John C. Rensenbrink (1928–2022)
To the Bowdoin community,
I am saddened to report that John C. Rensenbrink, professor of government emeritus, political activist, founder of both the Maine Green Party and the Green Party of the United States, and a figure highly respected and admired by generations of Bowdoin students, died on Saturday, July 30, 2022, just a month short of his ninety-fourth birthday.
John was born in Pease, Minnesota, on August 30, 1928, one of seven children of Dutch American farmers John and Effie Rensenbrink, and he grew up working on the farm. As John recalled in a 2018 interview in Bowdoin Magazine, “My mother did not want me to go to the public high school in town because it was not Christian. My father thought I should work on our hardscrabble farm. But then he passed away. So, my older brother and I managed the farm, and my mother allowed me to take correspondence courses from the American School in Chicago. And later my amazing mother, with her limited formal education, wrote a personal appeal to Calvin College (in Grand Rapids, Michigan) to accept me as a student.” John studied history, English, and philosophy at Calvin and was editor of the college newspaper.
After graduating from Calvin in 1950, John went on to earn a master's degree in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1951. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Amsterdam from 1951 to 1952, followed by doctoral studies in political philosophy, American politics, and constitutional law at the University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD in 1956. It was at Chicago, studying under philosopher Leo Strauss, that John learned the importance of learning alongside his students. “For me,” he said, “the purpose of the classroom is to advance the knowledge of all who participate, including the professor.”
He began his teaching career in 1956 at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, moving on after a year to teach political philosophy and American government at Williams College. While preparing for his first class at Williams, John met Carla Washburne, whose father owned the College Bookstore in Williamstown. They married in June 1959, shortly after Carla's graduation from Radcliffe.
John and Carla moved to Brunswick in 1961 after he received an appointment to teach political philosophy and history at Bowdoin. He taught for one year before leaving in 1962 to serve as education advisor to the governments of Kenya and Tanzania, sponsored by the US Agency for International Development.
He and Carla then returned to Bowdoin in September 1965 with their two young daughters, Kathryn and Margaret. John was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1968 and to full professor in 1974. Their third child, Elizabeth, was born in January 1968.
John chaired Bowdoin’s government department from 1977 to 1980, and again from 1987 to 1989. He also served as president of the Bowdoin chapter of the Association of University Professors in 1976–1977.
In addition to his teaching and scholarship, John was a longtime political and community activist, beginning as a prolific letter-to-the-editor writer at age fourteen. Originally a supporter of former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate Harold Stassen, John left the Republican Party during the McCarthy era to become a Democrat.
In 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the violence against student protestors at the Democratic National Convention is Chicago, he and others formed the Reform Democrats of Maine to push for an end to the Vietnam War and for political reforms.
John ran twice for the Maine Legislature and fought to close Wiscasset’s Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in the early 1980s, but he was best known as a founder of the Green Party in Maine and nationally. While studying in Poland in 1983, he learned about the success of the Green Party in electing more than two dozen members of parliament in what was then West Germany and visited friends and party members there on his way back to Maine.
In 1984, he led the effort to establish a Green Party in Maine, the first in the United States, and went on to help the new party organize throughout the country, where it has continued to field candidates for local, statewide, and national office, including president of the United States. Today it is the fourth largest political party by registration in the US.
John was the Maine Green Party’s candidate for the US Senate in 1996, losing to Republican Susan Collins, who still holds the seat, in a four-way race that also included former Maine governor Joseph Brennan and independent candidate Bill Clarke.
Throughout his retirement, John remained active in the Maine Green Party and engaged in local environmental causes and social justice issues. Working with local real estate developer John Wasileski, he was instrumental in creating a 235-acre nature preserve in his hometown of Topsham and was a driving force behind the establishment of the Cathance River Education Alliance (CREA), a nonprofit organization that promotes a sustainable future through nature-based learning among students, teachers, and the public. In 2019, John told the Portland Press Herald that creating CREA was his proudest accomplishment, and in August of that year, he recalled being “thunderstruck, wonderfully delighted, and surprised” when the road leading to the alliance’s office was named Rensenbrink Way in his honor.
John was the author of several books, including Poland Challenges in a Divide World (1988) and Against All Odds, the Green Transformation of American Politics (1999), with a foreword by consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
John is survived by his wife, Carla Washburne Rensenbrink, and their three daughters and their families. Memorial arrangements are pending and will be conveyed to the Bowdoin community in the coming days.
John was beloved at Bowdoin and in his adopted state of Maine. In the classroom he taught generations of students how to think, and in his work off campus he was wise, bold, and truly lived his values. I know you join me in conveying deep condolences to his family and our gratitude as a community for his many important and lasting contributions to the College and to society.