The Friday Letter Archive

A collection of the president's weekly messages to the Vandal family


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Friday Letter 2013-10-18

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October 18, 2013
Dear Friends,

This has been a week of inspiration tinged with sadness. Last Saturday the Vandal family lost a gentle giant in our midst – the incomparable Malcolm M. Renfrew – who passed away in Moscow on the 103rd anniversary of his birth. We mourn the loss of this great and generous soul, while also celebrating his towering legacy. Perhaps you never met him, but he touched your life.
Like many Vandals, Dr. Renfrew -– known to his friends simply as Malcolm -- came from humble origins. Born in Spokane, he moved as a boy with his family to Potlatch, where he graduated from high school in 1928.  He attended the University of Idaho during the early years of the Great Depression, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, and meeting another student, Carol Campbell, with whom he was destined to share 71 years of married life. 
After completing a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Minnesota, he ventured from academia to industry, landing a research position at what is now the DuPont Corporation. There, he led teams that developed epoxy resins, created new materials for tooth repair, and synthesized a remarkable compound called polytetrafluoroethylene –- a durable, inert, and heat-resistant substance that proved useful to America’s war effort. You may be more familiar with this product than you realize. In its patented commercial form, it became known as … Teflon.

Malcolm later held research and management positions with other major industrial enterprises before returning to the University of Idaho, in 1959, to serve as head of the “physical sciences” department. In response to Malcolm’s vision, the university established a separate and widely respected chemistry department, where Malcolm and his faculty colleagues expanded the scope of research and academic offerings. Malcolm played a prominent role in the design of a new laboratory and classroom building that now bears his name:  Malcolm M. Renfrew Hall.  He was nationally acclaimed for his innovative work, receiving the James Flack Norris Award for contributions to physical organic chemistry, and the American Chemical Society Global Salute to Polymers Award. 
Malcolm retired in 1976, perhaps not anticipating that he had another 37 years of life ahead of him. During retirement he remained active in the sciences, volunteering as university patent director for ten years and serving as safety editor for the Journal of Chemical Education. He was a highly sought and graciously accessible mentor to a whole new generation of faculty and students.  One colleague noted that Malcolm was “a supporter of all things positive.”
Malcolm also honed his artistic side -- creating watercolor paintings of Palouse area buildings and landscapes, and playing the trombone in local bands. Although it may be impossible to play trombone with a tongue in cheek, the bands went by such jocular names as the “Idaho Vandals Non-Marching Pep Band” and the “Hog Heaven Big Band” (“Hog Heaven” reputedly being an early nickname for the town of Moscow.).
Throughout Malcolm’s retirement years, he and his beloved Carol became popular fixtures at university events. They attended concerts, plays, lectures and athletic events.  They even were named Homecoming Parade Grand Marshals and Moscow Renaissance Fair King and Queen.  In mind and spirit, they were truly Renaissance people. They had no children, but they took the university community into their embrace.

A weekly interdisciplinary faculty colloquium was named in their honor. A College of Science Faculty Fellowship Endowment, which supports faculty members who excel at research and serve as mentors for their students, was also named for them. Malcolm and Carol contributed generously to student scholarships and to other endowments supporting departments and programs across the campus. When Carol passed away during Malcolm’s 100th year (her 96th), he endeavored for three more years to continue their tradition of active citizenship in the university. “The last time I saw Malcolm in public,” Interim Provost Katherine Aiken commented this week, “he joined in the singing of the Alma Mater ... He was revered because he exemplified all that was best about academia in general and the University of Idaho specifically.”
Great universities, like our own, attain their greatness through the unselfish work of exceptional people. We sustain that greatness, from generation to generation, by remembering those exceptional people and rededicating ourselves to the spirit of their work.   
So, with smiles and misty eyes … here’s to you, Malcolm and Carol.
Go Vandals!

Don Burnett
Interim President

Here's the Latest News from the University of Idaho

UI/Costa Rican Interdisciplinary Study Earns NSF Grant. The National Science Foundation grant of $249,000 for Natural Human Ecosystems is the first of its kind received by the University of Idaho. Lisette Waits, a professor in the UI College of Natural Resources’ Department of Fish and Wildlife, leads the project, which was written jointly by five faculty members from University and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica.

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U-Idaho Partners On $1.5 Million Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Grant.  A $1.5 million Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grant will support University of Idaho students’ participation in the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. The University of Florida, in partnership with University of Idaho and others, received the award. The program will provide undergraduate students who are interested in environmental issues and cultural diversity with training and mentored research activities in conservation biology and other disciplines relevant to land, water and wildlife conservation. Kerri Vierling, associate professor of fish and wildlife sciences, is leading the Idaho program, along with other College of Natural Resources faculty. “Students will go out in the field, do fieldwork with grad students and faculty, and be immersed in science and natural resource research,” Vierling said. “At the end of their research experience, students will have conducted an independent research project and will present their findings to other students, faculty and groups such as K-12 students. Over the course of the multi-year experience, students will learn about science and about communicating science to a variety of audiences.” The program will accept 25 students per year, five from each of the five partner universities.  Initially two cohorts of students are planned, which will involve 50 students total. For more information about how your organization can partner with the university, contact Bobbi Hughes at (208) 885-5303 or