My Mother-in-Law, Dr. Sharon Smith Pennell

Monday, May 17, 2010

If you've seen my posts on Facebook, then you know that my mother-in-law, Dr. Sharon Smith Pennell, passed away on Saturday, May 8th.  In April 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer with a prognosis of full recovery.  Last October, she was pronounced cancer free and finished her last precautionary radiation treatment on December 15th.  On March 10th, while she was in the hospital recovering from pneumonia, her doctor told her that they had found tumors on her lungs and her liver, and the outlook was grim.  They said she had six months to a year, probably, but that they could control the spread with more chemo, which they proceeded to do.  About 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5th, Steven and I were in Las Vegas heading out to eat at a seafood buffet when Steven got a call from his dad that we needed to catch the next flight home.  Our flight left Vegas at 10:50 that night and we got to Charlotte about 5:30 a.m. on Thursday.  When we got to the hospital, we found out that she'd had a heart attack, with no apparent symptoms, and that they couldn't operate on it because of her other conditions.  Her heart was operating at approximately 20% and she had been put on a ventilator.  On Saturday, at 1:15 p.m., the family decided to take her off of the ventilator because it's what she wanted, and at 9:08 p.m., she took her last breath while surrounded by family.  I hope that the rest of our loved ones pass away peacefully in their sleep because I never want to go through that again.  It was the hardest thing I have ever done, forcing myself to stand there to be supportive to Steven, while all I wanted to do was wait in the waiting room for it to be over.  There's nothing more painful than standing by, helpless, waiting for the inevitable.  Sharon loved me like I was her own daughter and I can only hope to be as great of a mother as she was.  A couple nights ago, Steven said "I just had a sinking feeling."  Not knowing what he was talking about, I said "What do you mean?"  He said, as if it was really just occurring to him, "I'll never get to call my mom and talk to her about things anymore."  They were close.  Probably as close as a mother and son could be.  It hasn't really sunk in yet, I don't think.  She'll never get to see her grandchildren, and she would have been a great grandmother.  We've decided that our kids will know her as Nana, because that's what she wanted to be called, even though they will never actually get to call her that.  The world seems a little grayer, and a little sadder, without her in it... not only because of all the memories we have of her, but because of all the memories we hadn't yet made.  Steven is only 29 years old, and he has lost his mom.  It's not fair and he doesn't deserve it, but our only comfort is just knowing that she's no longer in pain, and that she is getting to watch over us from a much better place.  So Sharon, if they have the Internet in Heaven, and you happen to be reading this, just know that I will take care of Steven and Darrell and that we're all going to be okay.  Will it be the same?  No.  Will our happy times be as happy as if you were there to witness them?  No.  But we'll be okay.  We'll keep on keeping on, and just try to make you proud.

Sharon's Obituary
Lenoir News-Topic
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dr. Sharon Leigh Smith Pennell, of Norwood Street, Lenoir, went home to be with her Lord and Savior, Saturday, May 8, 2010, following a lengthy illness.

She was born Sept. 1, in Pulaski, Va., to the late John W. Smith and Dorothy Bishop Smith.

Dr. Pennell was chairwoman of the Caldwell County Board of Education. She served on the Board of Education for the past 26 years. She was a professor of communications at Appalachian State University for 24 years. She began her career in education as a teacher at Bunker Hill High School where she was the Southern Speech and Communications Association Speech Teacher of the Year in 1977. She also coached other high school debate teams and served as a forensics competition judge. She was the 1978 Speech Teacher of the Year. She was on the Tarheel Forensics League in 1987-88 and was recipient of the league’s Mildred Huffey Award as N.C. Speech Coach of the Year. She received the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Forensics in 1988. She received the Lenoir Business and Professional Women’s Club Career Woman of the Year Award, the Caldwell County Distinguished Woman of the Year Award and was named the North Carolina Career Woman of the Year in 1992. In 1992, Dr. Pennell also received the William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award for openness in government and a state award in editorial writing from the N.C. Press Association. She was named to the N.C. School Boards Association All-State School Board in 1997. She published more than 20 articles on the state and national level.

She was a member of First Baptist Church of Lenoir.

She is survived by her loving husband of 40 years, Darrell Clayton Pennell of the home; a son, Steven Walter Pennell and wife Jenna of Hickory; two brothers, W.E. Rozzy Smith and wife Ann of Hudson, and Barry W. Smith and wife Priscilla of Lenoir; and a number of nieces and nephews.

Funeral services will be Wednesday, May 12, 2010, at 4 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Lenoir with the Rev. Dr. David Smith and the Rev. Dr. Dennis Herman officiating. Burial will follow at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens. Pallbearers will be Dr. Steve Stone, Bob Brady, Joe Gibbons, Rick Pennell, Brathel Poarch and Nathan Key. Honorary pallbearers are members of the Caldwell County Board of Education.

The family will receive friends Tuesday, May 11 from 6 to 8 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Lenoir.

Memorials may be made to the Dr. Sharon Pennell Scholarship for Teachers through the Caldwell County Schools Education Foundation, 1914 Hickory Blvd. S.W., Lenoir, N.C. 28645.

Online condolences may be sent to the Pennell Family at

Evans Funeral Service and Crematory of Lenoir is serving the Pennell Family.

A Legacy Left Behind
by Nathan Key
Lenoir News-Topic
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Caldwell County has lost one of its leaders in education.

After a year-long battle with cancer, Dr. Sharon Smith Pennell, chairwoman of the Caldwell County Board of Education, died Saturday, May 8 at Caldwell Memorial Hospital.

Pennell was a mainstay with the school board, serving as a member since 1984, a span of 26 years. She also was serving as chair of the board for a fifth time, though her illness had limited her ability to attend meetings.

“We extend our deepest sympathy to the family of Dr. Sharon S. Pennell. We mourn with them and feel a grievous loss in the Caldwell County Schools,” Caldwell Superintendent Dr. Steve Stone said. “We can be comforted in the remembrance that Dr. Pennell had a profound impact on the education system in Caldwell County measured by countless students, whose education has opened doors of success and opportunity in building more productive, fulfilling and joyful lives.”

After beginning her education career as a teacher at Bunker Hill High School, Pennell spent the bulk of her years in education as a post-secondary instructor, serving as an assistant professor at Appalachian State University in Boone. She spent 24 years in ASU’s Department of Communication, concentrating her teaching efforts on the field of journalism.

While most of her teaching career was spent in Boone on a college campus, Pennell served the local board of education in three different decades, amassing a wealth of knowledge in regard to the education field and the intricacies of working with school boards.

“She has been a member of the board of education for 26 years and been involved in the major decisions of education in this county,” said Dr. Caryl Burns, Caldwell’s associate superintendent of educational program services and a close friend of Pennell’s. “She’s had a tremendous impact on education. She had so much knowledge of how and why decisions were made and how all the pieces fit together. Just the knowledge and dedication she had were vast. She had a major impact on this county and across the state.

“You can’t think of replacing a person with those qualities. It’s a big loss for our school system.”

Mike LaBrose, who served with Pennell as a member of the Caldwell County Board of Education for 14 years, acknowledged the impact she had on him as well as Caldwell County.

“She has touched everyone,” LaBrose said. “Everyone knew Sharon Pennell. She had some type of relationship or interaction with so many people, and that amazed me. People respected her because of her knowledge, fairness and leadership. I know I was the recipient of what she shared; she helped me along. She took me under her wing, helped me, guided me, and that’s something I’ll always cherish.

“I hope I can have the same virtues Sharon had and be a good role model. She was an awesome example.”

Pennell’s tenure with the board of education facilitated a strong cooperative relationship between the school system and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, one that resulted in the establishment of the Caldwell Career Center Middle College and the Caldwell Early College High School as well as the Appalachian State University Center, geared toward the preparation of teachers on the Hudson campus. Her leadership also was instrumental in the continued gains in test scores, decreases in the dropout rate and the ever-increasing number of Nationally Board Certified teachers throughout the system.

During her career, Pennell was presented the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in forensics, N.C. Speech Teacher of the Year, Lenoir Business and Professional Woman’s Club Career Woman of the Year, N.C. Career Woman of the Year and Caldwell County Distinguished Woman of the Year. She was one of seven school board members statewide named to the prestigious All-State School Board for dedicated service to education and the children of North Carolina.

Pennell was the recipient of the William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award for openness in government, the Diamond Key Coach Award from the National Forensics League and the state award for editorial writing from the N.C. Press Club. She published more than 20 articles at the state and national levels, and four of those were published in the N.C. School Boards Association Journal.

In one of Pennell’s articles, she wrote, “What makes a good board of education member is making children a priority.” Stone indicated that statement summed up Pennell.

“She genuinely cared about decisions that affected students, staff and administration in the Caldwell County Schools,” he said. “For this she will always be highly regarded as an inspirational community leader, who will be greatly missed by the students, faculty and friends for whom she served.”

A Person Who Touched So Many Lives
by Nathan Key
Editorial, Lenoir News-Topic
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I remember it like it was yesterday. The college instructor of my Introduction to Journalism class at Appalachian State University stood in front of a row of computers and gave us our first assignment. I cringed at the thought of coming up with a story to write about what made my hometown unique. I had the feeling because that instructor and soon-to-be associate professor was Dr. Sharon S. Pennell, who also happened to be from my hometown and a high school friend of my mom.

Talk about pressure from the get-go, that sure was it. But I remember getting that first assignment back with a note about how well I had portrayed a unique aspect of Lenoir. That assignment set me off, putting the wheels in motion to what led me to the point I stand now in my career as a journalist. And in so many ways I have Dr. Sharon Pennell to thank for that.

Dr. Pennell passed away Saturday. With her death, Caldwell County has lost a champion for education, a dedicated educator, a mainstay with the local school board and an all-around fine lady. As for me, I’ve lost a mentor, a colleague and a friend.

You see, Dr. Pennell gave me the guidance and direction I needed to become a journalist. Things I learned in her class at ASU some 17-18 years ago are still applied in my everyday work at the News-Topic. She was an inspiration to me through her teaching, someone who encouraged me and pushed me to be the best I could be in this chosen profession.

I had the pleasure of serving as an instructional assistant under Dr. Pennell’s guidance while I was at ASU. She allowed me the opportunity to speak with classes, help with assignments and grading, and put together a departmental newsletter, all outlets that allowed me to hone my skills. She even recommended me as a potential adjunct instructor at ASU, a position I was able to land and perform for five years.

Through the years, I have not had the contact with her that I did when I had her as an instructor in college or even after I first graduated and started my career. But I always knew she was there for me, as she has been for numerous students through the years. I knew I could call on her at any time for advice or a critique, and she would provide it.

Our conversations about journalism waned through the years, probably for a host of reasons. Part of it was the fact that we both have been so involved in our professions. But I’d like to think part of it was from her seeing that I had arrived, if you will, and was able to spread my wings and fly with my career, the very thing that she became an educator for in the first place.

I’ve encountered plenty of Dr. Pennell’s former students through the years. In fact, several of them have worked for us here at the News-Topic and done very well. Almost all of them tell me that she used me as an example in her classrooms. That is the ultimate compliment for me, to know that a person I have respected and admired thought enough of me and what I did while in school to cite me as an example in her teachings.

Dr. Pennell’s legacy is one built on her dedication to her profession, to educating students. I think it ought to include the compassion she showed for those students and the desire she had for them to succeed, whether it was those in her journalism classes at Appalachian State or those here in the Caldwell County School system that she served as a member of the board of education. She wanted what was best for her students – all of them.

I’m so very grateful for all that Dr. Pennell did for me, as a student and then a professional in the field of journalism. She did the same for my wife, who also had several classes with her at ASU. We both thought and still think very highly of her, and are pleased that we have been able to call her a mentor and a friend.

Today, if I had to go back into that Introduction to Journalism class and write something unique about my hometown, I could do so without hesitation. My topic would be an easy one. I’d write about Dr. Sharon Pennell and her impact on the many people whose lives she has touched.

My life definitely has been one of those.

Reading the online condolences at Evans Funeral Service brings tears to my eyes.  Most of the people who posted comments are just acquaintances.  Sharon probably had no idea how many peoples lives she had impacted.  It's inspiring.  We can only hope to affect as many people as she did.  Read them here.

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