Darby Penney (1952-2021)

Lost Cases, Recovered Lives:

Darby PenneyDarby Penney was someone I’ve known for over 30 years. I have no idea where or when I met her. Inevitably, it involved some social justice activity. And if Darby was expending energy on it, it was almost certainly worth pursuing. The action would involve “empowerment, inclusion, rights, and other topics,” as this 2007 bio describes.

She was mentioned, only in passing, once in this blog. It involved the abandoned suitcases of the people who had resided at the Willard Asylum in Ovid, NY in Seneca County. 

I wrote, “I remember a large article in Metroland about the New York State Museum’s 2004 exhibit ‘Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic’, curated by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.” She was extremely excited about that project.

Importantly, Darby was a librarian, and she used her many skills in the most amazing manner. She was SO impressive.

Sometimes, I get behind in reading the daily newspaper. So it wasn’t until October 30 when I read the lengthy obituary in the October 21 newspaper, referring to her October 11 death. I was gobsmacked.

You should read the obit, as it is amazing as she was. Primarily, she was “a long-time activist in the movement to protect the human rights of people with psychiatric disabilities.”

Three score and eight

I was in shock because I figured that Darby would be one of those insistent people in her 70s and 80s and maybe 90s causing what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.” But she was 68, my age.

The last time I talked with her was in the first months of the pandemic, in the spring or summer of 2020. I called Darby on the telephone to check how she was doing. She was still grieving the death of her husband of 30 years, Kenneth Denberg.

That said, she still had a gritty optimism about making a difference. But she was no Pollyanna. She indeed had a “fiery outspoken nature.” Yet, she could be very funny, occasionally poking gently at my expense. You can do that with your friends.

So I didn’t even know she was sick. I’m sorry for my sake more than hers. For I’m sure she had a coterie of folks caring for her. And I’m unsurprised that she was cremated because she wouldn’t have wanted a frilly casket. I hope to attend the memorial service when it takes place.

Planning the funeral of Dick Powell

The late Dick Powell, me, the late Les Green

His family held the funeral for my father-in-law, Dick Powell on May 22, 2021. It was precisely 13 months after he died. Ah,  death in the time of COVID, even non-COVID-related death.

The planning meetings, of course, were on ZOOM among my MIL, one of her sons and his family, my wife, my MIL’s pastor, and me. Dick had jotted down notes in his own hand from months before he got sick. His specific plans involved his four grandkids singing a specific song together, but that was requested pre-pandemic. The choir recorded the song, remotely, and other hymns as well.

Who’s going to read the Scriptures? I volunteered for Ecclesiates 3:1-8. Blame Pete Seeger, or maybe Roger McGuinn. Others selected Psalm  23 and 1 Corinthians 13.

Who’ll speak? Someone from his church, a few people from the extended family, and a few from the immediate family. My wife would certainly cite her favorite scripture, Micah 6:8, which is a motto of Dick’s church, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

At the end of the service, there was a committal to the columbarium, a word I’m certain I’ve never written before in my life.

The immediate family mentioned, plus my daughter was at the church in person with the pastor, the organist at a distance, and one techie, likewise remote, and all fully vaccinated. Everyone else – the church members, the rest of the friends and family – was invited to participate via ZOOM.

The obit

Meanwhile, one family member had worked on the obituary for Dick Powell. If you think writing it a year after someone’s death would be easier, you might be thinking incorrectly. Noting all of his activities and accomplishments had the effect of dredging up some of the feelings of loss, but also of pride.

There are many schools of thought about what’s appropriate content in an obit. Having read thousands – I love a good one – I’m rather non-prescriptive about them. Except that I do like the listing of the familial connections, which will be useful for future generations of genealogists.

In general, waiting to hold the funeral and write the obit a year later than normal created a case of  dolore interrumpitur, grief interrupted. And that was undoubtedly enhanced by a certain family estrangement; I shan’t dwell upon that here.

Arthur wrote regarding the death of his husband a year and a half ago. It is pretty much what I realized some months after my father’s death over 20 years ago. “The thing about profound grief is that it’s not linear, and it has no timeline. How many times have I said that now?” Not linear; I’ve said that a LOT.

Dick Powell would have been 85 today.

Writing your own obituary

You matter

ObituariesWriting your own obituary? First of all, I should note that I’m not in imminent danger of dying. As far as I know. I suppose I could be mistaken. In any case, I’m betting against living another six decades.

The idea of writing my obit appeals to me. It’s mostly because I recognize that the task can be onerous. Writing it yourself alleviates the stress of your family and friends having to take on the task. Of course, you also have to face up to your accomplishments. You might say, as  Peggy Lee did, “Is that all there is?” Conversely, you might be forced to consolidate the bullet points. That racquetball trophy I won in 1989 won’t make MY list.

I love a good obituary. It’s like any compelling story. I remember leafing through The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells: A Celebration of Unusual Lives by Marvin Siegel. Where this happened, I don’t remember, but it was several years ago. Thrift Books reviews speak to me.

“Rather than an ode to death, this book cherishes lives once lived by all kinds of people. Whether brilliant or simple, rich or poor, actions great or discreet, each of the people written about contributed to society in a meaningful (and often surprising) way.”

“You wouldn’t think a book of obituaries would be entertaining, but it is when the obits are well-written and celebrate the lives and characters of the 100+ people found in this collection. The subjects are most often unknown to the majority of us, but the various authors (including well-known NYT obituary author Robert McG. Thomas, Jr.) humanize each subject and inspire you to contemplate your own life.” Yeah, that.

The recent prompts

I started thinking about this – again – because of a May 14 New Yorker article, Telling the Stories of the Dead Is Essential Work. This was a COVID-19 -related tale.

Then there was an October 15 commentary in the Albany Times Union. “On the obituary pages, reflections of lives fully lived” was written by Karl Felsen, a local retired public relations executive. His daughter, in the time of COVID, had asked Karl and his wife to write their own obits. “If you have a favorite picture, include it.”

Felsen quotes poet Jim Harrison. “Death steals everything except our stories.” He started perusing the longest obituaries in the TU. Charles P. Rougle lived a fascinating life “that ran from Montana to Moscow, from Sweden to Slovenia. A translator and expert in my many languages, a woodworker sand cello player on the side.” Someone Felsen wished he had met.

Of the collection of obituaries that he read, “They were here. They lived. They mattered.” So Felsen’s going to write his own obit. “It’ll be long, celebratory, and mostly true.” He’s “come to the conclusion that crafting your own final story is one way to stay busy living.”

I’m inclined to do this. Maybe not next week, or next month, but probably in the next year. Have any of you done this? Any pointers? This could be an interesting posthumous “ego trip.”

Joltin’ Joe Sinnott (1926-2020)

the greatest inker for Marvel Comics

Joe SinnottI was working the front counter of the FantaCo comic book store in Albany on November 2, 1982. Joe Sinnott had driven the 45 miles from Saugerties to buy 10 copies of Life of the Pope, John Paul II, which he had inked. He wanted to have copies to give to family and friends.

I’m sure we gave him a deep discount. But I wish I could have just given them to him. It’s because, as everyone who has written about him has noted, he was the sweetest man in the comic book business. In fact, he might have been the kindest person I’ve known, period.

Joe, as most comic fans know, was the primary inker for Jack “King” Kirby on the Fantastic Four. Read this quote from Joe’s Wikipedia page. “Sinnott was a master craftsman, fiercely proud of the effort and meticulous detail he put into his work. That slick, stylized layer of India ink that Sinnott painted over Kirby’s pencils finished Jack’s work in a way that no other inker ever would. Comic fans had never witnessed art this strange and powerful in its scope and strength.”

However, Joe worked on a multitude of titles, before, during, and after his stint on the FF, including Thor, Silver Surfer, The Avengers, and the Defenders. He “retired” from full-time work for Marvel in 1992 but inked the Spider-Man newspaper feature until 2019.

Pettigrew for President

On my occasional treks to the Albany Comic-Con, I’d always stop by Joe’s table and talk with him. Or try. The line to see him was always the longest in the place.

As I noted in 2017, my friend Mark got the chance to meet Joe. Mark also discovered a fairly obscure Sinnott credit. “A bi-monthly comic book called the Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact was distributed in Catholic parochial schools. The Treasure Chest was intended as a remedy to the sensationalism of traditional comics.”

Joe Sinnott died this month. Mark Evanier shares his history, but also what a swell guy he was. Check out Joe’s official page for photos, samples of his art, and more.

Tim Ryan-Pepper (1954-2019)

We named ourselves, alternately, TAR Moving, ART Moving or RAT Moving, depending on who we wanted to give top billing.

Tim Ryan-PepperThe fifth funeral I’ll attend in the calendar year 2019 will be that of my friend Tim Ryan-Pepper, who died unexpectedly on Valentine’s Day at the age of 64.

He started attending Trinity United Methodist Church in 1985, only a couple of years after I did. He sang in the choir – he was a tenor – for a bunch of years until he had to give up the crutches for a walker. The choir loft was hardly accessible.

Tim eventually did the broadcast announcing for the church, which was even more physically challenging, because it involved crawling/pulling himself up to the second floor. He had no apparent ego about this; he did what was necessary to do what he loved. In fact, he could be goofy about his situation, and I mean that in a good way.

He was adept at a mixing board. He really loved music of all sorts, and that was our bond. We talked about it for hours at his various apartments. Frankly, I don’t really remember any of his places particularly well, as he moved a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s; I count six different relocations. He packed, but the cerebral palsy precluded heavy lifting. Most of the schlepping was done by his wife of 34 years Alberta, their late friend Tom, and me. We named ourselves, alternately, TAR Moving, ART Moving or RAT Moving, depending on who we wanted to give top billing.

He was a loving father to his children Jeff and Katie.

While I saw Alberta now and then, at the laundromat or waiting for the bus, I saw Tim far too infrequently, especially after he retired from his job at New York State Taxation and Finance. The memorial service for Tim Ryan-Pepper will be held on Sunday, February 24 at 2:00 pm. at Trinity UMC, my second funeral of a former Trinity choir member in eight days.

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