Posted February 5, 2014
A Tribute to Neal Tonken
by Mamadou Guèye
In the fall of 1984, Neal Tonken joined Sidwell Friends Upper School faculty to teach English. This was quite a departure for an attorney from the United States Department of Justice who fought passionately and successfully for school desegregation. Just as he helped to change the landscape of the social fabric of the United States education system, Neal brought that same passion and dedication to teaching his students the value of courageous thinking, academic excellence, and accuracy in written expression.
Life at Sidwell changed, not only for the students of English, but also for the entire Sidwell Friends community. Neal Tonken became a legendary teacher, colleague, and administrator. Twenty-nine years after his début, he is still one of the most memorable and revered academicians to play a role on the Sidwell Friends stage. It is fitting to mark this tribute with words from former Head of School, Bruce Stewart: “Clearly, Neal, you have a gift in the classroom that is well beyond the reach of most of us. Your capacity for opening minds, motivating students and provoking true excellence -- as well as a life-long passion for learning -- is as powerful as any I have encountered in my nearly fifty years as an educator.” Yes, Bruce, I whole-heartedly agree and suggest that twenty-nine years of Sidwell Friends’ students would concur! This is a tribute to a perpetual pedagogue. Neal believed in “learning” as much as “teaching,” that the value of the one was defined by the breadth of the other.
I first met Neal while walking down the corridor from the Department of Modern and Classical Languages office to the English Department. Our conversation went from English literature to Francophone literature, from Orson Welles to oral tradition, and so on. I immediately recognized an academic powerhouse whose scope of knowledge was his instrument of teaching. I was struck by his devotion to teaching. He was not only concerned about the material he taught, but equally devoted to the ability of his students to consume, analyze, and embrace all that was put before them. As a testament to his belief in the “teaching is learning” continuum, Neal attended my French class for an entire semester -- alongside many of his students -- and his participation included assignments, homework, and tests. I am pleased to add that he passed!
His service has included college counseling, coaching, numerous committee assignments, creation of the Loss of Privileges (LOP) disciplinary system, writing the mid-nineties’ school philosophy, and a host of other contributions to life at Sidwell Friends. Neal has been recognized with coveted awards such as a Sidwell Friends Yearbook dedication, the England Award for Teaching Excellence and the Goldberg Family Award for Teaching Excellence.
If ever it were possible for a high school teacher to be a “students’ teacher” and a “teachers’ teacher” Neal was a perfect example. From a student perspective, “his lessons were notorious. From public recitation of the first 12 lines of the Canterbury Tales, to the Macbeth mid-final that felt like the Day of Reckoning, a Tonken grade engendered either typical teenage anguish or near-euphoric high.” Neal was often and fondly referred to as the “conscience” of the institution and as one faculty remarked, “If it were on our minds as faculty, it came out of Neal’s mouth.” He took the helm of a litany of exchanges between every component of our Sidwell Friends community; while sometimes controversial, he was always colorful, enlightening and thought provoking. He believed in his colleagues and the mission of teaching at an institution for which a reputation for student’s learning -- sterling as it is -- comes second to truth, honesty, and accuracy in teaching. It is not surprising that as a former Department of Justice attorney, Neal Tonken was a symbol of balance, justice, and fairness. Those characteristics were evident in every action, discussion, and stand on issues at Sidwell Friends.
Retirement for Neal is not a process of disengagement, but more a function of shifting his incredible life resources into writing and spending time with his adoring wife, Jancy Tonken. I see many novels on the horizon! He has lived a life just like a novel, unfolding before our very eyes. The inside jacket cover would read: “A story of integrity, authenticity, honesty, and courage. The story of a heart and mind who saw teaching and learning -- while not interchangeable, definitely an interdependent continuum.” It is my pleasure to write a tribute to Neal Tonken; it was easy to construct, albeit difficult to limit to one page! I could indeed go on for quite a while about my former colleague and forever friend. And, while paying tribute to Neal for his unique stamp on Sidwell Friends, I thank him for countless memories and mentor moments in my world.
Good Luck and “Happy Writing!”
A Tribute to Jancy Tonken
by Patty Carocci
Vince Lombardi once said that “Individual commitment to a group effort--that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” For 20 years, Jancy Tonken’s individual commitment to her job made the Sidwell Friends development and alumni relations efforts stronger, more successful, and so much more enjoyable.
Jancy’s position as a data coordinator was rarely recognized for the incredible benefit she provided to the school--but everyone who worked in Zartman House knew that she was among the unsung heroes in the Advancement Office. Each and every day, Jancy came to SFS and made sure that the rest of us could do what we needed to do. Her tasks were endless and required immense patience, skill, and concentration. Whether she was entering gifts, updating parent or alumni records, handling stock transactions, or running financial reports, there was never any doubt that Jancy’s work would be thorough and accurate. Because of her immense dedication to her job, we were able to raise more money than ever before in the Call Us Friends Campaign, engage more alumni in creative programming, and strengthen the student experience at Sidwell.
Doing a job admirably is one thing, but doing it with immeasurable kindness and joy is altogether another. Jancy was truly the heart and soul of our office. When people speak of Jancy they use adjectives like thoughtful, selfless, endearing, delightful, compassionate, and gentle. She always offered a smiling face, put a good light on tense situations, and made sure that new employees felt welcome. Jancy took a special interest in the young people on our staff. She gave them confidence and inspiration as they tackled new tasks and stepped out of their comfort zones, a safe space and a welcome spot in her office when they just needed to chat, and the kind of gentle guidance that everyone entering a new community should be lucky enough to receive. Jancy is admired--indeed, beloved--by so many members of the Sidwell community: students, alumni, faculty, and parents. No matter who Jancy met, whether visitors or friends, strangers or long-time members of the SFS community, she put them at ease with her pleasant demeanor and caring ways. When her 20th anniversary at Sidwell came around, people visited every hour on the hour to bring her a rose and express their appreciation for all she had done for them and for the school.
Sidwell Friends is stronger because Jancy Tonken was a member of the staff. Her legacy at SFS lives on in all the people she helped and encouraged, the millions and millions of dollars her work enabled us to raise, and the countless laughs and smiles she brought to those who know her and call her friend.