TAMPA — It seemed laughable back in the 1980s, the idea that the University of Tampa with its small enrollment and still-developing academic reputation could support an honors program.
But a small band of professors proved the skeptics wrong. Constance Rynder was one of the champions.
"She argued we deserved it," said Frank Gillen, first director of the UT honors programs. "She created new history courses for it. Determination defined her."
Gillen and other former colleagues of Rynder were shocked and saddened Wednesday to learn that the 72-year-old professor emeritus of history who worked four decades at UT had died in a fire at her Hyde Park home.
Tampa Fire Rescue responded to the alarm at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at 1616 S Arrawana Ave. and found flames coming from the rear of the single-story brick and stucco structure.
They had the fire under control by 9:55 p.m.
Rynder was found dead in the room where the flames broke out; she suffered burns and smoke inhalation, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office said.
Investigators determined the fire was accidental and likely caused by smoking near bottled oxygen.
Tampa Fire Rescue had not determined Wednesday what Rynder's medical problem had been, spokesman Jason Penny said, but a note placed on the door of the home after the fatal blaze gave directions to a caretaker.
Neighbors said Rynder lived alone and loved her pets, but they declined further comment.
Two cats died in the fire despite attempts to resuscitate them, Penny said.
"She was definitely a cat person," said Joe Sclafani, a psychology professor at UT. "She'd get stray cats spayed and always had at least one."
Rynder received a doctorate from the University of Nebraska and taught at UT from 1972 until 2011.
Her colleagues remember her for her quick wit, upbeat personality, love of teaching and dedication to faculty rights.
"She was among the most outspoken of all our faculty members," said George Botjer, a retired history professor. "She was always a voice in the department and faculty meetings."
Sclafani added that Rynder was known to "go toe to toe" with the administration over issues such as department budgets.
"She was simply dynamic," Sclafani said. "And she had 100 stories about everything."
When Sclafani once mentioned to Rynder that he planned to visit Bryson City, N.C., she loaned him three books on the Great Smoky Mountains community and lectured him for an hour on what to see there.
Botjer added that Rynder was passionate about her Irish ancestry and traveled to the country to further her knowledge.
She even learned to play the dulcimer, a small, stringed wooden instrument often used to perform Irish jigs and mountain music.
"She was a kind woman beloved by her students," Botjer said. "She will be missed by all."
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.