Cover photo for David W. Tonkyn's Obituary
David W. Tonkyn Profile Photo
1954 David 2022

David W. Tonkyn

June 20, 1954 — January 2, 2022

Dr. David William Tonkyn, of Edisto Beach, South Carolina, died suddenly on January 2, 2022, while on his daily jog. He was 67 years old.

Born in Boulder City, Nevada, David lived in many places including beginning school in England where his father pursued post-doctoral studies. The third of six children, he was always a voracious reader and outdoor enthusiast who developed an early interest in science.

He was a 1971 graduate of Delaware Valley Regional High School, Frenchtown, New Jersey, where he served as the student council president his senior year and was a member of the cross-country and wrestling teams. David attended Princeton University where he earned his undergraduate as well as his master's and doctoral degrees in biology with a concentration in ecology. While at Princeton, he studied with Lord Robert May, renowned physicist and ecologist; Dr. Henry Horn, and Dr. John Terborgh. These influential scientists helped to shape David's career and his own students benefitted from this legacy. David pursued post-doctoral studies in field and community ecology at the University of Minnesota.

In 1986, David accepted a faculty position at Clemson University in the Biological Sciences Department. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses in ecology, conservation and population biology. He developed and led two travel courses. The first, accompanied by former Clemson Director of International Services, Louis Bregger, and Anjana Gosain of Tiger Trust India and focused on tiger conservation. The second was a Rocky Mountain field ecology course. These travel courses were enormously popular with students and very important learning opportunities. The curricula were taught dozens of times.

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 faculty advisor to the Clemson organization Students for Environmental Awareness, advisor and chief instructor to the Clemson Hapkido Club. He held a 3rd degree black belt and studied under Master Gedo Change, of Chang's Hapkido Academy. He was the founding faculty advisor to both the Clemson University Tigers for Tigers, the national T4T Coalition, with 14 member universities who share a tiger mascot. David was most proud to mentor Tigers for Tigers, an organization created by students, not administrators. It is the oldest student organization in the country devoted to saving tigers. See for more information.

When David retired as a Professor from Clemson in 2017, after 31 years of devoted service, he entered the university's Emeritus College.

A short time later that year, David accepted the positions of Chairman and Professor of Biology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He arrived with great enthusiasm, vision and energy and quickly established partnerships with the Little Rock Zoo, Heifer International, The Nature Conservancy, the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences, and anyone else who would offer quality experiences for the students. He is remembered by a former UALR colleague as "a conservationist for higher education and a force for change, even when controversial. He stepped up to emergency leadership, having no tolerance for silly bureaucracy, slack quality, or inefficiency. Dave was not a fierce tiger but he was a fearless one." David was committed to providing UALR students with opportunities similar to their counterparts at Clemson and Princeton. In his three years at UALR, he was appointed to the Chancellor's Institutional Effectiveness Committee, the Chancellor's Budget Advisory Committee and served as faculty advisor for his department's Biology Club.

David and Cynthia were married for 40 years and were looking forward to sharing many adventures at their Edisto Beach, SC home. They retired there during the Covid-19 pandemic 1 ½ years ago. Many memories were made and lots of great seafood meals were enjoyed in their short time together on Edisto. David was an A+ Dad, never missing a family event, a youth soccer game, race walking across the country, or a high school football game. He was the epitome of an ever present dad. He always looked forward to family reunions with his siblings at their family compound on Bull Lake, Montana. He was famous with all for his delicious homemade apple pie.

David will be remembered as a wonderful son, loving husband and father, adoring grandfather to his precious Ben, loyal brother, friend, mentor and ever-present encourager of others. His many students, colleagues and family agree: "We are so happy to have had him in our lives - he is a light who will be deeply missed."

He is predeceased by his parents, Dr. Richard G. Tonkyn and Carol S. Tonkyn. He is survived by his beloved wife, Cynthia Gansser Tonkyn; two sons, Eric (Tati) of Stamford, CT and Adam (Annie) of Waynesville, NC, and a grandson, Benjamin. He is also survived by a sister, Paula Festa (Joe), four brothers, Michael (Laurie), Russell (Jennifer), John (Sarah), and James, two nieces and three nephews.

A Celebration of Life is being planned at Clemson University and online to be announced at a future date. Interment of ashes will take place in Pennsylvania.

In lieu of flowers, the Tonkyn Family asks that you consider contributing to a Memorial Fellowship in David's honor being established at Clemson University to benefit students studying conservation and endangered species. Contributions can be made at:

"One life lived, many lives touched - David's loss will be felt by many hearts."
To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of David W. Tonkyn, please visit our flower store.


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