ROCHELLE PENNINGTON is an award-winning newspaper columnist and bestselling author of ten books including Highlighted in Yellow (available in four languages; co-authored with H. Jackson Brown, #1 New York Times bestselling author), Christmas Gifts: Ten of the Greatest Ever Given, The Historic Christmas Tree Ship (as featured on national television), An Old-Fashioned Christmas (2009 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award nomination), and more. Her work has been included in multiple bestselling series over the past two decades.
Pennington has worked as a consultant providing story and quotation recommendations to several of the publishing industry’s most noted authors including Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul, H. Jackson Brown of Life’s Little Instruction Books, Dr. Richard Carlson of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and Alice Gray of Stories for the Heart.
Pennington is both a lively storyteller and an entertaining lecturer. Her popularity as a presenter to schools, libraries, historical societies, corporations, hospitals, retirement facilities and civic organizations is evidenced by the many invitations she receives to return and speak on further topics, ranging from history’s most memorable stories, complete with fascinating trivia, to motivational engagements highlighting courage, determination, and personal strength. She expertly weaves the perfect balance of humor, charm, and riveting facts into her captivating performances which focus on “the best of humanity.” Audience members depart with inspiration to apply the principles presented to their own lives.
If you would like to schedule a speaking engagement, call 1-800-503-5507 or e-mail email@example.com. (To view program options, please click on the “Program Brochure” link at left. Scroll to page 2 of the brochure by using the lower right arrow.)
The author resides in Wisconsin with her husband of over thirty years. They have two grown children and three grandchildren “so far.” In her free time, she enjoys spending weekends at her family’s 100-year-old vintage cottage in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Pennington speaks at over a hundred events annually. A few of her 2012 and 2013 highlights are mentioned below.
Above photo: Rochelle Pennington with Evan Thurmond, President of The Executives Club
Pennington addressed distinguished businessmen and women of the Executives Club in Louisville, Kentucky in 2013 on the subject of leadership. The event was held at the opulent Brown Hotel, one of Kentucky’s premier landmarks.
Comments from Jan Kottke, The Executives Club, Program Committee Member:
"What a FABULOUS evening with you! It was way too much fun! The Board RAVED about you and your presentation!"
The Brown Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky
Above photo: Pennington spoke to 950 members of the Horizons Town Talk at the Horizons Conference Center in November 2013. Five speakers are chosen annually to address this audience. Included among the five speakers chosen for the 2013-2014 season were Hollywood legend Joan Collins (of “Dallas” fame) and Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent and Presidential debate moderator.
Pennington was also one of five speakers who were chosen to address hundreds of members of the Pontiac/Oakland Town Hall for the 2013-2014 lecture series at the St. George Greek Orthodox Cultural Center in Bloomfield Hills.
Pennington previously spoke to a sold-out audience of 450 members of the distinguished Livonia Town Hall Lecture Series in Livonia, Michigan in November 2011 and returned to speak to a sold-out audience of 700 members of the Downriver Town Hall Lecture Series in Southgate, Michigan in November 2012 on the recommendation of the Livonia members. Rochelle’s November 2012 lecture in Southgate was preceded by a speech from Morgan Fairchild, actress, and followed by a lecture from Martha Raddatz, international journalist.
The Downriver Town Hall event was held in Southgate, Michigan at the Crystal Gardens (photo below). A luncheon banquet followed Pennington’s speech in the lecture hall, and an hour long question/answer period followed the luncheon.
Wisconsin Author Annual Christmas Tea
Rochelle is pictured above with attendees of the Christmas tea, including writer Dennis Uhlig, who is also a retired English teacher and bookstore manager. Mr. Uhlig has been a dear friend of Rochelle's since her first column, Insights and Inspirations, appeared in Wisconsin newspapers in the mid-1990s. Insights and Inspirations was followed by a weekly feature, As I See It, which was later followed by A Look at Life. Mr. Uhlig's bookstore hosted Rochelle's very first book-signing event in 2001 when her title Highlighted in Yellow was released.
Rochelle Pennington delivered her “Christmas Tree Ship” lecture in the grand auditorium of the Dallas Woman’s Club. She was welcomed royally by the organization, and her lecture was delivered to members of the prestigious Mary K. Craig class.
Comments from Mrs. Kathy Jackson, Program Director:
“Your program was the perfect way to start the Christmas season, and our members loved it. Many thanks for sharing your well-written and documented information with us, along with your gift for communication and storytelling. I hope to see you again in the future.”
The evaluation form returned by the organization included the highest possible mark and these written comments: “Rochelle was delightful and interesting. Excellent delivery and research. Fascinating topic. We will definitely want her back.”
Update: Rochelle is scheduled to return to Dallas for a follow-up event in November of 2014.
Pennington delivered her “A Walk Down Memory Lane” speech in 2013 to members of the Woman’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia at the historic Osiris Temple, and also delivered this speech in 2013 to members of the Four Arts Club in Elkhart, Indiana.
Rochelle was warmly welcomed to the German American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa in October 2012 where she presented two of her programs, the “Christmas Tree Ship” and the “World War I Christmas Truce,” to historians and patrons of this fine facility.
Each of the Davenport presentations concluded with carol singing in both English and German with the author providing the musical accompaniment on a vintage piano.
Comments from Janet Brown-Lowe, Director of the facility:
“Rochelle, we thoroughly enjoyed both of your presentations, and I can say that they were certainly among the very best that we have offered this year. (We will have had 60 programs in 2012—whew!) You did a wonderful, wonderful job! I am eager to get you booked back for next year and will be in touch regarding that.”
Update: Rochelle is scheduled to return to the museum in September of 2014.
Pennington spoke in October 2013 at the State of Wisconsin Hospital Association's annual convention where she delivered an address to hospital volunteers, thanking them for brightening the world through their generous gestures.
Pennington was honored to be invited to Menominee, Michigan in December of 2013 to present two of her nautical programs as a fundraiser to save the Menominee lighthouse. The special holiday event began as a joint effort between concerned citizens at the local yacht and country clubs, along with leaders at the local Economic Development Corp office, who hoped to restore the iconic landmark. Tickets to the event were sold at $50 each and over $10,000 was raised to begin work on the historic light. (See event flyer below.)
Lighthouse Fundraiser December 2013
Additionally, Pennington will be the keynote speaker on June 21, 2014 at the Upper Peninsula of Michigan Annual History Conference, hosted by the State of Michigan Historical Society.
The author will also be the official nautical storyteller at the 2015 Great Lakes Lighthouse Convention, being held June 12-14, 2015.
Pennington is a regular speaker for nautical organizations. In January of 2013 she spoke to 150 Great Lakes captains on leadership at the annual Great Lakes Captain's Association convention. Her keynote was on the Endurance expedition, considered the “greatest survival story in human history.” She was contacted by Captain Jack Cork from the program committee following the event, who shared with her that it was the first time in their conference history that a speaker received a score of 100%, averaged from the evaluation forms completed by the audience attendees. She is returning in January of 2015 to deliver her “Christmas Tree Ship” program to this same organization.
“Every captain in your audience, Rochelle, sat silently and listened attentively. Your passion kept everyone’s attention. No one moved. No one even got up to use the restroom. We haven’t seen that in forever. You are a passionate speaker and your presentation of the events surrounding Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic voyage was a testament to leadership and absolutely defined the possibilities of men working together in one of the harshest environments known to man. You delivered, in simplest terms, a success story that defied all odds.” Captain Dean Hobbs
Pennington will be presenting her Endurance lecture to hundreds of international captains at the annual convention of International Shipmasters in February 2014 in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She is further honored to be delivering the keynote address at the annual gathering of United States Coast Guard auxiliary members in March of 2014 in Lisle, Illinois.
Pennington was honored in October 2012 to present her program “A Walk Down Memory Lane” to nearly 600 patrons of the National Exchange Bank & Trust’s “Golden Year Club,” a premier banking club for seniors, who registered for her seminar. Reference below:
To Whom it May Concern,
National Exchange Bank invited Rochelle Pennington to be our guest speaker for our annual fall seminars we host for our customers that are age 55 or better. I chose Rochelle because I had read an article about her a few years before and had purchased her book “Believe in Yourself” (which sits in my office when I need inspiration). The response to the seminars entitled “A Walk Down Memory Lane” was over-whelming, to put it mildly. We scheduled three seminars and had to add an additional seminar due to the many requests to attend. In 25 years, this was our most attended seminar.
Rochelle captured the audience with her humor, charm and touching stories coming from her heart. She had people in the audience with tears in their eyes as they related to her stories. After her presentation they lingered to visit with Rochelle and share time with her.
I received many phone calls thanking the bank for presenting this uplifting program and still am receiving calls asking for her contact information. She most definitely will be back at National Exchange presenting another program in the near future.
Rochelle’s inspirational presentation left us recalling many memories of the wonderful life we had and still enjoy today! Thanks for the memories, Rochelle!
If you have additional questions or concerns please contact me. You will not be disappointed with Rochelle as your speaker.
Janet L. Johnson
Marketing Assistant National Exchange Bank & Trust firstname.lastname@example.org 920-906-6865
Pennington presented her “World War I Christmas Miracle” to patrons from 28 branches of the Cuyahoga County Library in Ohio. Her presentation was held at the library’s newest location during the facility’s grand opening week.
Pennington presented her program “A Walk Down Memory Lane” in the summer of 2013 at The Peabody in North Manchester, Indiana where she was welcomed warmly. She returned for a Christmas event.
“Hi Rochelle, I have had so much GREAT feedback regarding the program you did for us last week! The residents have not stopped talking about it since you left. Everyone enjoyed all of the memories your program brought back to them. They said to tell you that you deserve another round of applause for putting together such a wonderful program. Everyone is excited that you are coming back in December! We want to have you come back at least once a year—you do such a great job and really connect with your audience. We loved having and can’t wait to see you again! Thank you so much for all you did on Tuesday! Sarah Joy Morbitzer
It has become “tradition” for Rochelle to visit St. Thomas Aquinas School and deliver her holiday Christmas Tree Ship program to students there. The photo above was taken in December of 2013 during Rochelle's visit.
“Rochelle, today’s presentation was again outstanding! The students were enthralled! They asked Mr. Rick if they could work on writing their play tomorrow so that they could remember everything you told them!" Carol Ewald, Director of Technology, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish School
The photo below was taken in December of 2013 at Blesch Intermediate School. Rochelle delivered her program on the legendary Endurance shipwreck to nearly 500 students.
Rochelle Pennington was the keynote speaker at the National Exchange Club’s annual convention in Greensboro, North Carolina in July 2013. Seven hundred members representing clubs from across America were in attendance.
Rochelle was deeply honored to accept the National Exchange Club’s invitation to speak at their annual convention. The National Exchange Club is America’s oldest service organization and is committed to the betterment of our communities, our families, and our country. The club promotes Americanism and is dedicated to teaching our country’s rich heritage through the distribution and display of our founding documents.
On March 11, 2013, Pennington received a lifetime achievement award from her graduating high school for “gaining distinction in her field, offering an admirable example to students based on character and accomplishments, and contributing to her community of residence.” (She was nominated by Mrs. Barbara York, her high school English teacher.)
Rochelle has been actively involved in education over the past two decades, and has presented countless programs at all grade levels of education, from elementary schools and colleges to “learning in retirement” facilities. In 2012, Pennington presented multiple school programs for the WSRA Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Northeast Council, and made a return delivery to address retired WEAC Wisconsin Education Association Council’s educators. Watch for Pennington’s presentations in 2013 at Harper College, Nicolet College, Northeast Technical College, Gateway Technical Institute, and at the University of Wisconsin, as well as at the Outagamie Retired Educators Association, where she will deliver a presentation on “An Old-Fashioned Christmas,” and at the Oconomowoc Retired Educators Association, where she will deliver a presentation on the historic “Endurance” expedition.
Pennington has been a frequent speaker to educators since she delivered her keynote address at the Wisconsin Association of Academic Librarians annual conference in 2008, and the keynote address at the Wisconsin Retired Education Association annual conference in 2005. The group’s newsletter reported afterward: “What a wonderful convention we had at Green Lake. We learned about our pension investments, Medicare, leadership, legislation, health care, and a host of other issues… I simply cannot report all the activities we shared, but who can forget the amusing and yet provocative delivery by Rochelle Pennington? Those of you who missed coming really lost out on some exciting information and glorious entertainment.”
News release: Pennington's title, "The Christmas Tree Ship," is now available in Braille. The launch of the new book was made possible by a generous donation by the Livonia Town Hall to Seedlings Braille Books for Children. The Livonia Town Hall is dedicated to philanthropy and chose Pennington's book as one of their 2012 service projects after the author delivered her lecture to members during the 2011 Christmas season.
Pennington presented her program “Stories Behind Our Most Loved Hymns and Carols” to members of Illinois’ Flagg Creek Heritage Society on November 20, 2012. It is the author’s sixth presentation over six consecutive years to this organization. Previously, she presented the “Christmas Tree Ship,” the “WWI Christmas Miracle,” “An Old-Fashioned Christmas,” “A Walk Down Memory Lane,” and “The Endurance.”
Pennington, a church organist/pianist/guitarist for the past thirty-five years, has been a long-time music researcher. She has also served as a children’s choir director and has written (and directed) many worship service dramas. Several of her published dramas for children and adults have been widely performed. Two of her adult dramas alone, “Bethlehem Speaks” and “Jerusalem Speaks: Voices in the Shadow of the Cross,” have been presented in over a thousand churches nationwide.
March 2012 American Geographical Society Library
Comments from Jovanka Ristic, American Geographical Society staff librarian for the past thirty years: “I’ve had nothing but very positive feedback from members and guests of the Map Society of Wisconsin who attended Rochelle Pennington’s recent presentation on the ‘Endurance.’ This was one of the best and most well-attended lectures we’ve had. The way Rochelle wove together the actual photographs and writings of Shackleton and his crew with her own narrative of their miraculous survival story really made it come alive for the audience.”
Comments from Michael Marini, Map Society of Wisconsin: “Rochelle Pennington is an engaging storyteller and her ‘Endurance’ lecture is spellbinding. Not only does she tell about the physical aspects of the journey, but she describes the emotions and feelings of the crew as if you were experiencing their adventure. Obviously, this is a well-researched and well-written account of the ‘Endurance’ with Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew. It is a story of true determination and courage.”
Comments from Michael M. Loescher, Professional Engineer and owner of Computersmith: “I attended Rochelle Pennington’s stellar program on her book ‘The Endurance’ at the American Geographical Society Library. I was impressed with her ability to encapsulate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s character and the greatest survival story in history. She is a wonderful storyteller and really focused on the human ‘mind over matter’ and ‘success through leadership’ aspects of the story. I highly recommend the book and program.”
It was a special honor for author Rochelle Pennington to speak to Board Officers and Key Women Educators of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society’s Alpha Beta Chapter of Washington County in 2012. This educational organization supports young, aspiring authors and illustrators in grades three through eight. The Society also funds scholarships for high school seniors seeking to enter the field of education.
Pennington returned to the Sheboygan Falls Historical Research Center to a standing-room-only audience. She presented “A Walk Down Memory Lane” to members in 2010, the “World War I Christmas Miracle” in 2011, “The Endurance” in 2012, and will be presenting her program on the Great Lakes “Christmas Tree Ship” in 2013.
April 2012 La Crosse Public Library
Comments from Patricia Boge, Community Relations Coordinator: "La Crosse Public Library wholeheartedly endorses the talents of Rochelle Pennington. We had her deliver her program 'A Walk Down Memory Lane' to a rapt audience of over 90 older adults, many of whom were reluctant to let her pack up at the end of her presentation to leave. We plan to have her back again to do another one of her many offerings. For an entertaining and professional program, hire her! You'll be glad you did."
April 2012 Kishwaukee Community Hospital, DeKalb, Illinois Annual Volunteer Recognition Banquet Volunteers gather for dinner
Pennington was the keynote speaker at Kishwaukee Community Hospital’s annual Volunteer Recognition Banquet. It is the author’s third keynote for this hospital during the past five years.
The banquet organizers requested that Pennington deliver her “Believe in Yourself” program with its message tailored around an Olympic theme. Each volunteer then received a gold medallion attached to a red, white, and blue ribbon for his or her accomplishments in serving others. Pennington closed the evening by sharing thoughts on “hearts of gold,” centered on her story “Kindness Matters,” as included in her book Highlighted in Yellow:
Kindness. I came to fully understand its impact in only a few short minutes while taking one of the more important examinations of my life. The test was oral. The test giver was a radio announcer. The classroom was my car. While traveling along in the rain on a Monday morning, a voice coming from the little speaker next to my steering wheel asked, “Can you name the last Nobel Peace Prize winner?” I knew I should remember, but the name escaped me. While I was trying to think, more questions were asked: “Can you name a recent Pulitzer Prize winner?” Again, I couldn’t. “Can you name athletes who received gold medals in the last Olympics? Or the last woman to be crowned Miss America?” Or…or…or. No…no…no. Music, literature, art, government officials, scientists—I was zero for zero and wondering how many other listeners were answering these questions correctly. What a way to start one’s day. And on a Monday, in the rain. But then it happened. A question was asked that I could answer: “Can you name the last person who told you they loved you?” My heart melted as I remembered, vividly and without hesitation, my children running for the bus that very morning, yelling over their shoulders simultaneously, “Love you!” Another question was asked, and again I had the answer: “Can you name the last person who hugged you?” Certainly. Most definitely. Still others: “Can you name a person who showed you a kindness recently?” Of course. “Can you name a person to whom youshowed a kindness recently.” Again, of course. Yes, of course. “Can you name someone whose smile makes a difference in your day? Or a teacher whose dedication made a difference in your life?” Yes, yes I know. Oh, who to choose. There are so many. The announcer continued to speak of the friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers who touch our lives, and I continued to smile. He spoke of encouragement, of helpfulness, of thoughtfulness, and of charity. I felt like laughing out loud. What a way to start one’s day! And on a Monday! In the rain! The announcer’s lesson would fit in a nutshell: Kindness matters. It is longed for and lived for. And it is remembered. The mighty accomplishments and praiseworthy achievements of past and present may be chiseled in stone, but our individual hearts will recognize, first and foremost, the simple deeds of love and kindness which have left their imprint on our own humanity. Truly, to give love and receive love in the common moments of everyday life are goals as worthy as all others.
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” John Wesley
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And just because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Edward Hale
“Make a rule and pray to God to help you keep it, never, if possible, to lie down at night without being able to say, ‘I have made one human being a little wiser, or a little happier, or at least a little better this day.’” Charles Kingsley
“They might not need me, but they might. I’ll let my head be just in sight. A smile as small as mine might be precisely their necessity.” Emily Dickinson
Divine Shepherd Lutheran Church at Steeple View Mother’s Day Banquet and Ladies Tea
Pennington was invited to present “A Walk Down Memory Lane” at the annual banquet for mothers and daughters of the Divine Shepherd Lutheran Church in May. The author is returning to Steeple View to deliver her program “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” in December of 2012.
Soo Locks Boat Tours dinner cruise
What a memorable evening! Pennington presented her “Christmas Tree Ship” programin Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Bridge connecting Canada and Michigan on June 28, 2012. Guests on board the dinner cruise were treated to a roast turkey feast with all the trimmings while their vessel was captained by “Santa Claus.” The event ended with a sky of fireworks as the bridge was illuminated from end to end.
UPDATE: Rochelle will be returning in June of 2013 to present two programs for guests on board the Soo Locks Boat Tours. Each of these evening dinner cruise events will include a themed feast. Thursday, June 27, 2013 “Christmas Tree Ship” Friday, June 28, 2013 “The Endurance: History’s Greatest Shipwreck”
Pennington presented her program on the Endurance to residents of The Garlands, a prestigious retirement community in Barrington, Illinois, rated by “U.S. News and World Report” as one of the nation’s top “99.99%” luxury facilities for seniors. She previously presented her “Christmas Tree Ship” program to their residents in 2011 and is returning in December of 2012 to deliver her presentation “Stories Behind Our Most Loved Hymns and Carols.”
Rochelle Pennington with Bruce Darne, Director of the Niagara Public Library
Christmas came early to patrons of the Niagara Public Library when Pennington showed up with a sleigh full of vintage toys (a trunk full, actually) in October and presented her program “An Old-Fashioned Christmas.” Pennington's first visit to the library was in 2007.
In addition to her program at the Niagara Public Library, Pennington will also be visiting several other community libraries in the state of Wisconsin during November and December of 2012 including Fond du Lac, Cedarburg, Hartford, Crivitz, Peshtigo, New Berlin and Waupaca. Pennington is as grateful for her smaller audiences as she is for her large venues.
Comments from Bruce Darne, Director:
"On October 16, 2012, Rochelle Pennington magically transported her audience at the Niagara Public Library back to Christmas past, specifically focusing on the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. I highly recommend Rochelle for any of the presentations that she does. She is highly professional and delights audiences with her sparkling personality and deep knowledge of her subjects."
Ninety residents of the Cedar Ridge Retirement Community in West Bend, Wisconsin gathered to hear Pennington’s “Christmas Tree Ship” program in October. She is returning twice more in 2012 to present her “World War I Christmas Miracle” and her “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” programs.
Pennington has been a frequent lecturer at universities in Michigan and Illinois, as well as for several University of Wisconsin facilities, including multiple visits over the past ten years to UW-Green Bay. She was pleased to be invited back in April 2012 to present her program on the “World War I Christmas Miracle” to Learning in Retirement members. Her course filled to capacity immediately after being announced and 69 students asked to be placed on a cancellation list. Because of this, the event was repeated in October 2012.
Comments from students who attended Rochelle’s presentation were forwarded to the author by the curriculum office of the University:
Beautifully presented, so moving. Spellbinding, Rochelle. Spellbinding. This was a great story told by a great storyteller. Outstanding program. Fascinating. Very well done. Fantastic artifacts. This presenter is amazingly well-informed. Bring her back. Rochelle’s preparation and knowledge are apparent to all who attend any of her programs. A very organized and interesting presentation delivered by a talented and effective speaker. Rochelle’s program of the WWI Christmas truce from her book “Christmas Gifts” was a gift in itself to those in the audience.
Pennington will also be presenting “The Endurance” at the University of Green Bay in 2012.
Cast members of the Antigo Community Theater invited Rochelle Pennington to present her “Christmas Tree Ship” lecture on the eve of November 5, 2012 in the Volm Theater. Pennington’s event was held in conjunction with the theater group’s production of the musical “The Christmas Schooner,” based on the story of the Christmas Tree Ship. The musical was performed under the leadership of the group’s director, Moira Scupien. It is the second time Ms. Scupien has provided the artistic leadership of this musical for her community. (The first performances were held in 2007, at which time Pennington was also present to deliver her historical program about the ship featured in the musical.) Pennington’s evening presentation at the Volm Theater followed an all-day event with seven one-hour workshops for nearly 400 middle school students who were going to attend a special presentation of the musical the following day.
Peter Hirthe (left), President of Wisconsin Marine Historical Society, Rochelle Pennington, author, and John Enright (right), Curator Emeritus at North Point Lighthouse and Board Member of the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society, standing next to the 800-pound Milwaukee harbor fog bell that once served at the Milwaukee harbor entrance. Pennington presented her "Christmas Tree Ship" program at the historic lighthouse. Two of Pennington’s all-time favorite programs over the years were delivered at other historic Great Lakes lighthouses on stormy eves.
On Sunday, November 18, 2012, St. Pauls United Church in Christ in Chicago held an anniversary celebration to honor the loss of the Christmas Tree Ship and its captain, Herman Scheunemann, who was a much-loved member of this congregation a century ago. (The church name is spelled without an apostrophe in the German tradition.)
The archives at St. Pauls are filled with references to the many kindnesses and acts of generosity done by Captain Herman and Barbara Schueneman, as well as by their children.
Rochelle Pennington was honored to be present during the all-day festivities which included a memorial worship service, a musical, educational programs, historic exhibits, and a German feast.
The front and back covers of the church’s commemorative booklet are below.
Pennington has made annual trips to Munster, Indiana for several years to present programs to residents of Hartsfield Village. On November 20, 2012 she shared artifacts from the sunken “Christmas Tree Ship” with her audience in commemoration of the story’s 100th anniversary. It’s always a homecoming when Rochelle returns to Hartsfield because she has come to know and love individuals in her audience there, as well as the program directors, Nan and Karen, who initially invited her for her first visit back in 2006.
Rochelle Pennington will be returning in November 2012 to speak at the Door County Maritime Museum, one of the most respected maritime facilities on the Great Lakes. It is the author’s fourth invitation to lecture for this organization during the past decade. It will be her first non-nautical speech at the museum.
Happy Thanksgiving from Rochelle Pennington
Peace and plenty to you and yours!
The author’s 2012 reflections on gratitude and the importance of family:
My grandparents were farmers. They lived in a big, old house on a little plot of land nestled amidst rolling hills in rural Wisconsin. There, my grandparents raised chickens and calves and corn and cabbages—and nine children. And there, on eighty acres total, they harvested lands, lessons, and lives. They understood that there was a law which governs the promise of harvest, a law which applies to all of life—to fields and to families. Simply, the law is this: That which is sown will be that which is grown. Grandpa said it this way: “You can’t plant tomatoes and expect to harvest beans.” My grandfather used this simple truth to gather his bounty. The same principle of harvest was at work in regards to his lands as was at work in his life, the exact same. He knew this, and understood—with clear-eyed common sense—that what he experienced in terms of love, joy, and peace would be the result of what he purposed for. And so it is with us. When we seed our families with laughter and love, with sharing and caring, with simplicity and with thankfulness, the harvest comes. Again, that which is sown will be that which is grown. Beans from beans. Corn from corn. Peace from peace. Love from love. There’s no other way. Seed by seed, deed by deed, we turn the soil of our souls over in our lives and plant something there, and that something begins to grow—unseen at first, but not at the last. My grandfather seeded gratitude into his life and, because of this, he didn’t need a calculator to tally his wealth; he only needed his eyes. His “gold” was spilled out all around him—in the cornfields ripening behind his farmhouse, in the hair on the blond heads of his little ones, in the amber of his wife’s eyes, and in the sunrises that spread themselves across the heavens at dawn as barnyard roosters crowed “Good morning!” in welcome. What mattered most, to him, was knowing that those he loved—and who loved him in return—were nearby. Nothing in the world, he believed, was more worth having. My grandfather. He was a man who could be filled with happiness at day’s end simply by reaching for a doorknob attached to a place called home, a place where people ate meals together as a family and sat on mismatched chairs gathered around a wooden table in the kitchen at suppertime to eat chicken and ham and soup and casseroles and mashed potatoes and gravy—those stick-to-your-ribs kind of foods that were served when no one knew what calories were, much less how to count them. It was a time when the sound of clanging kettles being pulled from cupboards could be heard in every house in the neighborhood daily as home-cooked meals were being prepared. And it was a time when conversations around those kitchen tables amounted to nothing in particular—an aproned mother sharing news from a letter received in the mail from a distant relative, an older brother warning a younger one to quit crossing his eyes or they would stay that way, a little sister rambling on about tea parties and teddy bears. There was, and still is, a certain satisfaction in plain-spoken talk, in hearing someone ask you, “How was your day?” Home was a place where a made-from-scratch apple pie could be found baking in the oven, a pie that would later be served up with a heaping helping of ice cream after the kids finished reading aloud on the sofa about a boy name Dick, a girl named Jane, and a dog named Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run. Home meant homework and housework, and doing dishes—You wash, I’ll dry. Andseeing jars of pickles with dill sprigs inside lined up smartly along pantry shelves, and smelling laundry from the washline scented with fresh air, and hearing a mother rocking her babe into a gentle slumber with a lullaby so sweet that even songbirds outside the window would pause for those musical kisses goodnight. And home meant listening to the poetry of cribs and cradles—babies cooing forth conversations in a language only God could understand. It’s when I’m rocking my own grandchildren these days that I find myself thinking more and more about things that matter most, like how a person can live for a long time—years and years and years—without ever realizing that they already have all that they need, or realizing that happiness is not a place we can arrive at because we’re already there. Maybe this thing called “happiness” is simply about choosing to place a higher value on the moments in front of us instead of chasing after the monumental ones in a distant future. I can’t say for certain, but I am beginning to believe this is true. I do know for sure, however, that my grandchildren remind me that using my time to worry about shoes that match dresses and purses that match shoes is not nearly as important as taking time with them to watch a sunset being painted with such splendidness that it appears to be an opened box of Crayola crayons. They remind me that doing nothing can be a very good use of a person’s time. So we keep a slower pace and dangle our bare feet from the end of piers and crawl on the ground looking for bugs while we wear out the knees on our pants; pants we can get more of, but time we can’t—it’s blinked away. Just thinking about my grandchildren right now is making me hungry for a lollipop, a licorice stick, a lopsided ice-cream cone, and a blue M&M. And a frosted cupcake with sprinkles. I will see them tomorrow, but I wish I could see them this very minute so I could zip them up in their feetie pajamas, wrap them in their favorite blankie, and tell them a bedtime story about a magical pumpkin carriage or a purple unicorn. We could walk through their garden in the twilight and watch butterflies dancing to “pretty music” only children hear. But I must wait until tomorrow when we will buy tickets for the carousel at Lakeside Park in Fond du Lac and keep company with a few elaborately carved prancing ponies riding along on their enchanted way. I know it seems silly, but I really do love that carousel. In truth, I even keep a photo of it here at my desk, right beside me. My father is in this photo. He’s sitting on a picnic table next to the carousel as he watches it go round and round. Sophie Grace, his great-granddaughter, is deciding which horsie to ride. My dad is smiling. It’s his smile I see, even though other people would probably notice something different—maybe his oxygen tank, or those tubes carrying breath into him. Yet he, my dad, is smiling. This was the last photo ever taken of him, on Father’s Day 2008, because shortly thereafter he went to live with God instead of with us. So I will remember him tomorrow when I visit one of the many places he loved, and I will give thanks for the immeasurable contribution he made to my personhood. I will sit on a picnic table and take a backwards glance over half a century of time as I recall my visits to this park with my folks in the summertime, and in the winter too, to see the red lightbulb that the park caretakers screwed into the tiptop of the lighthouse at Christmas so youngsters would believe that Rudolph was in flight over their city. Then the grandkids and I will retrace our steps back to the car, and I will turn my head and take one final glance at the whimsical horses going round and round, and on and on, like life. I’ll strain to keep that music with me as long as I am able as I drive away, and I’ll smile, just like dad, while reflecting on the noble undertaking called parenting. I’ll think about those things that families hold most dear, those things they are protective over: their traditions, their photos—carried around in wallets and framed on living room walls, the words they repeat every time they hug one another goodbye—“I miss you already,” the yellowed newspaper clippings, folded up neatly inside a family Bible, announcing the arrival of naked newborns, and, of course, those recipes handed down from one generation to the next—like the stuffing recipe my family makes every Thanksgiving Day. One bite is all it takes for me to know that I am home, it is Thanksgiving, and there is no better place in the whole world to be at that moment than where I am, among members of my scattered family, now gathered, some who have known me since the first hour of my life. We’re nourished, as families, by more than food. And more than blood unites us—our shared memories do too. These are the links that bond one generation to another, the fenceposts that hold everything together. They represent the history of who we are and where we came from, a place called home, with its cookie cutters, cupcake tins, ice-cream scoopers, and loved ones asking “Would you please pass the soup?” on those days when the only thing you really needed was a warm breeze to blow the laundry dry.
November 23-24, 2012:
Author Rochelle Pennington was a featured guest at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Christmas Tree Ship in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Also in attendance was Eric Forsberg, one of America's foremost nautical painters. Forsberg's artwork on the Christmas Tree Ship is featured in Pennington's book "Christmas Gifts: Ten of the Greatest Ever Given." The author and the artist are currently collaborating on another forthcoming project titled "Greatest Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes," due for release in late 2014 or early 2015.
100th Anniversary Two-Day Celebration:
The Two Rivers commemoration event included a parade, a musical, a choral concert, a fisherman's feast, a wreath-laying ceremony, exhibits, a display of artifacts, and a reception of guest dignitaries. Rochelle Pennington is shown in the photo above left next to Dr. William Ehling. Dr. Ehling, age 82, a retired physician who traveled from central Illinois for the event, is the last surviving grandson of the original captain of the Christmas Tree Ship. He is standing beside the ship's wheel.
Rochelle has travelled to central Illinois each Christmas to spend time with the descendants of the original captain. The family "adopted" Rochelle over a decade ago when she was doing her research. Dr. Ehling reminds Rochelle always, "You are a daughter to me."
In the photo above right, the eldest great-granddaughter of Captain Santa of the Christmas Tree Ship, Barbara Ehling from Illinois, is shown furthest left, standing with (from left to right) Maggie Becker-Koeppe of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, Rochelle Pennington, and Laurel Jasmin of Manistique, Michigan. Laurel Jasmin is the Chairperson for the Christmas Tree Ship Advisory Committee in the State of Michigan. She and her team were directly responsible for the 2006 placement of the State of Michigan historical marker honoring the Christmas Tree Ship. Mrs. Jasmin stayed with the Pennington family during her three-day stay in Wisconsin. Maggie Becker-Koeppe was Chairperson of the Wisconsin 100th Anniversary Celebration in Two Rivers.
November 29, 2012
Pennington returned to Clement Manor Center for Enrichment for the fifth year, this time to deliver her “Christmas Tree Ship” presentation to another packed audience.
The author worked with The Weather Channel in 2003 for a television special which featured the historic Yuletide ship. The Weather Channel’s production has aired nationally every Christmas since 2004 as their Storm Stories holiday offering. Pennington was interviewed multiple times during this previous documentary.
November 29, 2012, Door County Maritime Museum, “World War I Christmas Miracle” presentation
The director of the museum is delivering an introduction in the photo above.
November 30, 2012 Chicago, Illinois
Rochelle Pennington was one of the featured presenters at the Chicago History Museum’s centennial commemoration ceremony honoring the loss of the original Christmas Tree Ship in 1912.
Another full-house audience greeted Rochelle Pennington at the Burlington Historical Society where she delivered “A Walk Down Memory Lane” on Sunday, December 2, 2012. It is the fourth time the author has been the presenter for the members’ Christmas gathering. She will be returning in 2013 to present her brand-new holiday program “Christmas with George Washington: Valley Forge, Crossing the Delaware, and Washington’s Farewell Address to Congress.” Pennington’s fascinating program will detail three separate Christmases and will highlight President Washington’s “gift” to America.
Rochelle Pennington was honored to be invited to speak to LIR members of the University of Wisconsin Parkside on December 3, 2012. Committee organizers were pleased to share with the author that this was the largest response to a banquet speaker that they have received in their organization’s history.
Comments from Moreau MacCaughey, Program Director:
Your presentation at last week’s A.L.L. Holiday Gala was outstanding. The members of our organization were fascinated by the story of the Christmas Tree Ship and by the amount of research that obviously went into your preparation for this book and program. They appreciated your enthusiasm about the story of the ship and about the actual people involved. The photographs and artifacts from the ship made for a delightful collection. Being able to hold an actual tree from a ship that sank 100 years ago made for a very personal connection for members who took advantage of this opportunity. Thank you once again for sharing your time, enthusiasm, and this story with us. It was a wonderfully warm way to begin celebrating this Christmas season and everyone left feeling happy and filled with wonder at how this simple story has lived on. Members who were present made a point after, in other settings, to tell me how much they enjoyed and appreciated your presentation; and members who were unable to attend told me how disappointed they were to have missed your program. I suspect we will meet again, given the variety of programs you offer.
Cedarburg Public Library December 2012 "An Old-Fashioned Christmas"
Hartford Public Library December 2012 "An Old-Fashioned Christmas"
Peshtigo Public Library December 2012 "An Old-Fashioned Christmas"
Pennington returned to the Fond du Lac Public Library in December 2012 to present her “WWI Christmas Miracle” program to an even larger audience than the one which greeter her the previous Christmas.
Rochelle Pennington was invited on December 13, 2012, to present the Christmas Tree Ship story to the entire Crivitz Elementary School. The author presented back-to-back programs all day to hundreds of enthusiastic kindergarten through sixth-grade students. In the evening, she presented the story at a dinner banquet to Board members of the Crivitz Public Library, Board members of the Northeast Reading Council, and members of the Crivitz Women's Club.
Comments from Judith Marchewka, Northeast Reading Council Board member:
“It has been such a pleasure getting to know you, Rochelle, and having this experience. I also wanted to tell you what a wonderful connection you have with children of all ages, especially in making them feel that their questions and comments are truly important and special to your presentation. Our children will never forget how you made them feel. Merry Christmas!”
Photo above by Andrew Kuehl, Editor and Publisher of The Statesman.
The December 13, 2012, edition of The Statesman announced Pennington's forthcoming book signing at The Candy Tree with the words, "These days Rochelle Pennington could use Santa's sleigh and reindeer to help her reach destinations where she is making personal appearances. Last week, the author signed books and spoke in three different states in four days." Rochelle is pictured with Chris Jung, owner of The Candy Tree.
Pennington returned to the Cordia retirement community in Westmont, Illinois for the sixth Christmas in a row where she presented “Ten of the Greatest Christmas Gifts Ever Given” to residents.
Pennington returned to Lincoln Lutheran Village retirement community in Racine, Wisconsin to present “Stories Behind Our Most Loved Hymns and Carols” to residents. The author has presented all ten of her various programs at this location over the years.
Photo above: Knights of Columbus community Christmas party for needy families
Pennington was honored to be invited to be a storyteller as part of the entertainment to over a hundred children at this annual gathering.
On December 15, 2012, Pennington presented the Christmas Tree Ship program to a sold-out audience at the Greendale Visitor Center, formerly the Reiman Center, publisher of the national bestselling Reminisce magazine. The Center is also home to the Taste of Home magazine test kitchen and is a popular tour bus stop. The Greendale village is a "Norman Rockwell" community.
December 16, 2012
Photo above: A crowd began to gather in the pews of the 1864 Civil War church on the historic grounds of the Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois to listen to Pennington’s telling of the Christmas Tree Ship from the altar area. Museum staff shared with Rochelle that they experienced their largest pre-event ticket sales number that they have had for their History Speaks Lecture Series.
Pennington’s first visit to Naper Settlement was in 2006 when she was invited to speak to select donors of the museum as part of their “An Intimate Evening with an Author” event.
December 17, 2012, Parkview Middle School
250 sixth-grade students listened attentively to Pennington’s telling of the Christmas Tree Ship story. The author answered an entire hour’s worth of questions from the students following her speech.
The Blue Harbor Resort, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, hosted Pennington on Friday, December 21, 2012 for the telling of the Christmas Tree Ship legend to diners in their elegant Latitude 43 restaurant. Pennington’s podium was set in front of a massive wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan where the waves were still rolling following a record blizzard which hit the day prior.
A 2012 “Merry Christmas” from Rochelle Pennington, along with the author’s annual thoughts on this “Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
“Hey! Look at that nutty car!” A woman I had never seen before was pointing to an older-model Buick sitting in the parking lot of a mall she was coming out of and I was heading in. “I see it,” I responded, smiling. “It sure would take a real kook to drive around in that thing.” A large wreath was fastened to the front bumper of the car, and a red bow was attached to the wreath. An ornament dangled from the car’s rearview mirror, and seated in the back was an unusual passenger: a life-sized, stuffed, happy-faced Grinch wearing a Santa Claus suit. The only thing this vehicle seemed to be missing was a “HONK IF YOU LOVE CHRISTMAS” sign. We had a good laugh, this stranger and I, and then she left, and I was kind of glad because that meant she wouldn’t be around to see me load my packages into the trunk of that car when I finished my shopping and drive back home. OK, OK, I will admit it. I get a little crazy at Christmas. Like the time I talked the folks over at Spencer Gifts into selling me the six-foot, two-inch Grinch in their storefront window display. Or the time I was in high school and asked my manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken to “please, please, please, please” schedule all of my December work hours around the TV Guide listing of holiday specials because I just had to be home to watch Frosty and Rudolph and Charlie Brown and a whole bunch of others. Think tantrum. (And, yes, I was in high school.) This happened during the pre-VCR/DVD days in the 1970s when you only got one chance to see a special. If you missed it, you missed it until the following year. But I didn’t experience such a disappointment because my boss at KFC finagled my schedule. Thanks again, Mr. Knoeck! There is just something I love about Christmas. And what exactly is it? Well, let’s see… It’s bright red poinsettias and letters addressed to the North Pole with misspelled words. And it's gingerbread men and velvet dresses. And staircase banisters decorated with yards and yards of fresh pine boughs. It’s nutcracker soldiers and carolers. And paper chains, tinsel, mistletoe, and Yule logs. Christmas, to me, means driving through neighborhoods to look at lights, and standing in the middle of a Christmas tree lot while breathing in deeply the first scent of the holiday. What I love about Christmas is honey-basted ham and nutty fudge. And those little pretzels dipped in white chocolate. And frosted cookies delivered in tin canisters. And cranberry punch and eggnog and pistachio nuts and popcorn balls wrapped in red cellophane paper. I love listening to Bing Crosby croon “White Christmas” from my old record player, and hearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir harmonize “Silent Night” from a radio station in my car playing continuous holiday music. Christmas, to me, means finding pretty cards inside colored envelopes waiting for me within my mailbox, and hearing the jingle bells attached to my front doorknob ring as friends who live nearby arrive to extend their greetings in person. It's gathering and toasting to, over the clink of glasses, the health and happiness of all. What I love about Christmas is waiting to agree with Tiny Tim at the end of “A Christmas Carol” as he closes Charles Dickens’ immortal masterpiece with the words: “God bless us, everyone!” Christmas, to me, means seeing children perform nativity pageants in homemade costumes sewn from bed sheets secured with safety pins, and believing, in childlike faith, along with Virginia, that there really is a Santa Claus. There is just something about the season that makes my heart sing—like it does on Christmas morning when I look into the eyes of a child who has just spotted a teddy bear, a choo-choo train, a rocking horse, or a red cowboy hat beneath the tree. Christmas has come once again, and I will watch for elves peeking in through window panes because you just never know, and I will be reminded by George Bailey that it really is a wonderful life after all. Soon, I will gather with those whom I love so much. I will open my arms wide, holding each of them longer and closer, near to my heart, because some of them have been away, but now they are home again because it is Christmas. I love Christmas simply because I do, but I love it mostly because the holy night is approaching. My family and I will bundle ourselves on the sacred Eve and travel to the stone chapel in the country where my mother was baptized, and her mother. Before I enter the sanctuary, I will look into the night sky at the stars beneath the heavens, just as those wise men did so long ago, and I will wonder anew at what they heard there once upon a time when that first flutter of an angel’s wing reached their ears. Then, steeple bells will ring out, summoning all, and I will be among those who hear the old, old story read again by candlelight. I will close my eyes as I listen, and in those moments of holiness I will believe, as I do every year, that the “peace on earth” printed in those Christmas cards back home is possible. May it be so. And that, to me, is Christmas. Rochelle Pennington, 2012
What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, and hope for the future. It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal, and that every path may lead to peace.”
Agnes M. Pharo
Disclaimer to event coordinators: Rochelle does not drive her “Christmas Spirit on Wheels” vehicle to her programs. She will arrive in a Chevrolet Trailblazer and will be disguised as a normal person.
A pot of chili was enjoyed by fourteen cookie-bakers at a family-and-friends cookie exchange gathering. An award for the most festive attire was presented after the meal. (Rochelle’s next grandchild is under the apron in row one. E.T.A.—Estimated Time of Arrival—January 6, 2013.)
Let’s dance and sing and make good cheer for Christmas comes but once a year. Sir George Alexander Macfarren
Merry Christmas from our family to yours!
Above left: Rochelle and her granddaughter, Sophie Grace, played their first piano duet in church, Christmas 2012. Above right: Grandson Reid James was a shepherd in our community parade.
Above left: Rochelle and her husband have attended “A Christmas Carol” at the historic Pabst Theater in Milwaukee for the past 34 years. Their children and grandchildren attend with them, along with Rochelle’s mother, the last surviving great-grandparent of their grandchildren. Above right: There’s nothing quite like chopping down your own Christmas tree at a farm where the farmer dresses up like Santa Claus and hauls you to his “back forty” in a hay wagon. When you’re returned to the barn area after you’ve shouted “timber,” a bonfire and hot chocolate are waiting for you.
Above photos: Grandma Rochelle and Papa Chet took Sophie and Reid to the annual “Nutcracker in the Castle” children’s event at the Paine Art Center in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The Paine is considered one of “America’s castles” and their presentation allows youngsters to be introduced to the “Nutcracker” story by making them feel as if they have stepped inside the pages of a storybook. Magical!
Rochelle Pennington’s Christmas column from 2001 was rerun at Christmas 2012 following commentary on the Newton, Connecticut tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
A Christmas Tribute on the 11th Christmas after the 9-11Tragedy
The sky was blue until it turned black. It was black and blue in New York City on September 11, 2001. Black and blue—like the people pulled from beneath the rubble under the tumbled towers. And red like the blood. And yellow like the fire. And white—white ash from the yellow fire was falling everywhere, on everyone, and little children in short-sleeved shirts wanted to know why it was snowing. What would you have told those little kids? I really don’t know what I would have said, and so I ask. How does a person look into innocent eyes and explain that the snow falling is not the weather kind, but the destruction kind? It snowed on September 11, 2001, this “Second Day of Infamy,” as it had snowed back on the first in 1941 when six million Jews were being incinerated in concentration camp furnaces across Germany. Their ashen remains then poured forth from great smokestacks and were carried away by pallbearer winds. A young woman recorded the horrors of what happened when hell came knocking on Germany’s door in her little diary. Her name was Anne Frank, a mere child who wrote with the wisdom of an aged one. Reading her words can make a person’s hair stand on end, especially if it’s dark—like it was in Germany when those Nazi furnaces were burning long and hot. It was a time in our world’s history when darkness came calling, and decided to stay. The Nazis were coming for the doomed Jews, and this meant they were coming for Anne. She knew it. Many whom she loved had already been turned into snow—and not the weather kind. But before those Nazis came, young Miss Anne had something to say, and it was this: “I still believe that people are really good at heart. If I look up to the heavens, I think that it will all come right, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” That, my friend, is the voice of hope. I can stare long and hard at her words, reading them over and over, and still they will affect me. What made it possible for Anne to see past the hatred and horror living in her midst and hold fast to a belief in peace, tranquility, and goodness? If she had survived, we could ask her, but she didn’t. So now we must seek for ourselves other voices who, like Anne, understand the language of tears, and yet keep believing that light will find its way—despite the pain, despite everything. Such voices were found in New York City in December 2001, three short months after the Twin Towers were thrown down, and nearly 3,000 lives with them. The voices I speak of were gathered around a Christmas tree. It was a huge tree, absolutely gigantic. Those New Yorkers went out and cut themselves down the biggest tree they could find and erected it in Rockefeller Center. Then they started putting lights on the tree. Lights and more lights. Why? Because New Yorkers had a message they wanted to send to the world about how they were doing since the 9-11 tragedy assaulted their beloved hometown, and they chose their tree to say it: “Never brighter!” So said the tree. The eight-ton evergreen was reported on by The New York Times under the headline “Tall Enough for the World to See.” For those who were privileged to look upon the tree, the sight will be remembered always—especially those lights. There were blue lights—blue like the uniforms police officers wore as they ran alongside firemen into buildings that everyone else ran out of on September 11. And white lights—white like the hospital uniforms doctors and nurses wore as they toiled tirelessly, serving victims wheeled into ERs around the city; and white like the signs held up on street corners when the sirens passed by, signs that read: “Thank You,” “You’re Appreciated,” “God Bless America,” and “Keep the Faith.” And red—red like the hearts inside of all those heroes at Ground Zero who felt the blood of bravery pumping through their veins. Hearts have pounded before, triumphing over tragedies that tested them. What do you suppose you would have heard if you had listened to the chest of one of the Allied soldiers who stormed into Germany to shut those furnaces off over a half a century ago? You would have heard something that sounded like a jackhammer, that’s what you would have heard. On a beach named Normandy, on a day called “D,” those soldiers set out. If they hadn’t, would the six million have turned into sixty? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: When a trial is at its worst, courage is at its best. That’s how it works. We saw it on September 11, 2001. That was the day that four hi-jacked planes were crashed into three buildings and too many people died. It was a punch no one saw coming—a hard punch that knocked a couple of really big buildings in Manhattan down. But that punch could not knock the spirit of the people down. Those New Yorkers believed they were bigger than their tragedy, and stronger than their pain. And then they put up their tree as a testimony that light could shine out of darkness. And so it did. Rochelle Pennington
Home of the Free, Home of the Brave A Christmastime Salute to Our Troops
I was six-years-old at the time. It was wartime and I knew this, but not really. I overheard talk from grown-ups sitting at kitchen tables who discussed places with strange names on the other side of the world, and I listened. There had also been talk of sons called up and drafted out. I didn’t know what kind of draft this was, and I never thought to ask. The only draft I was familiar with was the kind that blew in the door behind me on cold Wisconsin days. My brother paid closer attention to the soldier talk than I did. Maybe this was because he was older. I don’t know. Or maybe it was because he was a son and wondered if his name would one day be discussed around kitchen tables. Whatever his reason happened to be, he knew what it was, and I did not. He kept a pile of small, plastic army men in his bedroom. You could buy a whole bag of these two-inch-tall green men, molded into many different positions, down at the Ben Franklin for a dollar. My brother would line the soldiers up around his room—some on his dresser, some on his floor, and some on his windowsill hidden behind curtains. These plastic toys were the only experience I had with soldiers until the night one of them came to life. It happened at the West Bend Christmas parade in 1969. My dad, my mom, and us kids were standing on a curb while the parade marched by. Everything we hoped to see that night came down the street from around the corner—snowmen, elves, gingerbread men, nutcrackers, and bands. Santa would be last, as he always was, and it was almost time to wave at the master toymaker. And that’s when it happened. From around the corner—the same corner we were expecting to see the Santa float come rolling around—came a long, flat trailer. No lights decorated it. No costumed angels or shepherds were riding on top. Nothing. Streamers didn’t hang from its edges, and speakers weren’t playing pre-taped holiday music from its rear. It was simply a long, flat, stark trailer, empty in all ways except for a lone man who stood at its center, a man who looked exactly like the green, plastic soldiers back home, but this soldier was real. Painted on the backdrop behind the solitary man who stood at attention were the words “I’ll be home for Christmas.” And then it started to rain. I will remember it for always. It rained from the hearts of old men who saluted the soldier back, old men who knew of other Christmases and other wars, and I watched their memories run down their cheeks. Tears fell from the cheeks of young women as they looked at the soldier who, in that moment, represented every soldier. Would they see their loves again? Perhaps soon, perhaps not. The sign on the reverse side of the backdrop answered such a question. It could be read as the plastic man who was real rolled past us, heading down the street. There, in simple black letters on the rear of the trailer were painted the words: “If only in my dreams.” Mothers set their jaws, squared their shoulders, and attempted to be brave. Were they thinking about their boys so far away, boys they prayed for as they marched into battle to protect the lives of their loved ones back home? Something happened on that curbside. I was just a little girl, but I knew it, and felt it, and saw it. It would take a long time for me to figure out exactly what that was and, in truth, I’m still trying. Looking back at the Christmas of the plastic man, as I’ve done most Christmases since, usually when I’m on my way to another parade, I remember the night I stood in my little fur-lined boots in the snow. What was the power in those moments that left its impression on my young life and is with me still? Was it the contrast of two worlds meeting on that street corner, the contrast of a world where the bounty of freedom is enjoyed and a world where the price of that freedom is paid? Maybe. It’s hard to say. Yet harder still is to remember that there are places where Christmas exists only in the hearts and minds of those who left it behind them, those who, like our soldiers, know all too well that there are no Christmas trees in trenches or choirs on the front lines singing about Bethlehem, places where it might be another year before you taste one of your mother’s Christmas cookies because you’re sitting in a fox hole instead of in your favorite chair beside the fireside back home. We kiss our loved ones goodbye and they kiss us back. And then we send them off to places we’d rather not, and they go willingly because freedom has a price and bravery must pay it. America has never been short on bravery—never, ever. It lies in the hearts of the ones who go, and it lies in the hearts of the loved ones who send them, those who must wave goodbye and wait and wonder about those places they’d rather not, for this too takes courage. My husband and I will wander down to the Christmas parade again this year, as we do every year. The little ones we once towed along will join us, even though they are now grown, our oldest being about the same age as the plastic man from long ago. As the parade passes me by, I will think about my memory’s soldier and reflect on the price my own children and grandchildren may one day be called on to pay and, knowing this, I will keep my eye on the chair by the fireside come Christmas.Rochelle Pennington
“Freedom is still expensive. It still costs money, and it still costs blood. It still calls for courage and endurance, not only in soldiers, but in every man and woman who is free, and who is determined to remain so.” Harry S. Truman
“America will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” Elmer David