Upon entering the through the East entrance of Renfrew Hall, a picture of Malcolm Renfrew hangs on the right side of the hall. The photo shows Renfrew with the building now in his name behind him. The physical science building earned its current name in 1985, in honor of Renfrew’s 75th birthday, and his work for the University of Idaho and the Department of Chemistry. The real legacy of Renfrew can be found by simply entering the building, and discovering the story behind the name.
Renfrew died Saturday at his home at Good Samaritan Village on his 103rd birthday.
Though he earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at UI in 1932 and 1934 respectively, his hiring as the head of the physical science department in 1958 was what led him to impact the university.
Jean’ne Shreeve, a co-worker and close friend of Renfrew’s within the chemistry department, said hiring Renfrew was the best thing that ever happened to the department and to the university.
“If you want to do something, do it, and that’s the attitude he brought to the university,” Shreeve said. “We started getting modern equipment and bright young faculty members –everything you need to grow a strong research and chemistry department.”
Farther down the first floor hallway in Renfrew Hall, a wooden display case houses newspaper clippings, pictures and scientific instruments from Renfrew’s accomplishments at UI. One of his most notable achievements was leading a team in developing a polymer that would later be known as Teflon.
Ray von Wandruszka, chairman of the UI chemistry department, said Renfrew was a champion in his field. But he said the greatest thing Renfrew accomplished was with his students, and those close to him.
“To Dr. Renfrew, you could just tell the accompaniment of people he cared about was much more important than any awards, something etched on wood,” said Conner Farley, a junior chemistry major and a member of Phi Gamma Delta, the same fraternity Renfrew was a part of when he was a student.
Stories of Renfrew’s care for students range from personally driving to one student’s house to wake him up for an exam he would’ve slept through to consistently inviting students to his home for dinner parties.
He maintained a happy, 72-year marriage with Carol Renfrew until she passed away on Jan. 12, 2010. In the main chemistry office in Renfrew Hall is a scrapbook from Renfrew’s 100th birthday. Inside are photos of Renfrew playing the trombone with the Vandal Booster Non-Marching Pep Band and finger-scooping frosting from the top of an un-cut cake show he was more than a straight-laced chemist.
“Malcolm was notably a social animal,” Wandruszka said. “He and Carol would go partying, go dancing, and stayed very involved in the community, well into their 90s.”
James Guitierrez, a junior member of Phi Gamma Delta, recalled the first time he met Malcolm Renfrew at a Greek awards ceremony.
“He was 101, and meeting him, you wouldn’t think he was,” Guiterrez said. “He could still walk and talk fine, and I remember he had a ridiculously firm handshake … with just his presence, you knew he was an extraordinary individual.”
Besides producing the Department of Chemistry alumni newsletter, the VandalChemist, and contributing as a consistent philanthropist for UI, Renfrew was also a watercolor painter in his spare time. One of his more popular works of art can be found on display in the main office of the Department of Chemistry.
Shreeve said Renfrew was known for believing in his students and co-workers.
“He gave us a chance … He had faith in us,” Shreeve said. “For graduate students especially, he gave us faith in ourselves to go and earn a Ph.D, and these people have gone out and been tremendously successful.”
A memorial service will be open to the public and held at 2 p.m. Oct. 28. at the First Presbyterian Church in Moscow.
George Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org