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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.
Thus, one of his first acts was to issue new six-shot .38-caliber revolvers and to train the force how to use the new weapons.
A New Era
Tonis took over the department as campus policing was undergoing its biggest revolution since its inception in the 1890s.
The department, long a retirement job for former groundskeepers, only nominally served policing functions—the officers’ responsibilities were part paramedic, part maintenance worker and only a small part police officer. Many had never received any formal training in police work, and much of their daily responsibilities involved raising and lowering flags around campus.
However, as the tumultuous 1960s evolved and campus riots swept the nation, it became increasingly clear that the University would need a more professional police force.
The coming years saw massive changes and an overhaul of the University police under the former FBI agent.
Tonis eliminated the department’s local specialization, creating a regular rotation of assignments that ensured that each officer became familiar with each of the five patrol areas.
“Some of the men had been standing in the same spot for 15 years,” Tonis remarked at the time.
He started keeping the department headquarters, then located in the basement of Grays Hall, open round-the-clock and equipped the officers with one-way pocket radios that allowed them to be in constant contact with headquarters.
Tonis placed a high emphasis on projecting a professional image to the campus community.
HUPD Officer James P. Sullivan recalls when Tonis switched the department’s uniforms from gray shirts to white shirts. When asked why, Tonis explained that his son had commented that the gray shirts made the officers look like truck drivers—and Tonis wanted to project the aura of authority.
“Chief Tonis was the ultimate professional,” says Sullivan, whom Tonis hired in 1966. “You always had to be direct and honest with him. He commanded that type of respect.”
As part of Tonis’ tightening of training, twenty-seven officers voluntarily enrolled in a Northeastern course in Criminal Law and Investigation—the first formal instruction many had ever had.
To meet the increased demands for the growing department, Tonis opened the department’s first substations, one at Radcliffe and one at Longwood as he expanded the police force from thirty-nine to sixty officers.
In 1966, under a new state law, HUPD officers became the first department in the state to be granted “special state police” status as campus officers, greatly expanding their authority and powers of arrest.
Moving beyond the traditional patrolling, officers began asking trespassers for identification, making arrests, conducting investigations into campus thefts, and supporting other local law enforcement agencies.
The campus unrest of the late 1960s tested Tonis and his newly professionalized department to their limits.
Numerous times HUPD officers helped quell riots in Harvard Square, and carefully policed protests in the Yard.
When pro-segregation Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace spoke in Sanders Theatre in 1968 and protesting Harvard students surrounded the building, Tonis was forced to fall back on his knowledge of the same steam tunnels that had allowed the Nazi spy to elude him in 1939.
Tonis snuck Wallace and his frightened bodyguards out of Memorial Hall through the tunnels and into the Yard where the governor made a hasty exit from campus.
Perhaps the defining moment of the new era in campus policing came on April 9, 1969, when students occupied University Hall and forcibly ejected the deans from the building.
Tonis opposed the plan of then-University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 to order in nearly 400 state and local police to bust the occupation, remarking, “As far as the University police are concerned, we didn’t want to do anything about it, but they’re way over our heads now,” Tonis said at the time.
Following the bloody bust the next morning in which 250 students were arrested and more than 75 injured, Tonis, near tears, circulated among the traumatized protesters in the Yard apologizing for the violence and urging the students not to retaliate.
Throughout the turbulent 1960s and the early 1970s, as HUPD struggled with accusations of racial discrimination, Tonis worked to integrate the all-white police force.
As part of his efforts to achieve greater diversity on the force, in November 1974, Tonis hired Joan White, a former social worker, as HUPD’s first female officer in the seventy-five-person force. He described the new officer as “confident, pleasant, [and] attractive.”
The Renaissance Cop
Throughout the trying era he oversaw HUPD, Tonis always remained good-natured about the unique challenges posed by serving a college campus.
Tonis’ quiet and steadfast leadership through “the troubles” on campus earned him the enduring respect of both students and faculty.
“He always seemed stern, but he really wasn’t,” Sullivan says.
In the early 1970s, two people posing as ABC reporters kidnapped the big bass drum belonging to the Harvard Band. With the Dartmouth game just days away, Dartmouth students were the prime suspect.
Tonis threw aside his allegiance to his old alma mater, and issued a four-state alert for the missing drum and the white van in which the drum-nappers escaped.
The Massachusetts State Police stopped the van 30 minutes outside Boston and returned it to its rightful place for the Saturday game against the Big Green.
Ever the music lover, Tonis kept a radio on his desk so he could listen to the Boston Symphony as he worked.
He retired in 1975 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 66.
As he retired, he recalled the many changes he had made in the preceding twelve years, commenting, “college security at Harvard has changed quite a bit.”
Outside of Harvard, Tonis was also active in the Masons, and his church, First Church in Weymouth, where his wife, Paula, was choir director and played the organ. He also volunteered for the Hull Historical Society and loved beekeeping.
According to the Patriot Ledger, the late chief is survived by three sons, Kenneth Tonis of Orinda, Calif., David Tonis of Brockton and Frank Tonis of Phoenix, Ariz.; a daughter, Barbara Brack of Yarmouth Port; a brother, Richard Tonis of Brewster; three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
In his honor, a piece for swing band has been commissioned and will be premiered at the Harvard Band’s Dartmouth concert on Oct. 31. Donations in support of that commission may be directed to the Harvard University Band, 74 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02138. Checks may be made payable to “The Chief’s Fund.”
—Staff writer Garrett M. Graff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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