Last Friday morning, UC Berkeley lost a giant–a gentle, smart alecky, and much beloved giant–when Steve Tollefson passed away. The news came as a shock to many of us who counted him as a valued colleague, an inspiring teacher, a caring mentor, and as a dear friend over his four decades at the school. People have begun sharing memories of him, and I wanted to collect a few of them here.
If I’m being truthful, I’m doing this primarily for myself, so I can hold on to this faint digital trace of Steve and return to it from time to time, though I hope if you look at his writing and at the memories from others that I share below, you’ll get a sense of the man he was and of how lucky we all were to know him.
Steve had a rambunctious energy and spirit, full of good humor, such that he came across at times–as one student described him in a very Tollefsonesque description that Steve would have found amusing–“a little like David Letterman’s hyperactive twin brother.” (More from that student in a moment.)
This spirit served him well in the classroom, but it also reflected the way he was outside the classroom as well. As a teacher, a writer, a man, a friend–Steve was consistently himself. Among his innate talents was his unique way of being able, somehow, to make fun of you, make fun of himself, and to express deep empathy with you all at the same time.
In a lovely Facebook post, his friend and Cal colleague Beth Williams captures a sense of what I mean:
“I just can’t believe it about Steve passing away so suddenly, but I’m taking some comfort in the wonderful memories I have of him. I thought I would share a few here to honor this beautiful man. While I was Steve’s neighbor, he gave me and my sister a tour of his amazing house last summer, where he showed me his earthquake supply stockpile, but then told me not to rely on him if an earthquake struck (I’m laughing just remembering that!). I love that he would teasingly sing Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ whenever I said I was scared of the rats in Wheeler Hall, but then was willing to diligently check my office for ‘structural weaknesses’ that would make my office ‘vulnerable’ to rats, eventually declaring my office ‘safe.’ He always laughed at how I would turn around at my desk when he passed by my office while continuing to type, saying that I reminded him of a woman who played piano on a famous old TV show. And I’m remembering the perfectly ‘Steve’ way that he comforted me when I didn’t get a job I wanted, by saying that my disappointment was similar to how he felt when he wasn’t selected for jury duty the first time he was up for it: misguided. I will miss Steve terribly and am grateful for these memories and many more that I will cherish forever.”
Steve was a talented writer–of fiction and essays, of book reviews and articles about life, about grammar, about teaching. (For the last bit of that list, I was going to write “about pedagogy,” but I could imagine Steve saying something like, “I was going to go teach my class today, but then I decided I was feeling pedagogical.”)
That parenthetical puts me in mind of his hilarious academic conference-spoofing short story, “Strunk and White Died for Our Sins,” which you can read here: Strunk and White and Tollefson.
For more of Steve’s writing, I encourage you to visit this compendium of writing by and about Steve put together by another friend and Cal colleague, Jane Hammons (speaking of another of UC Berkeley’s giants). I’m so grateful that she’s done this.
Steve was also an avid reader, as was reflected in part by his enthusiasm for the annual UC Berkeley Summer Reading list, which he started in 1985 as an informal welcome to incoming students, and then curated for the next 25 years. When Steve really liked something he’d read–by an author, by a student, or (if you were really lucky) by you–he’d exclaim “Oh, oh, oh!” like Horshack from “Welcome Back Kotter.” A very literary Horshack, mind you.
As the curator of the list for so long, he let others contribute suggestions rather than doing so himself, but it just so happens that on this year’s list, a few months before he suddenly took ill, he offered his first recommendation in years: Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay. If Steve liked it, you know it must be good.
Steve got a good chuckle out of recounting how he sat in a meeting some years ago when the reading list was “very unofficial,” as he put it, and a dean of some sort said, “Who’s running this reading list!? We need to get control of that!” Steve sat there quietly, a grin on his face, and the reading list continued on unofficially until all agreed it was plenty official enough.
Finally, and most prominently in his professional capacity at UC Berkeley, Steve was known, with good reason, as “Mr. Teaching,” the only Cal employee ever to have won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award, the latter for his work helping to train teachers as the director of the Office of Educational Development. Many of us were the beneficiaries of that training, both formal and (because we’re talking about Steve here) informal. If Steve spoke well of your teaching, you knew you were doing something right.
Finally, it is that teaching and the countless students he joyously and successfully taught over the last 40+ years that might be his greatest achievement. The students’ numbers are legion, the influence Steve had immeasurable. And yet, there are ways in which that influence can be expressed, and so I’ll let one of Steve’s students have the last word.
Last Friday, I sent out an email with news of Steve’s death to the last group of students he taught this past Spring semester in our department’s team-taught creative writing course. A couple of hours later, I received a reply from one of those students, Regina Kim, a recent graduate, who had quickly and beautifully written an appreciation of Steve. It is well-written, funny, thoughtful, and sweet–in short, a fitting tribute to Steve.
Even better postscript: A lovely remembrance by Jane Hammons.