David William Tonkyn ’75 *85

David died suddenly on Jan. 2, 2022, while on his daily jog in Edisto Beach, S.C. Born in Nevada, he had lived many places, including England, before coming to us from Delaware Valley Regional High School in Frenchtown, N.J. At Princeton he pursued his interest in biology with a concentration in ecology, earning his A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees and working with influential professors Robert May, Henry Horn, and John Terborgh.

A contemporary a few years behind him in the Graduate School noted that David was adept both as a field scientist and as a theoretician—a rare combination in that discipline. During their student years, he was “an invaluable source of guidance, always offered with wisdom, kindness, and a dose of good humor.”

David went on to do postdoctoral studies in field and community ecology at the University of Minnesota. In 1986 he joined the biological sciences faculty of Clemson University, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in ecology, conservation, and population biology and developed and led travel courses that took him and his students all over the world. In recent years, David and his students studied both butterflies and pikas (threatened species in the U.S.), elephants in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and tigers in India and the Russian Far East. He was the proud founding faculty advisor of Clemson’s Tigers for Tigers, the oldest student organization in the country devoted to saving tigers. He was also the advisor and chief instructor to the Clemson Hapkido Club; he held a third-degree black belt in that martial art.

Upon retirement from Clemson as a full professor in 2017, he soon became chairman and professor of biology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and provided transformational change for the department during his three years at UALR. A former colleague there described him as “a conservationist for higher education and a force for change, even when controversial. . . . Dave was not a fierce tiger, but he was a fearless one.”

David and the former Cynthia Gansser were married in 1981 and have two sons and daughters-in-law, Eric ’05 (Tati) and Adam (Annie), and a grandson, Benjamin. David’s obituary described him as a “loving husband,” “the epitome of the ever-present dad,” and an “adoring grandfather.” A fellowship has been established at Clemson in his memory to benefit students working on conservation and endangered species. The Class shares in the loss of this accomplished and beloved man. 

Undergraduate Class of 1975
Graduate Class of 1985