Former HUPD Chief, Spy Tracker, Dies at 94

Robert Tonis, who led the Harvard University Department (HUPD) through its transformation into a professional police force, died last month at the age of 94.

Tonis, who was HUPD’s chief from from 1962 to 1975, died on April 11 at Hospice House on Cape Cod. He was known as Harvard’s “Renaissance Cop,” for his involvement with the Academy and the revolutionary change he brought to the department.

Tonis also oversaw the University police department through the turbulent protests of the 1960s. During the famous 1969 University Hall sit-in, Tonis publicly opposed the plan of then University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 to bring in state and local police to break up the sit-in. After the violent bust, the chief circulated the yard, urging non-violence.

A Brockton native, Tonis graduated from Brockton High School before attending Dartmouth College and Boston University Law School.

While working at a summer resort in Rye, N.H., he met his future wife, Paula Miller, and was married in 1935.

That same year, he began a career with the FBI that would last nearly three decades.

Four years later, his surveillance of a suspected Nazi spy gave him one of his first contacts with Harvard.

After arriving at South Station, the spy traveled to Harvard Square and went into one of the River Houses, and Tonis and his partner spent several frustrating hours waiting outside before realizing the suspect had escaped through the steam tunnels and disappeared.

Later, after becoming chief, one of Tonis’ first acts was to acquaint himself with the tunnel system and try to figure out where the spy went.

After being in charge of security precautions at New England industrial facilities during World War II, he rose to become supervisor of the Boston FBI Field Office’s Criminal Division, and helped investigate the infamous Brinks robbery in 1950.

A life-long lover of jazz and opera, he dabbled as a musician during his time at the FBI, playing second violin with the Brockton Symphony.

Upon retiring from the FBI in 1962, Tonis was appointed Harvard’s third police chief after a day-and-a-half-long search process.

He immediately threw himself into learning about the University—becoming a freshman advisor, auditing courses and eating in the House dining halls.

“I enjoy being in an academic atmosphere,” Tonis told The Crimson.

At HUPD, he found a police department sorely in need of training and professionalization.

His first surprise came when he found the force, still colloquially known as “Yard Cops,” carried a motley assortment of mostly useless side-arms, and that none of them had ever fired their weapon.