June 26, 2017

Students, faculty mourn death of adjunct Renee Hirshfield

Classes resumed Tuesday, March 28 in Room 123 where adjunct professor Renee Hirshfield collapsed and died March 21 while teaching class.

The room was full of emotion and people as students, faculty, friends and staff came together to push through and appreciate the memory of Hirshfield.

Kathy Corley, a friend and fellow film professor of Renee’s, is taking over the Film and Television Appreciation class Hirshfield taught.

“It was very emotional and it was very very touching,” Corley said. “Renee would have loved it if she were in the room.”

Among those attending the class were Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble, Provost Julian Schuster, Counselor Gladys Smith, Dean of Communications Eric Rothenbuhler, Associate Dean of Communications Paaige Turner, and Renee’s close friends, ex-husband Howie Hirshfield and his wife Rebecca Van Zandt Hirshfield.

Howie and Rebecca brought bagels and pastries to the class.

“I knew that many of the students were fresh out of high school and they may have not dealt with death this close to home before, especially not watching someone die,” Rebecca said. “I knew that Renee’s first concern would have been about her students… and the bagels just came about because she was a New Yorker.”

One of Hirshfield’s students, James Taylor, was the first person to respond to the medical emergency.

“I was out of my seat before I even knew what was going on,” Taylor said, “I don’t know how else to react.”

Taylor was a trained first responder through his twelve-year career in the United States Air Force Special Forces.

According to Taylor’s statement to Webster Groves Police Department (WGPD), Renee had been sitting in her chair in the front of the classroom giving a lecture when she started speaking in broken sentences. She then collapsed from her chair on the the floor. He checked for signs of life and with negative results, he then began CPR for approximately 30 seconds. Taylor was able to bring Renee back to breathing but only for a short while.

WGPD arrived at Webster University at 9:29 a.m. March 21 in reference to a “female subject in cardiac arrest,” according to the WGPD investigative report. Paramedics were already on the scene administering CPR by the time the police arrived. Renee was pronounced dead at 9:52 a.m.

Patrick Stack, director of Counseling and Life Development at Webster, was notified minutes after the incident. Students filed into the upstairs conference room, and Stack was there to guide the class through their emotions.

“I primarily listened,” Stack said.  “At that particular moment [the students] were feeling surreal, so then I gently began to talk about how the surreal experience is rather normal.”

Stack recommended that students not ask themselves why but rather accept that the situation did happen and “think of the positive things that Renee brought to the class.”

Renee’s knowledge and passion for film were not lost by her students. Taylor became friends with Renee, often coming in 15 minutes early and speaking with Renee prior to class.

“She was a great teacher,” Taylor said. “At her age, her vigor, her experiences… my gosh that’s what I am going to miss.”

Renee was going to screen the film East of Eden in class that day. Taylor watched it alone in the library that afternoon.

One of Renee’s friends, Sandra Olmstead, wrote on her Facebook page Renee’s passion for teaching was “unsurpassed.”

“She gently guided them when needed and whole-heartedly trusted them to think for themselves and to be honest, upright citizens.”

According to Rebecca, Renee was a member of MENSA and had been on Jeopardy twice.

“She was a genius,” Rebecca said, “She was a rolodex of information that was constantly at her fingertips. I have never seen anything like it in my life.”

Corley, who hired Renee, saw the same intelligence and light in her friend and colleague.

“After we finished the first class on Tuesday, I went back to my office and closed the door and started to cry,” Corley said. “I knew that I couldn’t really do that right now because I had to do meetings and advising… and it is not what Renee would have wanted.”

A memorial service for Renee P. Hirshfield will be held April 8 at 1 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral (1210 Locust St., St. Louis, MO 63103). The family has extended a welcome to all of Renee’s friends to celebrate her life. In lieu of flowers, the family would love donations be sent to one of Renee’s favorite places, Animal House, a cat rescue and adoption center (2151 59th St., St. Louis, MO 63110, http://www.stlcats.org/). Renee will be interred in New York with her family.

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