Tribute To Mel Soneson from a Student

by Phil Johnson

I first encountered Melburn Soneson as a Freshman at North Park College. That was 1956, his first year at North Park, too. He was teaching Introduction to Social Science. I was intimidated as well as fascinated by both the teacher and the course. Mel stood there at the podium talking, smiling occasionally, and sometimes breaking into a hearty laugh. He was discussing things that I, a Freshman from International Falls, Minnesota had never thought about.

He was husky and trim and wore a crew cut. This was before the years of the magnificent beard. I listened hard but did not engage him personally. The intimidation factor eased, however, when somehow late in the term, I learned that he was from Cook, Minnesota. Can anything good come out of Cook? Cook is even smaller, much smaller than the Falls. I’d been there, I knew the territory a bit. I knew their basketball court was so small that the free-throw circles touched the center-court circle. I also knew that the Little Gophers, as they were called, were very rough on visiting teams. They knew how to use that court, they pressed all the time and it was tough to hang onto the ball.

Mel had played for the Cook High School Little Gophers and from time-to-time through the years we talked about playing on that court. The fact that Mel was from Northern Minnesota increased my interest in him and provided a point of identification.

In the Spring of my Sophomore year I signed up for Ethics taught by Professor Soneson. I had struggled to understand the terms people used and the philosophical issues considered were new to me. Had it not been for my friend Denny Jones, I doubt I would have passed the course. But when Mel returned the paper I wrote for the class, I discovered that he had spent a lot of time reading and commenting on it. This was his practice. Reading his voluminous, engaging comments interested me deeply. The exchange created by what he wrote was the opening that initiated personal communication between us.

Mel challenged his students. He asked hard questions forcing us to examine our beliefs and our presuppositions. I felt the ground begin to shake under me. I knew this was important stuff, and I felt safer because of the evident honesty and careful thinking of Mel Soneson, as well as the realization that he knew the faith and practice of my background.

There are hundreds, no, thousands, of North Park students who credit Dr. Soneson with opening them up. Mel Soneson is remembered both as a person and as an experience. His name is likely to come up when someone from, say, the class of ’62 meets a person from the class of ’75. Thinking about what they may have in common, one will say: "Did you have Mel Soneson?" "Yeah!" "What did you think of him?" "He opened me up." "Me, too."

What this means is that he taught us to question and to think while he modeled openness to any question or consideration put before him. He urged us to own our ideas and convictions. He was for me a prime model, along with others at North Park, of Academic integrity. Of central importance to him always was the personal meaning and significance of anything under consider-ation. He never let us forget that thinking was done by a thinking person. His passion captivated us and he engaged us personally. To be opened up by him also meant that we gained confidence in our own powers of critical thinking and found ourselves well-equipped in that respect as we ventured out into life.

My Junior year I declared Philosophy as my major. As yet, I had little idea what that might mean but Elder Lindahl assured me it was a good idea. I had many classes from Mel and Elder during the next two years.

Mel could handle anything thrown his way. At that time, North Park was reluctant to oppose commonly held taboos. For example, there was not much said about movies which some of us thought to be sin and there was certainly no endorsement of smoking, drinking, or dancing. One day a fellow student lit up a cigarette in Mel’s class which met in the nice new, obviously smoke free Wallgren Library- Classroom Building. I am sure that I was not the only one among my classmates feeling apprehensive. I held my breath as Mel entered the room. We waited and wondered during the moments before he noticed the smoke and the smoker. When he did, he broke into a hearty guffaw. After a good laugh in which we all shared, he said "I think you better put that out." That was it.

During those years Mel was a major influence on me. As the years thereafter passed, his influence persisted as did his personal support and friendship. This was a treasure of greater value than I can express.

I join the thousands of students who passed through a little college of a small denomination to which this broad-thinking person remained loyal—I join them in exclaiming: "Mel Soneson was a giant in our midst. We loved him. May his soul rest in peace and may his beloved family be comforted and blessed!"

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson