John Renton, professor emeritus of geology at West Virginia University, was not only the first person in his family to go to college. He was also one of only two students from his hometown of Beadling, Pa. to enroll in college.
The son of a Scottish immigrant who spent a lifetime mining coal in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, even working in Morgantown’s Osage mine, his father’s 60-year-old advice is still fresh in his memory: “Don’t go into the mines.”
Renton’s older brother was equally adamant about his sibling’s postsecondary plans.
“My brother forced me to go to college. He said if I didn’t, he’d never talk to me again,” Renton said. “I said I’d go for one semester, and if I liked it, I’d stay. Otherwise, I’d come home and continue working as a mechanic. I never looked back.”
While Renton did follow his
father’s advice, he opted for the next best thing: studying chemistry and
geology, going on to earn a bachelor of science in chemistry from Waynesburg
University (then Waynesburg College) and a master of science in geology from WVU.
“Going into geology and chemistry was the next best thing to coal mining. I didn’t pursue a career in the mines, but I still studied coal,” Renton said. “Rather than going underground, I studied coal on the surface. I studied mires to learn where coal came from.”
After serving in the Air Force as an X-ray lab scientist at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Renton returned to WVU to earn a Ph.D. in geology. Upon graduation, professor Alan Donaldson recommended that Renton take a position opened by retiring professor Harry Fridley to expand the department’s geochemistry expertise. Then-department chair Dana Wells immediately offered him the position in 1965.
“My X-ray expertise from the military got me on board—I was able to establish an X-ray lab and teach an X-ray course. And, WVU never had anyone to teach geochemistry,” Renton said. “I was hired to teach those areas plus Geology 1 (physical geology) and Geology 3 (historical geology).”
A 51-year veteran of the Department of Geology and Geography, Renton has won nearly every teaching award at the Department, College, University and national levels. He even crafted his own curriculum for what is today Geology 101, publishing three physical geology textbooks and hand-drawing illustrations used in lectures. He also taught instrumental analysis and clay minerology, and team-taught coal geology.
“I loved teaching. I refused to give up Geology 1—I just loved it,” Renton said. “The students I had when I first started to teach were so interested. I could watch their eyes, especially the ones in the front row. They really wanted to hear what I had to say."
Though officially retiring in 2015, Renton continues to share his passion for teaching and geochemistry.
Partnering with Tom Repine, education specialist at the West Virginia Geological Survey, Bob Behling, WVU geology professor and Deb Hemler, Fairmont State University geoscience education professor, they created a program to teach earth science teachers around the state since the subject is not accredited—any teacher can teach it. They conducted workshops on the weekends and brought teachers to campus during the summer. They also led field experience trips to the Great Lakes, Yellowstone National Park and the Cascades.
Even though the program is no longer federally funded, Renton and Repine continue to offer continuing education opportunities online through the West Virginia Geological Survey, regularly publishing primers, curricula, illustrations and other resources. They are currently building an independent resource website for earth science teachers.
“When I retired, I couldn’t think of staying at home doing nothing,” Renton said. “Now, I come to work three days a week to do my own thing.”
Renton has also reached out beyond the classroom, creating a popular geology class through Great Courses. Bill Gates even took his course on the Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology.
After retirement, Renton wanted to ensure he left a legacy behind for future generations of geology students, establishing the John and Eleanor Renton Geology Field Camp Scholarship.
“After spending 50-plus years at WVU, I wanted to leave something behind students are going to benefit from,” Renton said. “An endowment will ensure the lasting impact of the scholarship. By helping students attend summer field camp, they will experience a long-term impact on their education and future career.”
The scholarship will go toward the summer tuition and fees associated with the field experience.
“There are certain experiences that are crucial for a geologist, and the most important is field camp,” said Tim Carr, Marshall Miller Professor of Energy and chair of the Department of Geology and Geography. “Climbing mountains, recording strikes and dips on maps, getting rained on, cracking rocks and synthesizing observations—one who not only notices a mountain on the landscape, but ponders why it is there.”
Undergraduate geology students with at least a 3.0 GPA in their major courses are eligible to apply for the scholarship.
“Summer field camp is the one course that converts a geology student into a geologist,” Renton said. “Students are in the field with no one to help them. They learn how to do it all.”
This donation was made in conjunction with A State of Minds: The Campaign for West Virginia’s University. This $1 billion fundraising goal was reached in September 2016. Conducted by the WVU Foundation, the fundraising effort will run through December 2017.