Robin Lyn Renshaw
July 23, 1948 – October 2, 2019
Robin was born to Robert Sherman Renshaw and Verna Irene Renshaw (Whitmore) in Shenandoah in southwest Iowa and raised in the nearby town of Clarinda. Her sister Randy, her only sibling, was born one day short of a year later. Both her mother and her maternal grandmother, Cassie Whitmore, were schoolteachers, and Robin began her schooling in the one-room schoolhouse where her mother taught in nearby Yorktown, moving to Clarinda when she was in the second grade. Irene enjoyed a lifetime career as a teacher, managing to work full-time while keeping house and raising two daughters. Robert (Bob) worked at a variety of jobs, including being the town milkman, bringing him the friendship of many of the townspeople, but he gained the most satisfaction and joy as a trainer of American Saddlebred horses, for which he was well known throughout southwestern Iowa and northwestern Missouri.
Robin was the girl in the front row with her hand waving in the air. She was also a tomboy, dreaming of being a cowgirl. At age nine she entered and won the Ford Motor Company’s “Win the Wagon Train Pony Contest”. She was probably the only one surprised. The pony was mean tempered with a tendency to bite, but it was soon not to matter as she developed a severe allergy to horses, robbing her of her cowgirl dream. In high school she sang in the choir and was active in many extracurricular activities, including cheerleading, the can-do spirit of which she generously shared throughout her life. Robin graduated from Clarinda High School in 1966 and went on to attend Clarinda Community College and then Colorado State College in Greeley, where she discovered painting and the world of art in general. She also discovered that there were things going on in California that she needed to look into, and she migrated to the East Bay Area, where she studied painting, printmaking, and art history at Hayward State College, earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fine Arts in 1971. Following graduation from Hayward Robin got a job teaching art in the Richmond Public School District, traveling from school to school. There she was asked by the District to start a parent/child playgroup. In the process she discovered a passion for early childhood education and realized that this was the life’s work she was looking for - a way to make real, positive change in the world. Her exploration of preschool teacher training options led her to the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) Teacher Training Center of Northern California in Palo Alto. There she studied from 1974 to 1976, earning a post Baccalaureate Diploma in the Principles and Practice of the Montessori Method for Children. Robin became a lifelong member of both AMI and the North American Montessori Teachers Association (NAMTA), participating in countless workshops and trainings throughout the US. From 1975 to 1977 Robin taught at Gateway Montessori in San Francisco and then Children’s Cultural Center (Montessori) in Marin and also found time to take classes at Marin Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm and spend parts of her summers living in a treehouse on Steephollow creek in Nevada County. In 1977 she packed all of her belongings into her ‘65 VW Bug, which was missing the front passenger seat and had its hood tied shut with macramé twine (being the fix applied after it flew up unexpectedly on the Bay Bridge). With her faithful Red Setter companion, Punkin, she moved to Humboldt County with the dream of starting a Montessori preschool. She was not immediately successful due to a scarcity of available spaces that met State licensing requirements, and she worked at a variety of jobs to make ends meet while keeping her dream alive.
One of those jobs was assisting with the renovation of a house in Westhaven, and it was there that she met Richard Swisher, who was also working on the house renovations. Enter Cupid, and a lifelong loving partnership was born. Like many before him, Richard was captivated by Robin’s straightforward compassion and generosity of spirit, extended to all she encountered. With her willing consent he eagerly hitched his wagon to her star, becoming her loving and devoted companion and helpmate for the next forty-two years. In the summer of 1978 they set up housekeeping in a tent in a friend’s yard in Westhaven, upgrading to a converted school bus as winter approached. In 1981 their daughter, Katie Irene, was born, and in 1983 they moved into more conventional housing in Fieldbrook, only to return to Westhaven in 1987, the place Robin happily called home for the rest of her days. Summer vacations almost always included a trip to Richard’s family’s cabin in Idaho, where Robin fell in love with the Sawtooth Mountains and learned to fly fish, which she greatly enjoyed provided she didn’t have to get her feet wet or kill the fish or clean them. She also loved tent camping, and the family spent many happy weekends camping at Gold Bluffs Beach, lulled to sleep by the sound of the surf echoing off the bluffs. In 2007 Dennis Rael introduced Robin to Family Days at Camp Unalayee in the Trinity Alps, and she fell in love with the people and the place and the whole philosophy of the camp, returning with Richard each summer for the following five years. There she would bask in the sun, book and writing paper in hand, with small gangs of children circling back to check in with her periodically during the day. Eventually her failing health prevented her navigation of the rough terrain and ended her time at Unalyee.
In 1980, still patching together part-time jobs, Robin was teaching a class in early childhood education at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, and two of the students, Kathy Fraser and Nancy Yearout, both mothers of young children, approached her about starting a school and offered to help. They found a space at the Methodist Church on 11th Street in Arcata, and Mad River Montessori Preschool was born. When Katie was born Robin took two weeks off from teaching before returning to school with Katie riding through the days in the classroom in the snugli carrier. Something must have rubbed off, for Katie is now also a Montessori teacher, carrying on the tradition at Harmony Montessori School in Portland Oregon.
Robin’s teaching philosophy was based on what she called the four Rs: Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness, all combining to create Resiliency. Her reputation as a gifted teacher spread quickly, and soon the school had a waiting list for future students. Before long parents were being advised to get on the waiting list when they first knew they were pregnant. The school was limited by licensing regulations to 22 students, but in 2008 Robin was offered the chance to move the school to its present location at the Saint Mary’s Catholic Church campus on Janes Road in Arcata, where it is now able to accommodate 30 children. Before it could be occupied, the new space required significant renovation and remodeling, which was done over that summer and fall by Robin and Richard and many hard-working parent volunteers and friends from the community. Improvements included the construction of a spacious outdoor playscape, fulfilling a dream that Robin had nurtured for many years. The school moved to the new site in November 2008 and flourishes there today under the able direction of Julie DiLorenzo. Altogether, Robin served as Mad River Montessori’s director and head teacher from 1980 to 2015, only stepping down as she succumbed to increasing debilitation from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and even then she continued to advise and mentor from her wheelchair on a part time basis until she was physically unable to do so. She attended her last MRM board meeting on July 24, 2019. Mad River Montessori was Robin’s life’s work, and she educated, inspired, and supported hundreds of children and their families. Her retirement party in 2015 was a grand tribute to all the children and families whose lives she influenced in a powerful and positive way.
In addition to her devotion to her school and students, Robin brought many people from the community at large into her ever-widening and interwoven network of lifelong learners. As a faculty member of the Humboldt Music Academy at HSU Robin created a music program based upon Montessori and Kodaly principles of music education for young children. As the enrollment of Music, Movement and More mushroomed, Robin made countless young friends who were introduced to a lifetime of the joys of music shared. Robin also studied the cello with her dear friend, Carol Jacobson, and volunteered at and hosted teenaged musicians of the Sequoia Chamber Music Workshop held each summer at HSU. She went on to be employed at the Workshop as Music Librarian, all around go-fer, and surrogate mom to the kids attending. She regularly attended concerts and enjoyed informal music gatherings wherever they occurred. She was introduced to book arts by Shereen LaPlantz, and then invited friends to join in monthly workshops. That group founded North Redwoods Book Arts Guild, which is still a thriving organization with members from all over the world. Robin’s beautiful books were featured in book arts manuals, and she taught book arts workshops to hundreds of people. In the school Robin continued her work as an artist, integrating art activities and experiences into the curriculum and sharing her unique approach to teaching and learning art. To develop further as a writer, she joined the Redwood Writing Project as a fellow during the Summer Institute and then became a member of East View Writing Group for several years. Robin filled her life and the lives of so many friends with enjoyment of arts, literature, music, and nature. In 2004 Robin was invited to join the Early Childhood Care and Education Subcommittee of FIRST 5 HUMBOLDT, which serves children age 0 to 5 and their families throughout Humboldt County. She offered her perspective as a Montessori educator and observer of young children to the subcommittee until her failing health forced her resignation in the summer of 2019.
In all things Robin acted from a foundation of carefully focused observation, concentrating all of her effort on her life-long vision of helping to make the world a better place. Even in her last days Robin found joy in simple things— a new blossom in her red garden, the flight of a hummingbird, a visit from a friend, Facebook or email messages from far-flung relatives, friends, and former students, the smell and sound of the ocean, a tasty meal with Richard, a new photo or video of her precious granddaughter and namesake, Mira Wren.
Robin was preceded in death by her father, Robert Sherman Renshaw, her mother, Verna Irene Renshaw (Whitmore), and is survived by her sister, Randy Dee Burke (Renshaw), husband, Richard Swisher, daughter, Katie Irene Swisher, son-in-law, Mike Shively, granddaughter, Mira Wren Shively, stepdaughter, Erica Ryan, niece, Emily Ann Lock (Burke), her husband, Troy and their children, Taylor and Colby Lock, nephew Andrew Burke, his wife, Lisa and their son, Cooper.
A memorial scholarship fund has been established at Mad River Montessori Preschool in honor of Robin’s strong belief that Montessori education should be accessible to families of all income levels. Donations can be made directly through their website, madrivermontessori.com or via check to Mad River Montessori, noting the scholarship in the memo.
A celebration of Robin’s life followed by a finger food potluck will be held at 2 p.m. on March 28, 2020 at the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 24 Fellowship Way, Bayside CA 95524.
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The obituary above was submitted on behalf of Robin Renshaw’s loved ones. The Lost Coast Outpost runs obituaries of Humboldt County residents at no charge. See guidelines here.