Former Dean Dies
This week, Oberlin mourns the loss of Patrick Penn, the former Dean of students and chair of the athletics department, who died Feb. 20, 2001 after a prolonged illness. For a man of average stature, he had a gigantic personality. Friends remember Penn as positive, calm, charismatic and intuitive, with shining eyes and a smile for everyone.
Penn worked with the Oberlin College community from 1973 until 1995. He was originally hired as the head basketball coach, after winning two state basketball championships at the high school level in 1971 and 1972. He worked with recruiters such as Punnel Gray, Penn’s assistant coach and chief recruiter, to build the strength of an Oberlin basketball team that eventually became one of the top four in the Great Lakes region and went to the Division III National Championships.
His record was outstanding, totaling 141 victories in 14 seasons. Penn was one of the first African-American college head basketball coaches in the nation. At the top of Penn’s agenda as head coach was opening the basketball team up to everyone and finding the most qualified players for Oberlin, regardless of color or ethnicity.
Gray said, “Coach Penn’s philosophy was that he expected you to act like gentlemen and play your game. He was like a father to a lot of the kids. There was no problem you couldn’t talk about with him. He worked for a positive basketball experience. To him, the most important thing was graduating. He was hard on the kids, but they loved him for it.”
Penn was devoted to the success of his team and of the players both on and off the court. Booker Peek, professor of African American studies said, “Patrick Penn was the kind of man who listened more than he ever talked, but when he spoke, it was right on target. He responded when it was time, understandably and effectively. I remember watching this usually calm man become, in a basketball game, outwardly passionate, full of enthusiasm and excitement but with a high degree of respect, warmth and concern for the players.”
Penn became the chair of the physical education department in 1975, and continued to coach basketball until the 1987-1988 season. In 1987, he was made dean of student support services, and was officially promoted in 1990 to dean of student life and services. He held that position until 1995 when he retired. During his years as dean of students, Penn devoted much of his time to improving race relations, helping minorities, promoting African American involvement in science and improved student safety through his involvement in several projects.
He worked with issues and organizations such as the Cleveland Scholarship Fund, the Swarthmore consortium for minority issues, the Bike Derby and a student demonstration to divest in South Africa. “He worked through tumultuous times and a lot of stress, but he handled it all with as much grace, compassion and care as possible. He was very supportive of the students,” Charles Ross, a member of the Counseling Center, said.
Penn is survived by his wife Rosemary Urban-Penn well as his three stepchildren, his sister and his stepmother. His daughter Patricia died of cancer in 1989.
College President Nancy Dye announced in a letter to faculty and staff that a Memorial Fund has been set up in honor of Penn. Donations can be sent to the Development Office in Bosworth Hall.
Penn was as much of a father to his players as a coach. Jim Sullinger, who played under Penn and worked with him, said, “If I coached for 30 years and had one player feel about me the way I feel about Pat Penn, my career would be a success. He made a man out of me. He was very demanding and wanted us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to give without asking in return and trust things will come to you in the streams of life. You have to play the game the way you live life. Coach Penn dealt with the total person. I love the man. I emulate myself after him.”
Gray said, “His tradition lives on to this day. As long as I’m there, at the game, or in the workplace, he’s there. He made a deep impact.”
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