Obituary: Dr. Alan C. Renton / Compassionate doctor, plastic surgeon

Dec. 7, 1938 - Jan. 14, 2009

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Dr. Alan C. Renton was known as a skilled plastic surgeon who often performed complex procedures that required the delicate reattachment of nerves under a microscope.

But he also gained a reputation outside the operating room as a man who was never above helping friends, neighbors and colleagues with simpler tasks. He paid a house call to the mother of a colleague with an ulcerated foot and offered examinations and advice to virtually anyone who called his home.

"I remember people coming into our house at 10 or 11 o'clock at night and he would sew them up in our kitchen," said his daughter Colby Fazio.

Dr. Renton, a longtime Mt. Lebanon resident, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure. He was 70.

A 1965 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, he followed his father, Gordon Renton, into plastic surgery after a two-year residency at King County Hospital in Brooklyn. The two worked together in a private practice in the South Hills in the 1970s.

Later, he split his time between a private practice, with offices in Washington and Mt. Lebanon, and Washington and Canonsburg hospitals, serving intermittently as chief of the plastic surgery divisions of both. He retired four years ago after his leg was amputated due to diabetes, making it difficult for him to stand for long periods of time.

Friends, family and colleagues said he brought unusual compassion to his work, maintaining a professional rapport while putting nervous patients and their families at ease with his friendly and gentle demeanor.

"He was a very patient-oriented person," said Dr. Sherman Spatz, an oral and maxillo-facial surgeon who worked with Dr. Renton on many occasions. "He was a kind and caring doctor."

Those who observed him in his professional life noted his uncanny ability to read patients and to make sure they understood the limits of cosmetic surgery, considering their emotional as well as physical health.

"He was very conservative, especially in this day and age of elective surgery being so pervasive," said his son, Jay. "He was very certain that his patients had the right expectations ... and was very selective about who he would operate on."

Ms. Fazio called him "very perceptive."

"He saw beyond what people projected ... he would say outright 'It's not a good choice for you,' " she said.

They also said that he was far less concerned with the bottom line than he was with his patients' well-being. He would not refuse to operate on those who could not pay in full -- often factory workers who suffered injuries in industrial accidents.

"He had a real passion for helping people who had an unfortunate circumstance," she added.

And in spite of his success, he was never boastful and remained down to earth.

"He had so much humility ... a confident surgeon certainly, but so lacking of ego," said Ruthie Spatz, wife of Dr. Spatz.

Outside of the office, he was known for throwing himself "110 percent" into the countless number of hobbies or interests he acquired, said Ms. Fazio.

Among them, he was known for his model train collection and was the chief engineer of a train club, the Pittsburgh Scale Models Inc. The trains became a part of a spectacular set of outdoor Christmas decorations, which included an enormous spruce tree decorated with more than 800 light bulbs. The tree became a Mt. Lebanon landmark, and people would gather in frigid weather for a tree-lighting ceremony every winter.

He also had a passion for cooking and owned Smitty's Restaurant -- Smitty was the nickname he gave his daughter Ainsley -- in Speers for a decade before reselling it. His vast culinary library included 800 cookbooks. Partly inspired by their father's love of cooking, daughters Ainsley Renton and Keira Hightower went on to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

He had a range of other interests, from photography to history to exotic fish -- an 1,000-gallon tank held sea life from all over the world. He also painted soldier figurines to unwind and maintain his dexterity.

Ms. Fazio recalls him "painting his figurines while reading a book while listening to the History Channel."

Despite working long hours and maintaining a range of hobbies, he was a dedicated husband to his wife, Bonnie, and managed to find time for his family, his children said.

"I think he fed off of the energy of other people," said his son, Jay. "That's what drove him: that he received as much as he gave."

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today in Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon. Interment will be private.

Moriah Balingit can be reached at mbalingit@post-gazette or 412-263-2533.


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