Amid the sea of people last weekend at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., I was a tad distracted as President Barack Obama spoke.
I was preoccupied watching the crowd in hopes of spotting “a Youngstown connection” — a truth for any life event as testified for years by former Vindy Sports Editor Chuck Perazich. Newsroom legend is that for any major event, Perazich would assert that there was always somehow a Youngstown connection, and he would often be the one to find it.
I did not have to fear if there was a Youngstown connection at the 50th celebration of the Selma bridge march.
Penny Wells of Boardman would not have been anywhere else in the world that day.
Penny is a retired Youngstown schoolteacher whose passion, conviction and ferocity have made her an icon of sorts to some here.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about some of the best places and attributes of Youngstown.
Picking up on that theme — if you’re to start a new group for any cause, if Penny says she’s interested, give her the chair next to the organizer. Period.
Her biggest passion is civil rights, and that’s how I know her.
The two of us have been engaged with others in an effort to celebrate the life of Youngstowner Simeon Booker, an African-American journalist who spent his life on the front lines of America’s civil-rights movement.
The places and events Simeon wrote about are as much a part of Penny’s life as his.
Ask about the Little Rock Nine, Penny will tell you about her friendship with Minniejean Brown-Trickey, who was one of the students. Last year, the three of us had breakfast in Boardman — no one in the restaurant having a clue of the legend who shared their space that day.
Mention Emmett Till, and Penny will share a story of her conversations with Simeon Wright — a Till cousin who as a child was bunked with Till when he was taken by white thugs in 1955. Wright will speak at Crestview High School in two weeks, and Penny will be there.
Due to Penny’s efforts, guests to Youngstown in recent years have included U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was featured prominently in the film “Selma.” Ask Penny about that film, and she’ll recite what was accurate, and not, about the Hollywood effort.
That Penny’s a white lady in the middle of all of this should not matter or stand out. But it’s America — and it’s noticed.
Where she’s at her best is the firm tenderness with her kids of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past. The program — her creation — takes city teens to the South every spring to retrace the steps of key civil-rights events. It’s daunting to take 15 or so kids on the road for more than a week. And it’s expensive.
She knocks on the right doors and gets the spaghetti cooking to raise the funds. The kids spend nothing. Her Sojourn program is on Trip Nine when they all take off in two weeks. They still need funds toward the $35,000 she needs to take all the teens.
“I have seen Penny in action with these young people over the years. She is the most sincere person that I know,” said friend June Ewing of Third Baptist Church. “What they are learning under her tutelage will impact their lives in a very positive and profound way.”
What’s most special about her and “her Sojourn kids” is how deep into their lives she gets — mainly out of necessity, given where many come from.
Penny and I drove to Beaver Falls, Pa., two weeks back to meet with a film producer about Booker. She brought two Sojourners along. She routed our trip near a Dunkin Donuts to take advantage of a gift card she had to get the kids breakfast. Feeding them often comes with her unpaid passion.
“She possesses energy and a drive for her work that is rivaled by virtually no one,” said friend Bonnie Burdman of the Jewish Community Center. “What is most palpable is the love and devotion she shows to the kids and how that love is returned multifold.”
And don’t let the “love” description lull you too much.
I mentioned ferocity earlier. Penny is all of that, too.
In fact, our first encounter over Booker was testy. I was a naive white guy with an idea, and driven with it. She knew I was missing a huge point, and got mad at me. A mutual friend, Dr. Hovell, got her to ease up, if only a smidge, but long enough so the clouds could clear and I could learn: She was right.
Youngstown schools Superintendent Connie Hathorn has had to face the Penny pursuits, too.
“She has a great heart and personality. It makes it hard for me to say ‘no’ when she requests help,” said Connie.
And a couple of months back, a Boardman car dealership faced her passion head on.
One of Penny’s Sojourn kids bought a car. The deal with Boardman Nissan went bad for a variety of reasons. In the dust, the young man felt the failed deal was racial in nature. Possibly. It was likely bullying for sure, as the dealership team immediately tried to bully me when I called about it. Just dumb.
The Sojourn student, aided by his education of the past via Penny, took to protesting quietly but diligently in front of the dealership.
He’s the black kid you would have seen on Market Street in December with a sign. Some passersby even taunted him with racial jabs.
Outraged, Penny joined him days later.
She would have been the little white lady you would have seen next to the sign-holding black kid one Saturday.
And she would not have been anywhere else in the world that day.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.