Tonelson's affiliation with Old Dominion dates to 1930, when he was one of the first three students to enroll and attend the university, when known as the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary.
The first student-athlete to enroll in the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary when it opened in 1930, Dr. Tonelson lettered in basketball for three years, from 1930-33. He captained the 1932 and 1933 teams.
Despite the nickname of "Poopball", he had a 15-2 record while lettering in baseball for three years form 1931-33. He was the leading pitcher in the Tidewater Interscholastic Baseball League in 1932.
He received his bachelor of science degree in biology in 1933 and his master's degree in guidance and personal work in 1953 from William and Mary. In 1963, he earned a doctor of philosophy degree in education administration from Michigan State University.
Tonelson was a teacher, coach and administrator in the Norfolk Public Schools for more than 25 years, serving as principal of Maury High School from 1955 to 1966.
In 1966, Tonelson joined the faculty of Old Dominion as a professor of education. He was later named dean of the Darden School of Education. In 1972, he assumed the position of assistant to the president for school and community relations and a year later was named the university's affirmative action and equal employment opportunity officer.
Tonelson served as past president of Phi Delta Kappa, and he organized the Old Dominion chapter of Kappa Delta Pi, both national honor societies in education. He also served as president of the Norfolk Education Association.
A charter member of the Big Blue Club, Dr. Tonelson served as an officer of the Intercollegiate Foundation. He was twice cited by the ODU athletic department for his continuing contributions and participation. He also served as general chairman of the Kiwanis-Old Dominion Basketball Classic from 1975-77.
In 1970, Tonelson received the Old Dominion University Distinguished Alumni Award. The school's alumni association named its outstanding faculty award the Alan Rufus Tonelson Award, and because of his generosity, the university named the garden in Webb Center, the Tonelson Garden, in his honor.
Dr. Donelson and his wife, Sara, another ardent fan and former ODU student, established an endowed athletic scholarship fund to benefit men's basketball, baseball and women's athletes. He was inducted into the very first ODU Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 along with Leo Anthony, J.C. "Scrap" Chandler, Tommy Scott and Donna Doyle.
Tonelson received numerous community service awards including the Kiwanian of the Year, Optometric Society's Humanitarian Award and awards from the United Jewish Federation and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Tonelson passed away on Aug. 6, 2006 at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Sara Hamburg Tonelson, and two sons Louis O. Tonelson, the retired former principal of Kempsville High School, and Stephen W. Tonelson, professor of early childhood, speech-language pathology and special education at ODU. Survivors also include numerous nephews and nieces.
He assisted Tommy Scott in coaching the Division's basketball and baseball teams from 1933-1936.
In his honor, ODU's Webb Center courtyard has been name the Tonelson Garden. He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1970. The Faculty Distinction Awards of the Alumni Association were named in his honor in 1977. He was the first recipient of the Association's Service Award in 1979. His many other awards include the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.