Section: News

Barbara Hollenbeck Reitsma, known for MSSC, passes away

On Oct. 27, 2019, Barbara Hollenbeck Reitsma, former associate director of the College’s Math and Science Skills Center (MSSC), passed away. After more than a decade of multiple battles with cancer, she died in hospice care at the age of 59.

Originally from near Pittsburgh, Pa., Reitsma was a longtime resident of Mount Vernon.

She dedicated the last 15 years of her life to the development, advancement and maintenance of the MSSC, where she served as assistant director until her retirement in June 2019.     

“Barb was really the heart and soul of that operation,” John E. Hofferberth, professor of chemistry, former MSSC director and a good friend of Reitsma, said. “Barb made the place feel like home … That warm feeling of collaboration that she helped set has persisted, and now, 15 years later, the Math and Science Skills Center is this place where everybody who studies science goes to learn science.”

Professor of Physics Paula Turner, a longtime friend and colleague of Reitsma, described her instrumental role in forming the MSSC. “She was the person who really was there night after night after night, getting it off the ground and training students and getting it running,” Turner said.

Reitsma earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry with honors from Wheaton College, before going on to attain a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Iowa State University (ISU). She joined the Kenyon faculty as an assistant professor of chemistry in 1987 and continued in that role until 1993, when she shifted her attention to her family. In 2004, she returned to Gambier as associate director of the MSSC.

In addition to her endless dedication to the MSSC, Reitsma found outlets for her generosity in the countless contributions she made to the Knox County community. In 2004, she became known as the “Science Lady” for her development of elementary-school science curricula and received the Distinguished Service Award of the Mount Vernon Education Association. Reitsma also volunteered for Care Net Pregnancy Services (Knox Starting Point), where she took on multiple roles over the years.

“I think her generosity of spirit was the most striking thing [about her],” Hofferberth said. “It’s something that everyone who knew her would recognize, even if they only knew her a short while. She was always thinking about how to give to other people.”

As the daughter of a Methodist pastor, religion had always been an integral aspect of Reitsma’s life. She was a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, and she contributed to congregation in many ways, serving as, among other roles, a treasurer, musician and elementary Sunday School superintendent.

Turner, who bonded with Reitsma as both a scientist and faithful Christian, emphasized Reitsma’s ability to balance her faith with her passion for science. “She felt no conflict between the science that she did and the religion that she practiced and believed in,” she said.

Tom Giblin, associate professor of physics, noted that the MSSC has dedicated a new senior tutor award in Reitsma’s name. “[S]he made the center what it is today,” he wrote in an email to the Collegian. “She made it a place where learning and collaboration were standard and everyone was welcome. She was magical.”

Those who knew Reitsma expressed amazement at the courage and grace she showed in battling her illness all the way through the end of her life.

“She far outlived any reasonable doctor’s anticipation of what she might have done,” Hofferberth said.

Reitsma is survived by her husband of 37 years, Charles Reitsma; her daughter, Kimberly Reitsma Parsons; her two sons, Douglas Reitsma and Wesley Reitsma; a brother, George Hollenbeck; and two sisters, Clara Hollenbeck McCabe and Donna Hollenbeck Cahill.

A celebration of Reitsma’s life will take place at the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at 11 a.m. For those wishing to contribute in memoriam, the family asks that donations be made to Pelotonia in support of cancer research at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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