Stephen Panella was convinced his professor wasn’t coming on the first day of class.
The then 21-year-old sat in a Weimer Hall classroom during his first week at the university, waiting for his introduction to media industries and professions class to start. He sat in the first row, surrounded by almost 100 college-aged students, except for a middle-aged man wearing baggy clothes and a baseball cap sitting toward the front.
“I didn’t think much when I saw him,” the now 24-year-old UF telecommunication senior said. “I just thought he was a cool older guy going back to college.”
Ten minutes after class started there was no sign of the professor, Panella said. Students were confused until the man sitting in front rose and walked toward the front of the room and introduced himself as William “Bill” Renkus, the instructor.
“My friend and I thought it was the slickest entrance a professor could have ever done,” Panella said.
“Will Renk,” as Panella referred to him because of his suave entrance, was the driving factor for Panella and other students to fall in love with telecommunication.
Two weeks ago, Renkus, a UF telecommunication professor, died at 62 of cancer, said his older sister Tracy Irani. He was diagnosed about three years ago.
“I was very, very upset,” Irani, the UF family, youth and community sciences department chair, said. “But I was there at the end, and I was very happy I got to say goodbye.”
Renkus was caring, intellectual and laid-back, Irani said. He knew a lot about the history of film and telecommunications and had an incredible passion for educating students about the subject matter.
“I think Bill’s legacy is that he was a great believer in the positive power of communication,” Irani said. “His legacy will be the students who have taken his classes and go on to take positions in communications and be successful.”
Days before he died, Renkus was still lecturing and playing tennis, Irani said.
“Even despite having cancer, he never let it get him down,” Irani said.
Since Renkus was initially diagnosed, Irani said she and her brother had a goal to always be together on the tennis court. For the past three years, the siblings would play a match and sit on the side of the court to chat.
Irani said that if Renkus were still here to talk to his students, he would tell them not to worry.
“He would say they shouldn’t be sad,” Irani said. “They should be proud of the fact that they are in the communications profession and can go out there and be communicators.”
For the rest of the semester, David Ostroff, the UF telecommunication department chair, will teach Renkus’ course.
For the past 15 years, Ostroff has known Renkus as a post-doctoral student, teaching assistant, professor and friend. Ostroff said the passion and interest Renkus brought to his courses were impressive, as large lectures aren’t always the most enjoyable to teach.
The legacy Renkus left at UF for students is the impact of the knowledge and information he taught that will further the success of their careers down the road, Ostroff said.
Ostroff was shocked when Renkus died. Although aware that Renkus was very sick, he didn’t expect him to pass away so suddenly.
“I knew he had been ill,” Ostroff said. “But I was very, very surprised to find out he had passed away so quickly.”
A week prior to Renkus’ death, Jackie Bragano, a 22-year-old UF marketing senior, received an email that said Renkus would no longer be teaching her introduction to media industries and professions course.
The atmosphere in class won’t be the same without Renkus’ dry humor and intellectual commentary, Bragano said.
“He really kind of inspired me because of how well he knew the material,” Bragano said. “You could tell he knew what he was teaching.”