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John Rensenbrink, professor who helped cofound US Green Party, dies at 93

Dr. Rensenbrink, cofounder of the Maine Green Party, in his living room in Topsham, Maine, on Nov. 24, 1997.Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff/file

PORTLAND, Maine — John Rensenbrink, a professor of political philosophy who fused some of the principles of his classroom with his fervent environmentalism to help found the Green Party of the United States, died in hospice, the party said. He was 93.

Dr. Rensenbrink died of an illness July 30, the Bangor Daily News reported.

A veteran of the Vietnam War protest movement and the push against Wiscasset’s Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, Dr. Rensenbrink helped convene the first Green Party meeting in the United States, which took place in Maine in 1984, according to the national party. He had been inspired by his recent studies in Poland, where he learned of the Green Party’s emerging success in parts of Europe.

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He also helped form the Maine Green Party, which was the first state-level Green Party and is now known as the Maine Green Independent Party, its members said.

His impetus, in addition to promoting environmental issues and ways to resolve global conflicts peacefully, was to provide a check on the two-party system.

“The established party system becomes an oligarchy through money,” Dr. Rensenbrink told The Boston Globe in 1997. “The Democratic Party is shackled by its need to raise money.”

He contended back then that voters were becoming more attuned to environmental depravations and angered over the influence of polluters over the political system.

“Who the hell is doing something about it?” he asked. “The Democrats are not doing it, not when they are tied to the fleshpots of money.”

He was born on Aug. 30, 1928, in Pease, Minn., and grew up on a dairy farm. He was 15 when his father died and he, with his brother and mother, took over the family farm operations. His high school diploma came through a correspondence course. “We were dirt poor,” he told the Globe.

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A direct appeal from his mother to administrators landed him an opening at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He would earn a master’s degree in political science at the University of Michigan, where he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Amsterdam from 1951 to 1952. He received his doctorate in political philosophy, American politics, and constitutional law at the University of Chicago, studying under philosopher Leo Strauss.

He paid his way through college via a series of manual jobs, including working on a highway road crew in Grand Rapids, as a mason in Alaska, and at an automobile factory in Michigan. He also earned a living as a welder, he told the Globe.

After teaching at Williams College in the late 1950s, Dr. Rensenbrink came to Bowdoin College in Maine in 1961. For decades there, he taught political philosophy and history.

“John was beloved at Bowdoin and in his adopted state of Maine,” Bowdoin president Clayton Rose said in a statement. “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.”

”He is very provocative, very stimulating,’’ Christian Potholm, a professor of government studies at Bowdoin College, told The Boston Globe in 1997. “He always enjoyed a good argument. He is not only a thinker, he is an activist. He puts his ideas into action.’’

Past and present members of the Green Party remembered him as a tireless activist and a pivotal figure in the development of Green organizing.

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Ralph Nader, who ran as a Green Party candidate for president in 1996 and 2000, considered Dr. Rensenbrink a key ally and counsel.

“John Rensenbrink for decades embodied the best of American progressive politics linking thought to action, and motivating Greens from the local to the national and international levels,” Nader said in a statement.

“John was our Northern Star,” Green Independent Party co-chair Fred McCann said in a statement.

Dr. Rensenbrink ran for US Senate in 1996, earning about 4 percent of the vote in an election won by Republican Senator Susan Collins. He also managed political campaigns and was elected as the Maine Green Party’s first co-chair, the state party said in a statement.

According to the national Green Party, 30 percent of all successful Green candidates in the United States were elected in Maine, which they attributed to Dr. Rensenbrink’s leadership.

“He saw politics could be done better, he really believed in it,” Jonathan Carter told the Portland Press Herald. Dr. Rensenbrink served as campaign manager for Carter’s gubernatorial campaign in 1994. “It wasn’t just winning the office that counted, it was how you played the game that was important to him.”

Dr. Rensenbrink leaves his wife of 63 years, Carla (Washburne), and their three daughters: Kathryn, Margaret, and Elizabeth.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.