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Thursday, August 11, 2022
FairfaxGreat Falls leaders laud legacy of environmentalist

Great Falls leaders laud legacy of environmentalist

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Former Great Falls resident and longtime environmentalist and animal lover Robin Ould Rentsch filled her life with adventures all over the world.

Rentsch, who died of Alzheimer’s disease May 30 at age 83, “lived life with gusto and had endless curiosity about the world,” said her daughter, Catherine Brooke Sabin.

“Robin was a very special person who gave freely of her time and talent, and made an incredible difference in Fairfax County,” said Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville). “Her decades of volunteer efforts on behalf of trails, parks and conservation permanently improved our county and the quality of life for county residents.”

Rentsch was born June 27, 1938, in Roanoke to Edward Hatcher Ould Jr. and Madolyn Burruss Airheart. As a youth, she enjoyed exploring her neighborhood and became a skilled equestrian.

She spent her junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which fueled her wanderlust. She graduated from Sweet Briar College in 1960, then moved to London and worked for Palestinian diplomat Musa Alami to aid refugees in Jordan.

This was followed by a stint at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C., where she met her first husband, Frederic Sabin.

“When he arrived at her door for their first date, she appeared wearing only a trench coat and brandishing a gun,” her daughter said. “She had just taken a bath and thought she heard a prowler. Fred, a CIA officer, was smitten.”

After marrying in 1963, they left for Beirut, where Rentsch earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies. They then spent almost three years in Baghdad and came back to the D.C. area. Four months after their daughter was born, the family was off to Cairo.

Rentsch reveled in the city’s culture and history, rode Arabian horses in the desert and co-authored a guidebook to Cairo’s Islamic monuments.

In a subsequent two-year posting to Amman, Jordan, she studied archaeology and taught riding to King Hussein’s daughters.

“But she made sure – over the objections of the king’s staff – that they also knew how to pick out the horses’ feet and do all the less-glamorous, but important, parts of being a responsible horsewoman,” her daughter said.

During that period, she toured the Arabian peninsula with Ambassador Thomas Pickering and some friends. The group dealt with scorpions and vehicles that got stuck in sand and mud.

“At one point, one of the car tires dislodged and went flying past them, but she loved every minute,” her daughter said.

In 1975, the family settled in Great Falls and Rentsch finally got to own horses. Exploring trails on horseback turned her into an advocate for public access to nature, and she endeavored with residents and local officials to improve area trails and parks, including the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail, Frying Pan Farm Park, Riverbend Park, Potomac Heritage Trail and Turner Farm Park.

After she and her husband divorced, Robin married Sam Rentsch in 1991 and moved into his house in Glastonbury, Conn. She aided with his in-home medical practice and became a second mother and friend to his five grown children: Sammy, Shelley, Christi, Bonnie, and Rusty. The couple later donated the Connecticut home to the Nature Conservancy and went south.

Back in Great Falls, Rentsch helped popularize a National Wildlife Federation program that certified properties as wildlife habitats and as a member of the Great Falls Garden Club was instrumental in the group’s conversion of a dry pond in front of Great Falls Library into a native-plant garden.

She also was among the first Fairfax County residents to place a conservation easement on personal property.

Health issues caused Rentsch and her husband to move to Ashby Ponds senior-living community in Ashburn.

Rentsch received the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority’s Walter L. Mess Award in 2001, Virginia Horse Council’s Outstanding Volunteer Award, Fairfax County Park Authority’s Sally Ormsby Environmental Stewardship Award in 2008, and Fairfax County’s Lady Fairfax Award.

Paul Gilbert, executive director of NOVA Parks, was working with the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust when he helped Rentsch put a conservation easement on her property.

“Robin was one of the most influential trails and conservation advocates in Northern Virginia,” he said. “We all benefit from her remarkable legacy of leaving the world a better place than she found it.”

Great Falls Citizens Association president William Canis said Rentsch mentored him on environmental issues.

“Robin was never afraid to get her hands dirty,” Canis said. “She helped remove invasive species from county parks. She was a hands-on person. It wasn’t all theory for her.”

Eleanor Anderson got to know Rentsch through GFCA and recalled her love for nature, native plants, gardening mastery, flora and fauna knowledge, and efforts to map out and construct trails.

“I am deeply grateful that I have had many opportunities to work with Robin and to know her as the highly intelligent, energetic and loving friend she has been in my life,” Anderson said.

Rentsch was predeceased by her brother, Edward Hatcher Ould III, and her husband, Samuel Burton Rentsch. She is survived by her daughter, Catherine Brooke Sabin (Jeff Watts); stepchildren, Sammy Rentsch, Shelley Rentsch (Bob Gill), Christi Moraga, Bonnie Blue (Tom Bradford), and Rusty Rentsch (Anya); six step-grandchildren; a sister-in-law, Betty Barr Ould; a niece, Elizabeth Ould Schnabel (Christian); a nephew, Edward Hatcher Ould IV; and several cousins.

Family members will hold a celebration of Rentsch’s life this fall. Donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association or Nature Conservancy.

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