Pitt remembers, mourns Penny

By Hali Felt

In front of an unassuming door in the Africana studies department lay gifts of love: a… In front of an unassuming door in the Africana studies department lay gifts of love: a slice of peach pie, a bottle of Welch’s grape juice, a half-smoked cigar, drafts of plays, a candle, playbills from the Kuntu Repertory Theater, and a bunch of yellow roses.

These were a few things that Robert Lee “Rob” Penny loved, and these are some of the things that the people who loved him will remember him by.

Penny, who died on March 16, left behind his strong legacy as an Afrocentric poet, playwright, professor and co-creator of the Kuntu Writer’s Workshop.

Vernell Lillie, a friend and fellow faculty member, said Penny was “a brilliant scholar.”

“He was committed to the community. He exemplified the aesthetic of the black poet and playwright. And he supported and worked for reparations and African American politics” Lillie said.

Marcy Spidell, who has worked on staff with the department for 31 years, expressed Penny’s love of students.

“I always said that he had a hard time saying no to students. They would come up to him wanting permission to enter his already full class, and of course he would say yes. He’d say yes so much that there weren’t enough chairs in the room,” Spidell said. “The more the merrier is the way he thought about teaching.”

Penny was a guiding light for many of his students, inspiring a passion in them for the things that he felt passionate about, Spidell said.

Nkaiso Akpabio, a student in the department, said he was “everyone’s best friend, mentor and tutor, all at once.”

“You know how they say that you don’t miss something until it’s gone? There’s not really any one man who I looked up to but when [Penny] passed I became aware of how much I really did look up to him,” Akpabio said.

Sage Berlin, poet, writer, and friend of Penny’s said Penny had been his “surrogate father” for the past 16 years. In his poem entitled “Penny For His Thoughts,” Berlin said that Penny’s “pen was his sword, his mind was our chariot and His spear was his soul.”

Francis Lee Wilson, poet and Kuntu Writers Workshop project director, said he believed in the power of story.

“He taught us by actions why we must tell the story, now and for eternity. He taught us why the defining power of the words can affect change in all areas of our journey and for generations to follow,” Wilson said.

Spidell contrasted Penny’s quiet, gentle nature with the strength of his beliefs.

“He was a passionate man, but he was also a man who never let things affect him. Sometimes you wouldn’t even know that he was stressed.” Spidell said.

Penny advocated the black person through his work, emphasizing the change that can be brought about for the community as a result of self-development. And according to Lillie it will be through his plays and poems that he will be remembered.

“Some people are saying that he will be missed. I think he will be missed, but he will also be remembered. He was wise enough to record what he thought about on such a wide variety of subjects. We have him captured in terms of poetry, prose, and plays,” Lillie said. “We know what he wanted for us, how to build a new world, a better world, if we are willing to work for it.”

Berlin also emphasized Penny’s strong presence and belief in community action. He ended his poem about Penny saying that “he taught my heart how to scream,” and “how to begin to live.”

Penny’s friends and co-workers showed their remembrance of him in the words on a banner that hangs on his door: “For as long as the sun shines and the river flows, Love and all that Maat. Write for eternity and live for eternity, for the ancestors are pleased in you their son, our friend, our teacher, a poet.”

A memorial service for Penny will be held April 10 at 2 p.m. in the Heinz Chapel.