Tributes to J. Melburn Soneson
February 11, 1922 to March 31, 2001
[On April 4, family and friends celebrated the life of Mel Soneson, beloved retired Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Park College. Pietisten has the texts of tributes to Mel by sons Jerry and Dan, long time colleague Elder Lindahl, and former student Phil Johnson. Space permits only two tributes here, all four with photos, are available at www.pietisten.org. If you have access, we hope you read the other two. — Ed.]
J. Melburn Soneson — A Life of Commitment to a Community of Faith
My father was born at home in a snowstorm. On February 11, 1922 Joseph Melburn Soneson came into the world in the Baptist parsonage in Lake Elizabeth, Minnesota. His parents, Pastor Nels and Mabel Soneson had three other children—two older sisters, Doris and Eldreth, and a younger brother, John.
Throughout his life, my dad’s identity was informed by the Christian Church and the religious faith first encountered in his family. His father was an immigrant from Sweden and a pastor in the Baptist General Conference, who served in turn several rural communities in Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa—and his mother—well, some of you may have known her, for she lived with us in Chicago for over 20 years. Her presence in our family had a profound impact on all of us. Like Dad, we all were grateful for her generosity of spirit and inspirational richness of her religious faith. The family settled in Cook, Minnesota when Dad was 10-years-old. Four years later they purchased some land just outside of town and converted it into a workable farm.
Dad spoke fondly of his time in rural Minnesota. Not only did we hear the stories of his rugged life in the country, chopping trees and trudging through miles of heavy snow drifts to attend a school in town, but he was, indeed, very active in the life of Cook High School. He was captain of the basketball team, lead actor in the senior class play, and president of his senior class. Due to his father’s debilitating arthritis, he assumed the major duties of running the farm. Upon graduation from high school, he took a position working with the St. Louis County Department of Agriculture.
Dad was a reluctant draftee in the Army in 1943 where he served until the end of World War II in the European theater. Throughout the war, he carried the New Testament his father had given him, and later in life, he would often ex-press gratitude that he never had to fire a weapon at an enemy.
In addition to having a deep and abiding religious faith, Dad was a relentless seeker of knowledge and a lover of books. Following the war, the establishment of the GI Bill made it possible for him to realize a long-held dream of going to college. In the spring of 1946 he enrolled at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota with the intention of entering the pastoral ministry.
At Bethel he met my mother, Dagmar Olson, in a botany class. From the stories I heard as a child, I don’t think he completed this class much the wiser on the subject of botany, but believe me, he came away from this class much richer than the professed objectives of the syllabus. After a courtship of two years, they were married at Grace Baptist Church in Minneapolis on May 28, 1949. Dad’s life in the church continued, with Mom working as church secretary and organist, and Dad as the custodian at Grace Church while he continued his studies. In their almost 52 years of marriage, they had four children: Jerry, Dan, Karen, and Janet and five grandchildren.
After two years at Bethel, Dad transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he was greatly influenced by his teacher, Paul Holmer, who inspired him to wrestle with the intellectual problem of integrating faith and learning. It was a wrestling match which was to occupy him throughout his life. At Minnesota Dad earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in Philosophy. In 1953 we moved to Chicago, where he went on to further advanced studies in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. There he became convinced of the critical importance of the ministry of teaching while earning Bachelor of Divinity, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.
Upon completion of coursework at the University of Chicago, Dad began a 32-year tenure on the faculty at North Park College on the north side of Chicago, the higher educational institution of the Evangelical Covenant Church of America. His calling to the ministry found expression in teaching Religion and Philosophy to generations of students, helping them to struggle with the great questions of faith and responsibility in an intellectual context. Who, among those hundreds of students who participated in his lectures, seminars and discussions, can forget the warm smile, the wink, the dynamic eyebrows, the outrageous and often shocking statements, his vitality, his intellectual challenges, his powerful presence, his willingness to share the progress of his own spiritual journey, his openness to ideas, his compassion, his passion for justice, his gentle and supportive encouragement? Dad’s concern for social justice led him to participate in such events as the march for Civil Rights in Selma, Alabama and to lead several spring break trips to Haiti, where students pitched in together with a rural community to construct a school.
Dad’s faith was a faith within a shared community. He was an active member of North Park Covenant Church, where he served on several boards, taught Sunday School, and conducted adult study groups. In the late 1960s, the church formed a number of study and discussion groups which were to meet in homes over several months, under the initiative "Covenant Life Curriculum." Dad was chosen as teacher for one of these groups, consisting of men of his own generation. When the church initiative was completed, the group chose to continue meeting, and so it persisted, meeting in homes every four to six weeks under Dad’s tutelage for almost 18 years. Dad was often called upon to conduct adult Sunday School sessions elsewhere as well. He conducted an adult Sunday School class at North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago for many years. Dad retired from North Park College in 1988.
In 1992 he suffered a stroke, which required weeks of hospitalization and months of therapy. The following year he and Mom returned to their home state of Minnesota to reside at Covenant Manor in Golden Valley. Deteriorating health eventually resulted in Dad’s move to Colonial Acres Care Center in 1999. He died in his bed in Colonial Acres on March 31, 2001 at 9:45 PM.
We celebrate his life and cherish his memory.