Dr. Neil Shaw Penn, 88, passed away at sunset peacefully at home on Sept. 11, 2020.
He was a loving husband and father, an impactful educator, a faithful parishioner, a pioneer in disability circles, a committed citizen and he never met a pun he didn’t make.
Born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, Neil was the oldest of five brothers. Despite acute polio at age eight and life-long crutches, Neil cut a distinctive figure around their hometown of Dunbar, West Virginia. He was reliably in the thick of things from sledding downhill after a snowfall to making passes on the basketball court. An avid sports fan, he enjoyed the job of statistician for his high school and college sports teams. March Madness would find Neil tracking the action every day and frequently cheering on his alma mater Duke.
Neil earned his bachelors degree at West Virginia Wesleyan College, a masters in history at Duke University and a Ph.D. in history from Emory University. In his first years teaching at West Virginia Tech — decades prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — each weekday found Neil patiently climbing two flights of the steep walnut staircase — the equivalent of 50 push-ups — to his assigned second story classroom.
In 1973, Neil wrote a doubly rewarding Ph.D. dissertation. After extensive research and writing he came to Oxford College to teach and complete his doctoral degree requirements. During the final period of writing and frequent evening editing sessions with his charming, insightful and proficient typist, Carol, not only did he earn his doctorate from Emory University but meanwhile conducted an old school courtship.
In 1974, to his established and orderly bachelor life of study, teaching, friends and community, Neil added instant family. Following a quiet wedding beneath the crystal chandelier of the old Oxford College chapel, Neil and Carol and children, Jennifer and Evan, established home on Haygood Avenue. Neil embraced — rising to the occasion as an incredibly patient, generous and loving parent.
A professor of history for over 40 years, Dr. Penn was considered by both students and colleagues one of Oxford College’s finest teachers. The difficulty of his “map tests” were legendary among generations of Oxford students. His penchant for historical puns, e.g. “early in the 17th century, the Dutch had found the secret sauce and set out to Hollandaise much of the world”, inevitably slipped into the notes of less vigilant scholars. Neil was honored with every teaching award that Oxford College offered. Students dedicated the yearbook to him and twice presented Neil with the Phi Theta Kappa Award for Dedication, Enthusiasm and Creativity in Teaching. The Oxford College Alumni Association presented Neil with their Outstanding Teaching Award, and his colleagues honored him with the Fleming Award for Excellence in teaching and also established the Neil Penn History Award to be presented annually to the top history student. Upon his retirement in 1998, students endowed a Library Book Fund in his name. And in 2005 Emory University Emeritus College presented Neil with the Distinguished Emeritus Award.
Foremost a teacher, Neil found numerous ways to impact the college beyond the classroom. He selected and hired several of Oxford’s longest serving and beloved faculty and he was active in many phases of student life including advising the campus newspaper, The Spokesman, and student government and ever so many college committees. His regular, long, open door office hours ensured students found him always available to meet, to guide, to discuss, to explore. Over 20 years after retiring from teaching at Oxford, his students sought him out when returning to visit the campus.
Married for nearly 50 years, Neil and Carol were optimistic and energetic citizens of Oxford town. They worked actively on the Town Planning and Zoning Committee and served on the Oxford Historical Cemetery Foundation. They were involved members of Allen Memorial United Methodist Church serving on many committees over the years. They were founding, lifelong members of the Atlanta Post-Polio Association. When the Olympics came to Atlanta, Neil was selected to be a torch bearer carrying the Paralympic flame. A loving friend, husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Neil took time to be present in the lives of family. He and Carol traveled frequently around the country and the world to visit and participate in the lives of his children, grandchildren, brothers, nieces and nephews. A truly wonderful listener, his steady presence, support, love and commitment to family was limitless.
Neil is survived by his wife, Carol Penn; daughter, Jennifer (Mike) Weston; son, Evan (Lisa) Hough; grandchildren, Joanna (Craig Dobson) Weston, Rees (Kara) Osborn, Elliot Hough, Erin Osborn and Abbey Hough; great-grandchild, Eliza; brothers, Jack (Gloria), Gary (Rae) and Paul (Pat); as well as many loving in-laws, nieces and nephews. His brother, Gene, predeceased him.
A Celebration of Life gathering will be planned at a later date due to the pandemic.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Penn Book Fund, Office of Advancement and Alumni Engagement, Oxford College, 801 Emory Street, Oxford, Georgia 30054. To give online, go to the Oxford College website and click on “Giving” at the upper right of the screen. Click “Other” to indicate that the designation for the gift is the Penn Book Fund at Oxford College. https://securelb.imodules.com/s/1705/giving/index.aspx?sid=1705&gid=3&pgid=600&cid=1358&dids=1041.12236.637.2720.1348.237.3469&bledit=1&sort=1&appealcode=W0OXF
Visit caldwellandcowan.com to place online condolences.