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Celebrating Kay Obendorf's 50-year fiber science legacy

Kay and Ralph Obendorf
Mark Vorreuter/Provided
S. Kay Obendorf, professor of Fiber Science & Apparel Design, with her husband, Ralph Obendorf, professor emeritus of crop physiology.

“What would Kay do?” asked speaker after speaker at a Sept. 8 symposium in honor of fiber scientist S. Kay Obendorf, M.S. ’74, Ph.D. ’76, who retired in June after 50 years at Cornell as a scholar, scientist, teacher, mentor and administrator in the College of Human Ecology.

The question, presenters noted, evoked Obendorf’s role as a formal and informal adviser to scores of undergraduate and graduate students, fellow faculty members, alumni, industry partners, and college and university leaders. The sentiment also inspired creative approaches in the lab, where Obendorf was among the first to apply rigorous science to laundering, fabric care and textiles. Finally, panelists said, it suggested Obendorf’s vision for the college’s integration of the natural sciences, social sciences and design fields as it evolved from its founding focus on home economics.

Obendorf and friends, colleagues and former students gathered at Martha Van Rensselaer Hall as speakers described her contributions.

Symposium organizer and moderator Ann Lemley, M.S. ’70, Ph.D. ’71, professor emerita of fiber science and apparel design, explained how Obendorf, who arrived at Cornell in 1966 as an assistant professor in the then-Department of Textiles and Clothing, applied cutting-edge methods to improve laundering. For example, Obendorf used advanced microscopy to show traditional detergents often removed stains from the surface of yarns but left soils between fibers of yarn bundles, which she addressed by chemically treating cotton fibers to give detergents deeper cleaning power.

“Kay’s major contribution is combining her knowledge of textile science and chemistry and biochemistry to provide a real scientific understanding of laundering,” Lemley said. “… her work was extremely helpful to people.”

Ronald Koniz, Ph.D. ’80, vice president for business development at Globe Composite Solutions and an Obendorf research collaborator, discussed her work on new materials for protective clothing for soldiers, first responders and others working with hazardous substances, especially in the area of self-detoxification.

“Kay’s work combining reactive chemistry with fiber-based substrates is going to continue to advance chemical and biological protection and truly will make the world a safer place for people who actually have to wear and operate in these uniforms to protect us,” Koniz said.

Beyond her scientific achievements, speakers recalled how Obendorf advanced the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design (FSAD) and the College of Human Ecology by filling administrative roles including department chair (1985-95), associate dean for research (1997-2006) and senior associate dean (2007-15), as well as service on the Cornell University Board of Trustees, Faculty Senate, Executive Committee for Contract Colleges Master Planning and many more Cornell committees.

Jintu Fan, the Vincent V.C. Woo Professor and FSAD chair, recounted how Obendorf played a key role in recruiting him to Cornell from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he and Obendorf worked to establish FSAD’s first student exchange program. Furthermore, he said, Obendorf was an early proponent of the Cornell Institute of Fashion and Fiber Innovation to accelerate development of functional fibers and performance apparel.

“Kay is a tough iron lady with a soft and kind heart and an extraordinary passion for excellence in everything she does,” Fan said. “She has left a legacy that is very hard for anyone to match.”

At the college level, Obendorf championed a multidisciplinary approach to research and academics – one that was “far ahead of its time,” according to Alan Mathios, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean. He noted how she and former associate dean Carole Bisogni ’70, M.S. ’72, Ph.D. ’76, oversaw creation of the human biology, health and society major in 1998, which features a holistic approach to human health and its social determinants that is widely emulated, including the 2015 update to the Medical College Admission Test standards. “As usual, Kay innovates and the rest of the world catches up to her vision,” Mathios said.

Obendorf applied the same foresight to Human Ecology facilities, Mathios added, playing a critical role in planning renovations to Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and the opening of the LEED Platinum-certified Human Ecology Building in 2011. Thanks to Obendorf, added Sheila Danko, professor and chair of the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, the college offers learning, research, studio and community spaces that “connect people and purpose.”

Responding to the day’s tributes, Obendorf said: “I feel very honored and humbled for the recognition. I was interested to see how speakers interwove the past and the future, because I care most about how we can work together to accomplish even more than we’re doing today.”

Two gifts celebrate Obendorf’s legacy

As a mentor, Kay Obendorf had an outsize influence on fiber science and apparel design graduates Lindsey Boyd ’98 and Gwen Whiting ’98, even though they never took her class. When the classmates decided to leave their fashion careers to launch an eco-friendly detergent, fabric care and home cleaning product business in the early 2000s, Obendorf advised them, giving rise to their company, The Laundress.


Mark Vorreuter/Provided
Jenny Sabin, the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Assistant Professor of Architecture, unveils a quarter-scale model of “PolyForm,” a sculpture that Sabin and Obendorf, standing behind Sabin, collaborated on to represent the mission of Human Ecology.

To honor Obendorf’s guidance, Boyd and Whiting endowed The Laundress and Kay Obendorf Fund for Inspiring Innovation, which will support an annual lecture by fashion entrepreneurs to inspire students and advance the fashion and textile industry through entrepreneurship.

Whiting recalled how she and Boyd, fashion design and management majors, received a crash course in textile science from Obendorf during a midsummer visit to campus as they pursued their product ideas. “She never once told us what to do, but she taught, educated and led us to the answers,” Whiting said. “It was the work of a true educator.”

Mathios presented Obendorf with a second gift, unveiling a quarter-scale model of “PolyForm,” an architectural art installation by Jenny Sabin, the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Assistant Professor in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Sabin is developing the sculpture in close consultation with Obendorf as a symbol of the college’s mission and its human impact. Designed to be walked through by visitors, the final piece, to be installed in spring 2017 near Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, will incorporate laser-cut steel membranes surrounded by clear walls coated with a film that changes color and transparency based on the viewer’s orientation. The college will seek donor support for the sculpture.

“The project that evolved is a celebration of the integration of the college’s mission and what Kay has forged,” Sabin explained. “It’s engaging emerging technologies, the future and the past, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in design across disciplines including computational design, digital fabrication and adaptive materials.”

“I’m very excited to have a discussion about more public art on campus,” Obendorf said. “This gift model that Jenny created allows us to fully feel and see the expression of the artwork and how it represents Human Ecology.”

Olivia M. Hall, Ph.D. ’12, is a freelance writer.

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Melissa Osgood