By ARDEN IGLEHEART
Connie Rynder was afraid of few things, least of all what students thought of her celebrating Guy Fawkes Night at her house when she taught history.
“I remember quite vividly, she would hold up a piece of paper and shout ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason plot,’” said Richard Piper, retired professor of political science. “A lot of her students were really quite amazed by it all. It’s not every professor who runs through the house with a burning torch in her hands shouting a poem from olden days in England.”
The celebrations were guided by some of Rynder’s most pronounced qualities: her immense confidence, her passion for British and Irish history, her strive to inspire students and her personality that extended far beyond her small frame.
Rynder, born in 1945, taught history at UT from 1972-2011. She died June 13 at age 71 due to a fire in her home, according to the Tampa Police Department.
Outspoken about women’s rights, Rynder was a pioneer of women’s history at UT, according to Terry Parssinen, professor of history. One of the few women faculty at UT when she began, Rynder taught a women’s history class and did extensive research about the subject.
Rynder wrote articles about British and Irish women in politics, especially about their impact and their concerns for the family. She also published All Men and Women are Created Equal, a 1998 book about the Seneca Falls convention. At the time of her death, she was working on a research project about female politicians in Northern Ireland, according to Elizabeth Littell-Lamb, associate professor of history.
“Women’s impact on history and on lives today was a huge concern of hers,” said Jeanne Vince, public services librarian. “Not that she worried about it, but she was determined to make sure that some of these women that she knew about would be researched.”
This passion for women’s rights stemmed from a desire for fairness, according to Joe Sclafani, associate dean of teaching and learning. Rynder was an advocate for minority rights in general, also doing research on Native Americans and visiting a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina every other year, according to Vince.
At UT, Rynder was a champion of faculty rights. She was the chairman of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors and active in the Faculty Committee, a prerequisite to the faculty senate which represents UT professors, according to Littell-Lamb. The university was on the verge of folding in the late 1980s, and Rynder was adamant about holding the administration accountable and making sure faculty was still being treated fairly, Sclafani said.
“She was always taking the side of faculty, making sure that the administration and the rest of the school treated faculty as fairly as possible,” Sclafani said. “She wanted to make sure there was a fair of resources.”
UT tried to bring football back during that time due to pressure from trustees, and Rynder was one of the chief organizers of a 1988 student and faculty protest against the return of football, along with Richard Piper and other faculty. Rynder believed that a football program would take funds away from academics and ultimately bankrupt the university.
Having Irish roots herself, Rynder was passionate about the culture of England and Ireland. She took groups of students to England and Ireland, and taught a British and Irish history course. She occasionally played the dulcimer, a folk instrument originating from Appalachia, at Four Green Fields, an Irish pub near campus.
Also passionate about Appalachia, an area heavily influenced by Irish culture due to Irish emigration, Rynder visited the region regularly. In 2007 she visited Sylva, N.C. and wrote a recount of her trip for The Minaret. The highlight of the trip, Rynder said, was seeing the music of the Mountain Spirit Band and playing along with them.
“My own favorite genre, however, is the large selection of traditional Irish tunes, many dating back to the 18th century Ulster Scots-Irish migration into Appalachia,” Rynder wrote. “The nostalgic ‘Londonderry Air’ and ‘A Farewell to Whiskey’ temper livelier foot-tappers such as ‘Star of the County Down’ and ‘O, Rosin the Bow.’ Turlough O’Carolan’s fanciful ‘Sheebeg-Sheemore’ tune fully recounts a war between two fairy armies — Si Beg and Si Mor — in Irish mythology. And, playing ‘The Road to Lisdoonvarna’ brings back happy memories of my very first research trip to Ireland years ago, when I stopped in this historic spa town for a pint at the famous Matchmaker Pub.”
The article, titled “University Can Learn From Small Town,” ends with a comparison of Sylva to UT.
“We all enjoy good fun, good food and a live concert, whatever the excuse,” Rynder wrote. “And music, even low-brow stuff played by amateur folk artists, can inspire and educate, as well as entertain listeners of all ages and locales. More importantly, both places exhibit a strong sense of community based on history, tradition and shared lives. Despite our recent growth, UT retains a ‘small town’ friendliness and intimacy seldom found within large academic institutions; our lives as human beings — whether student, faculty, staff or administrator — still matter to one another.”
Rynder was passionate not just about folk music, but about all types, according to Vince.
“I’ve never met anyone that was so enamored of music and was so educated in so many different genres of music,” Vince said. “She had an extensive CD collection, hundreds of different CDs that covered so many different genres.”
Above music, however, Rynder’s biggest passion was teaching, Vince said.
“As she was teaching she would just be very into it,” said Ben Westrich ‘12, a former student of Rynder. “So it was just always fun to watch her teach just because of her character. She was very animated when she spoke. Her neck, her eyes, her hands, everything would be moving at the same time while she was speaking.”
Rynder brought her passion for the rights of disadvantaged people into the classroom.
In the early days of when she taught, the university did not close for Labor Day. Rynder thought this was wrong, so she made sure every Labor Day that students understood the contributions of working people, bringing her dulcimer to class and singing Joan Baez songs about the working class, according to Vince. Nicole Carr ‘05, adjunct professor of education and former student, said that Rynder structured her class to make sure she was representing disadvantaged people as fairly as possible.
“She had a gift of making you look at it from the perspective of Native Americans, not just looking at it as ‘this is what happened in the sequence of events’ but rather looking at it as a sequence of vignettes or stories,” Carr said. “We tend to learn the winners’ version of history, and that’s not always the full story of what happened.”
Students said that Rynder would come off tough at first, but only because she cared about her students. She made an effort to know them personally.
When she was a student at UT, Carr attended the same church as Rynder. Her freshman year, Carr was going to have her confirmation. Carr’s mother was undergoing cancer treatment, so she couldn’t come down to Tampa for the event, which meant Carr was going to have no family at her confirmation.
“When I told Dr. Rynder that I wasn’t going to have any family there she very matter-of-factly put her hand on my shoulder. She said ‘Well I’m your family and I’ll be there,’” Carr said. “And she came; she came to my confirmation. She was there for the Baptism of both my sons. That’s the kind of person she was. She might come off as really, really strong and feisty but she also had this humongous heart.”
Arden Igleheart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.