Greens mark founder John Rensenbrink's passing


August 4, 2022

MAINE--It is with great sadness that the Maine Green Independent Party marks the passing of John Rensenbrink, of Topsham, who died at the age of 93 on Saturday, July 30th. Rensenbrink co-founded both the Maine Green Independent Party and the Green Party of the United States

"John was our Northern Star," said Green Independent Party Co-Chair Fred McCann. "Not only did he revolutionize third-party politics in the United States, he also showed us how to recontextualize our views of ourselves outside conventional structures of politics and economics."

Rensenbrink was born in 1928 in rural Minnesota to his parents Effie and John. After the death of his father in 1943, John, aged 15, managed his family’s farm with the help of his brother. A few years later, he left home to attend Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. An insatiable scholar, he subsequently attained a master’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan and a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Rensenbrink moved to Maine in 1961 where he taught philosophy and history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. In 1983, he spent six months in Poland with his wife Carla and three daughters Kathryn, Margaret and Elizabeth, where he worked as a research professor at the Marie Sklodowska University in Lublin.

While in Europe, Rensenbrink heard that a new political party, the Green Party, had won seats in the German Parliament. After his friend Alan Philbrook attended Canada’s first-ever Green Party meeting later in the year, the two held a meeting on January 8th, 1984 to form a Maine Green Party – the first Green state-level political party in the United States.

Rensenbrink served as the campaign manager for the gubernatorial campaigns of Jonathan Carter in 1994 and Pat LaMarche in 1998. After Carter's 1994 campaign, the Maine Green Party became a qualified political party with access to Maine's ballot. At a state convention, Rensenbrink was elected as the party's first co-chair, alongside Nancy Allen of Brooksville.

"He was a giant of Green Party commitment," said Allen.

In 1996, Rensenbrink ran for U.S. Senate, garnering four percent of the vote against Susan Collins. His campaign slogans, "Don't Eat the Seed Corn" and "Proceed on Green Only" (depicting a traffic light) conveyed a progressive urgency for sustainability.

Tom Fusco, who replaced Rensenbrink as party co-chair in 1996, after Rensenbrink stepped down to run for Senate, said Rensenbrink believed in empowering people over corporations.

"John was one of those rare people who saw the big picture," said Fusco. "He saw politics as a means to making things better not as the cause of the end. He knew that real power does not lie with politicians or corporations, it belongs to the people."

Pat LaMarche, who ran for governor in 1998 and 2006 and vice president in 2006, in a tribute she posted on Facebook, said she first met Rensenbrink when she was a radio journalist who interviewed him during his 1996 Senate run.

"I barely looked up when he walked into our studio - until he spoke," LaMarche posted. "I could not believe my ears. He soft-spokenly explained that America was entitled to a justice based government of our own making - with representation at the highest levels that respected civil rights, economic justice and ecological wisdom... Rensenbrink cared about people and he believed in their ability to self-govern without corporate influence."

In 1996, the Maine Green Party lost qualified party status after Ralph Nader failed to acquire at least 5 percent of the vote for president. After LaMarche's 1998 gubernatorial candidacy, the party regained qualified status, but this time as the Maine Green Independent Party, due to changes in state law in how parties are named when formed by a candidate that acquires the requisite votes.

The Green Independent Party celebrates its 25th consecutive year as a qualified party in Maine next year.

Sam Pfeifle, an elected Green who is chair of the Gray-New Gloucester School Board, said he was inspired to join the Green Party after Rensenbrink's senatorial run and Nader's presidential campaign that same year.

"You read about people with a twinkle in their eye, but John was maybe the only one where I’ve seen it in person," said Pfeifle.

While Rensenbrink was an internationally recognized political activist, Rensenbrink often espoused the importance of involvement with local politics: "All politics is local politics."

Resnsenbrink's commitment to engaging in political activism at all levels, is a factor that later inspired Pfeifle to run for office himself.

"Just look at what he’d been able to do in conserving land and reforming government in his little town," Pfeifle said. "If this guy could have this much enthusiasm and joy after nearly 90 years on this earth and a lifetime of butting his head against corporate behemoths, surely I could muster up some hope and at least see what I could do on the local school board."

Rensenbrink's commitment to environmentalism and local politics was not confined to Green Party electoral activism.

The Cathance River Education Alliance, a not-for-profit group co-founded by Rensenbrink in 2000, posted a tribute to him on their Facebook page.

"John was a visionary and played an essential role in CREA’s creation and evolution," the group posted. "All that CREA does today is part of his legacy. His vision of using the Preserve to nurture appreciation for the natural world is realized in the shrieks of delight of our summer campers immersed in outdoor discovery, the 'Wows!' and 'Look at this!' of schoolchildren learning at the Preserve, the local elementary students experiencing robust science curricula, the engagement of people introduced to startling natural wonders on guided walks, and so much more."

In 2005, Rensenbrink wrote of the alliance, “We didn’t quite know exactly how to translate the idea into reality, but we did know that we wanted to make maximum use of the 230 acres along the wildest portion of the Cathance River in Topsham for environmental education purposes. Also, to help nurture an appreciation for and knowledge of this pristine area now known as the Cathance River Nature Preserve.”

In 2019, the year Rensenbrink turned 90, the alliance named a walking path at their center Rensenbrink Way in his honor.

Betsy Garrold, of Knox, who is running to be the state representative in House District 38, first met Rensenbrink in 2002, during her first run for the Legislature.

“He came to my house and sat at my kitchen table eating blueberry muffins with me and Jonathan Carter and some others," said Garrold. "He became one of my most cherished political mentors, gave me an autographed copy of 'Against All Odds,' made me laugh, made me cry, praised my ethics and pointed out my mistakes.”

In a blog post on Blogger, Maine Green activist Sam Smith, of Freeport, said Rensenbrink is the reason why Maine's party is arguably the most successful state Green Party in the nation.

"A few days before his passing, I happened to be examining in which states the Green Party had been most successful and found to my amazement that Maine had 32% of all the elected Green officials in the country, including a constable in one town and a sewer board member in mine," wrote Smith. "Thanks in no small part to the inclusive politics of Rensenbrink, Maine was the first state with a Green Party, not to mention giving me one of my favorite role models."

Jon Olsen, of Jefferson, who chaired the party in 2018, said Rensenbrink "lived an exemplary life of service, honor, wisdom and compassion--all of which are sorely needed in these times in which we live. To use an ecological analogy, while the rest of us are pines, oaks, maples and birches, he was our sequoia."

The Maine Green Independent Party posted on Monday, "Those who know John know how beautiful his soul is. His will and determination guided our party from creation to present, and we are forever honored to have been so closely connected with the history John made."

Rensenbrink was inducted into the Maine Green Independent Party Hall of Fame in 2019 and served as the party's senior advisor at the time of his passing, a role he had for nearly two decades.

"The Green Independent Party, on behalf of its members, extends eternal gratitude to Rensenbrink for a lifetime of service in connecting people with nature, and connecting politics with both people and nature," said Lyn Maravell, co-chair of the party. "Our heartfelt sympathies and admiration go out to the family of this incredible man."

Rensenbrink authored four books on Green politics and was a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals, including Green Horizon Magazine, which he co-founded and edited.

In a 2015 issue of Green Horizon Magazine, Rensenbrink wrote, "Life is open, thought is open. In that awareness and with willing and purposeful intent, we can and do change the world."