Passion Inspires Poet's Legacy Gift
The enduring influence of a teacher on a student has been a prominent theme in the life of Louisville's Lee Pennington. Thirty years after Kentucky author and poet Jesse Stuart, who was Pennington's high school principal and writing mentor, was named a Poet Laureate of Kentucky, Pennington received the same award.
Later, as a teacher himself at Jefferson Community College (JCC), Pennington saw the abilities of one of his students, Dick Wilson. It was Wilson (UofL '74), who planted the idea of Pennington making a legacy gift to University Libraries Archives and Special Collections in the form of the Lee and Joy Pennington Cultural Heritage Gallery.
Born in Greenup County, in the heart of Kentucky's Appalachian region, Pennington, the eighth of 11 children, attended a one-room school. Despite his parents not having gone to high school and his family's income being below the national standard of poverty, Pennington made college his goal. Encouraged by Jesse Stuart and other mentors, he earned an English degree in 1962 at Berea College, where he wrote extensively, including his first play, "The Porch," a one-act mountain tragedy.
Newly married, Pennington and his wife, Joy Stout, taught high school for two years and completed graduate degrees at the University of Iowa before moving back to Appalachia, where he chaired a community college's English department. Seeking to counter stereotypes of Appalachia, Pennington launched numerous initiatives to build regional pride, taught creative writing and Kentucky's first writing-of-poetry class, and received several awards for his published poems. When a collected volume of his students' poetry was perceived as a critique of local culture, the Penningtons chose to relocate to Louisville.
Based from JCC until his retirement in 1999—and well beyond—Pennington wrote books and published multiple poetry collections, was a technical script writer for a 1970s MGM production set in Appalachia, premiered plays, created documentaries, served as the president of the Kentucky State Poetry Society and founded the Corn Island Storytelling Festival in Louisville—the second festival for storytelling ever created in the United States.
In 1977, Pennington published what is considered his best-known collection, "I Knew a Woman," which garnered the first of his three Pulitzer Prize nominations. Following Joy's death in 2011, Pennington became life partners with Jill Baker, a gifted artist who has illustrated many of his books.
In seeking a repository for the multiple artifacts acquired during extensive international travel, the best existing private collection of Jesse Stuart materials, and his own body of work, Pennington has deepened the relationship he began with UofL during his years as a college professor at JCC. "UofL is a very important part of the Louisville community," he states. "We each have a passion in life, and when this passion can also be translated into a gift that preserves our legacy, it's incredibly meaningful."
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