly remembered by many former students.

In 1972-73, he was the senior visiting research fellow at the Hoover Institution, in 1969-72 he was consultant to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and for many years he had been closely associated with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Since 1970, he had been associate editor of Modern Age. From 1969-71, he was secretary to the Relm and Earhart Foundations. His distinguished service to U-M was recognized in 1996 when he was named professor emeritus of history.

On Sept. 6, 1949, he married Caroline Maddox, and she survives. Also surviving are four children: Ann (Timothy) Zeddies of Grand Rapids, Stephen J. Tonsor IV (Susan Kalisz) of Pittsburgh, Claire (Kent) Pruss of Saline, and Margaret (Scott) Rayburn of Florida; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren; three brothers: Edward (Maxine) Tonsor of Medora, Ill., Bernard (Bernadine) Tonsor of Jerseyville, Ill., and Gerald (Pauline) Tonsor of Peoria, Ill.; two sisters, Mary Jean (Jerry) Jarvis of Jacksonville, Ill., and Kathryn Warden of Pittsfield, Ill.; a sister-in-law, Betty Tonsor of North Carolina; and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents and a brother, Patrick.

A memorial service will be held at a later date. Donations in his honor may be made to the United Methodist Retirement Communities Heritage Foundation or to the Stephen J. Tonsor Best Oral Presentation of Thesis Award at the Department of History, University of Michigan.

— Submitted by Terre Fisher, Department of History


  1. Ervin Bell
    on October 18, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    I only found out today that Professor Tonsor has passed. I am deeply moved. He was a wonderful man and it was a great priviledge to have attended his classes while at the university. His influence over me has been strong and will last until I myself leave this world. I remember that in the 1984-85 academic year I was notified that I was a potential candidate to be named an Angell Scholar. That winter semester I was enrolled in Professor Tonsor’s class entitled “19th Century European Intellectual History.” At the bottom of the last page of the first essay exam which I took in the class he wrote, “This is intellectual fluff.” It was. I received a grade of C-. Ultimately I ended up getting a B- in the class–the only non-A that I received that academic year–and subsequently, of course, was not named an Angell Scholar. I later took two more of his classes while in graduate school and received an A- in each, a fact of which I am still very proud. Professor Tonsor, you will be greatly missed. May God bless and keep you for eternity!

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