Robin Ernest Denell
August 6, 1942 – November 23, 2018
Robin Ernest Denell (Rob), 76, of Manhattan, Kan., passed away the evening of Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 in Kansas City, Kan. Rob was born in Peoria, Ill., the son of Robert and Verda Denell. Rob relocated to Southern California in his teenage years and later attended the University of California (Riverside), where he met his wife of 53 years, Margaret (Mardi) Denell. After finishing his undergraduate degree at UCR, Rob attended the University of Texas (Austin), where he received his Ph.D in Genetics. Post-doctoral study at the University of California (San Diego) and University of Edinburgh (Scotland) followed before Rob joined the faculty of the Division of Biology at Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, Kan., where Rob and Mardi built their community and raised their two daughters.
Dr. Denell joined KSU in 1973 and rose to the rank of University Distinguished Professor in 2000. As a pioneer and one of the founders of the Evo Devo field (the study of the evolution of developmental processes), he expanded his studies of homeotic mutants in the model insect Drosophila to study similar mutants in the red flour beetle in order to discover their roles in evolution and development. Mutations in homeotic genes are associated with changes in the insect body plan such that normal organs like antennae are transformed to alternate identities resembling legs. The relevance of this basic research became abundantly clear when it was demonstrated that all animals, including humans, possess these genes, and they play a similar role in development. Dr. Denell had more than 90 publications in scientific journals - including Science, Genetics, and Nature - that have been cited almost 5,000 times. He had papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s - meaning that his work had continuing and long-term impact. His research was continuously funded for 32 years by entities such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Cancer Society. In 2003, Dr. Denell was named the Director of the Johnson Cancer Research Center at KSU, where he expanded its mission from a nascent vision with the beginnings of an endowment to a professional institution supporting cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research in 100 laboratories across 20 KSU departments. Dr. Denell’s work and vision activated the advisory council to formulate the vigorous mission of the Cancer Center as it exists today.
Rob played basketball for the University of California (Riverside) and continued to play ball with friends for years. Rob later became an avid golfer. Some of Rob’s cherished memories included family camping trips in “Marmalade,” the family’s orange VW camper bus, which could often be seen around town. Rob is survived by his dedicated wife, Mardi, daughters Marnette (Joseph) Falley and Megan (Robert) Huether, and three granddaughters, as well as sister Kathryn (John) O’Connell, brother Douglas (Susan) Denell, and extended family Dennis (Christine) Olin. Rob was a well-liked and respected member of the scientific community. His contributions there and to society were numerous and significant. He will be missed by the research community and his family and friends. Per Rob’s wishes, no traditional services are planned. In lieu of flowers, donations may be directed to the Johnson Cancer Research Center (www.cancer.k-state.edu) at Kansas State University.
Robin Ernest Denell
February 11, 2019
Rob Denell was a mensch. I miss him. I first met Rob while he was the director of the Johnson Cancer Center. He was a lot of fun to work with and he made work fun, too. He was effective and incisive. He was a good mentor and he always found a way to always say something nice or encouraging to others. Like Terry Johnson before him, Rob's legacy of students and colleagues is vast. We are fortunately people to have known Rob. Peace be upon him.
December 5, 2018
My family and I will always know Dr. Denell as Rob, our next-door neighbor for nearly 30 years on Beechwood Terrace. From grade school on, Rob, Mardi, and Megan were always there with a bright hello (and the occasional golf ball we tried to remember to throw back over the fence).
Like many grateful K-State students I had a class with Dr. Denell. To this day, however, I really remember Drosophila the fruit fly because Rob let me interview him for a school project on his profession and his life. Looking back, his warmth and support for that little report helped me find my own profession. More than a decade later, he and Mardi were even there to help us grieve when my mother died in 2016.
Our hearts go out to Mardi and rest of the family. Even gone, his legacy as a scholar and a man reflects what made him so remarkable.
December 3, 2018
Dear Mardi and Family,
So sorry to learn of Rob's passing. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to know Rob later in life. I knew Mardi earlier through our running, but I didn't meet Rob until I took up golf in my retirement. We enjoyed a number of golf games together--just the two of us--plus a number of chance encounters else where. He was just a delight to get to know. A wonderful sense of humor and a great guy to discuss common interests and various experiences with. It was amazing how in such a short time we built a friendship I greatly valued. For all his distinguished accomplishments, Rob was one of the most modest and humble individuals I have ever met. I know from our discussions how proud he was of his family. Please know that my thoughts and best wishes are with you at this difficult time.
December 2, 2018
What a fine man and a wonderful cancer researcher. I will miss his great sense of humor and gentle ways. We have lost a truly great Kansan.
Roy A. Jensen, M.D.
Director, The University of Kansas Cancer Center
November 30, 2018
My work dad... I miss him. Laid back but astute and caring, calm but funny w/ that dry humor I loved, accomplished but humble and authentic, a good man who was wise and fair. I feel privileged and blessed to have worked with him. Thinking of you all.
November 29, 2018
I am so sad hear of Rob's passing. When I joined the K-State faculty in 1997 there was not a formal mentoring program in the Division of Biology. But, if I had a mentor, it was Rob Denell. We taught together, played basketball together and golfed together. I learned so much about being a scientist and a faculty member from Rob Denell. He was a a great scientist, a great role model, a great mentor and a friend. He will be missed.
Lewis & Marcia McFarland/Shelton
November 29, 2018
I was very saddened to learn of Rob's death and send Marcia's and my condolences. I remember very well those first two years of our careers at KSU and living at "faculty housing" and sharing good times with you and Rob--and Lorette and Tom. I appreciated that the two you came to several productions that I directed. Of course, I really enjoyed the years of playing noon-time basketball with Rob, who was very good and was unselfish in his playing. He and I shared a ride to Salina to see Tom in the hospital after he had a stroke, and I was impressed that he chose to stay and keep Tom's daughter company after I left. He had to take a bus back to Manhattan. I never congratulated him sufficiently on his professional success , but I was proud and pleased to know him. He was an impressive man.
Marcia and I send wishes of comfort for you and your daughters.
November 28, 2018
Rob was a scientist and a humanist and great colleague. I was across from Ackert Hall in Throckmorton. I attended journal clubs in biology in my early years as a young faculty and learned a lot from Rob who was always an active and astute participant. Great scientist, great career and great person! He will be missed.
November 28, 2018
Dear Mardi and family,
I was very saddened to hear the news about Rob. As you know, Rob and I spent a LOT of time together on the golf course. I will miss him. When I was a new Assistant Professor in Biology and Rob discovered that I enjoyed playing golf, he didn’t hesitate to invite me to play. I valued the time we spent on the course over the years sneaking away from work to play a round or playing in the faculty/staff tournaments. We enjoyed playing golf, but also spending time talking politics and sports, having science discussion, and he always gave me valuable career advice. I consider Rob as a valued mentor and close friend. I know this must be a difficult time. I hope you can take some comfort in the fact that Rob had a great career and had a positive impact on many of his colleagues and friends, particularly me.
Best wishes in this difficult time.