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Historic Human of the Hilltop: The legacy of Barbara Penelton

Barbara Penelton in her Westlake Hall office in 1995. Photo via Kim Smith Penelton-Campbell.

No university is an island. The hands of thousands of faculty go into its infrastructure to mold the growth of the students within their environment.

There’s no way students could learn the names of them all, which only raises the question of what it takes for one of those names to make such a strong impact that it reverberates throughout the mouths and minds of future generations for decades.

Bradley has one such name in Barbara Penelton: the university’s first African American female faculty member. With her comes a benchmark of dedication and perseverance that stands strong long after her passing.

She was born Barbara Spencer in Chicago on April 8, 1937, and crossed paths with her lifelong passion for teaching at an early age, both from time spent in Chicago Public Schools and on the city’s south side with her aunt.

Penelton at age 22. Photo via Kim Smith Penelton-Campbell.

She attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to study education, eventually earning an M.S. in 1961. While enrolled as an undergraduate, she was regularly faced with the racial injustices of the time, including the segregation of student housing. However, this drove her passion for sororities, as fellow members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter lived together in a house. This focus on community – especially in the face of unjust systems – would follow her throughout her life.

During this time, Penelton also met fellow Chicagoan Frank Smith.

They married and had two daughters: Kim Penelton-Campbell and Lisa Penelton.

According to Penelton-Campbell, who currently works as a medical journal manuscript editor, her mother’s drive to teach was immediate and irreversible, indicative through stories she often shared with her children. Penelton wanted to go to college as a child and thought her only two choices were nursing or teaching. She hated the sight of blood, and so the decision was made. After college, Penelton taught for Chicago Public Schools, the same school system that helped plant her passion.

Penelton-Campbell noted that there were significant differences between the living room and the classroom personas of Penelton, mainly through the firm leadership and high expectations she stepped into as a mother.

“At home, she would not accept use of poor grammar – even in jest,” Penelton-Campbell said. “She’d say, ‘Never try to look unintelligent to fit in with friends. It’s OK to be smart.’”

Penelton-Campbell admitted that the discrepancies between Penelton as a teacher and a parent were occasionally noticeable.

“[Students would] often say to my sister [Lisa] or to me, ‘Your mom is so understanding; you can tell her anything,’” Penelton-Campbell said. “My sister and I would often reflect to each other, ‘Who are they talking about?’”

In 1966, she moved to Peoria after accepting a position as director of education for the Peoria Tri-County Urban League. At this point, she was one year removed from her divorce with Smith when she met Peoria journalist Richard Penelton, who had studied journalism at Bradley and written for The Scout in the 1950s. They would marry two years later in 1968.

In 1969, she joined the faculty at Bradley, recruited directly by then-president Talman Van Ausdale. She worked as an education instructor, a graduate adviser of the university’s Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority chapter and chair of the university’s Department of Teacher Education in the College of Education and Health Sciences.

Penelton at age 32. Photo via Kim Smith Penelton-Campbell.

Penelton’s strong beliefs in community and positivity guided her approach to reach out to those around her, according to her Bradley colleagues.

“I enjoyed working with Dr. Penelton, as she was always upbeat with a smile,” Celia Johnson, an emeritus professor of education at Bradley, said. “She understood the demands on faculty and always worked to set people up for success.”

Tracy Walker, former president of the Bradley University Black Alumni Alliance (BUBAA), met Penelton in 1995 as a freshman.

“She was an advocate,” Walker said. “She did what she could to help everyone. She was always working on behalf of students. It didn’t matter what program you were in or your connection to her.”

Walker said Penelton gravitated toward students and crafted nothing but exemplary cases of what teacher-student relationships should look like.

Penelton-Campbell also recalled numerous stories exemplifying just how committed Penelton was to the well-being of her students. Penelton would often advise students to do better in college on the account that their parents were paying money for them to learn – not to party through it.

In other scenarios, she would make her lessons to particular students a little more personal – and a lot more in-person.

Photo via Bradley Special Collections Center.

“One of my friends took one of her classes and opted to skip several sessions while opting to sleep over with a boyfriend on campus,” Penelton-Campbell said. “Mom went to his apartment, knocked on the door and told her that she needed to get out of bed with that boy and bring herself to class, [and] that sleeping with him was not going to earn a degree for her.”

Penelton-Campbell said her ability to use teaching to communicate with others was a special gift.

“Her gift was that of imparting a message in a positive way such that the recipient of her message welcomed the instruction instead of deflecting it,” Penelton-Campbell said. “Sometimes the message was communicated through humor. Sometimes, it was craftily posed as a question with options, and the student was able to consider the options and, in an empowering way, derive his or her own solution.”

Penelton gained a reputation as a calm mediator between students and administrators.

Penelton in 1972. Photo via Anaga 1972 (Bradley Special Collections Center)

“She lived and instilled [in] her students to be fearless,” Walker said. “She spoke her mind and stood up for what she believed. She was a champion for what is right.”

“She could be counted on to be there for others, she provided a new perspective to challenging situations, she had sincere concern for others, and she modeled strength when faced with others’ intimidation,” Johnson said.

Penelton’s dedication to the Bradley community persisted through personal hardships. When her husband Richard passed away of lung cancer in June 1972, she took the summer to meditate and be with her family, and made the decision to jump back into action as soon as she could.

“When the school year resumed, she said, ‘I have two girls to raise and no husband. In order to progress on Bradley’s faculty, I must earn a doctorate,’” Penelton-Campbell said.

Penelton would go on to complete her coursework at Indiana University in 1977 while raising her daughters and continuing to work, aside from sabbatical leaves.

Johnson recalled that Penelton applied herself to her home life with equal vigor, topping family on her list of values. Meetings couldn’t be held before 9:30 a.m. and were often held in Penelton’s home.

Penelton’s openness and generosity toward students – which usually took the place of turning one of her daughters’ bedrooms into a guest room – became a commonplace occurrence.

Penelton in 1977 upon completing her doctorate.

Penelton-Campbell mentioned that one time, when a student became pregnant and grew scared to break the news to her parents in Chicago, Penelton welcomed her as a long-term guest until after her baby was born.

“She wanted our home and her emotional and academic support to serve as a resource for young women while away from their home of origin and enrolled at Bradley,” Penelton-Campbell said.

Penelton retired from Bradley in 2002, a year after receiving the Putnam Award for Excellence in Teaching, although she continued teaching fairly regularly afterward. She remained active in the community and was awarded an induction into the local African American Hall of Fame and the Mergen Award for Public Service for her contributions to the Peoria community.

According to Penelton-Campbell, she had always wanted to write children’s books and gave much of her spare time to younger generations. She volunteered as a classroom grandmother for local kindergarteners, and also collected historic editions of children’s books about Black and Native American children.

“She felt that it was important to show people that these early children’s books contained derogatory images and messages that negatively affected the self-esteem of children of color,” Penelton-Campbell said.

Unfortunately, her writing dream would go unfulfilled.

Penelton in 2020. Photo via Kim Smith Penelton-Campbell.

Penelton passed away on March 18, 2013 due to injuries sustained from a head-on car accident. True to her heart for others, she was driving from the home of a childhood friend whom she had convinced to move closer to her loved ones in Peoria and visited almost every day. Subsequently, Bradley flags flew at half-mast in remembrance of her.

“We miss her terribly – every day, every hour, every minute,” Penelton-Campbell said. “But we are grateful that she was one of our family members who constantly emphasized and embodied the importance of us supporting and loving each other. Our family’s commitment to each other and to education in general can be partially attributed to her legacy.”

BUBAA has introduced and continues to award an endowed scholarship in her name.

Barbara Penelton has earned the extensive legacy by which her name shines among the history of Bradley. While that name has many firsts under its belt – first education director of the Tri-County Urban League, first African American female professor at Bradley and author of Peoria School District 150′s first school desegregation plan, to name a few – it was her spirit and character which brought about those achievements.

“Her being Bradley’s first African American female faculty member made her an example of what can occur,” Walker said. “She was viewed as a pillar of the Black community at Badley. Generations of alums discuss how important it was to have her [on] campus.”

Penelton in her home office in 2013, the same year of her death.
“We miss her terribly – every day, every hour, every minute,” her daughter Kim said.

Walker said it was Penelton who inspired her to go into education and have an impact on future generations.

“We must pay it forward … We must still continue on to make an impact … Now it is our turn to continue to strive for diversity, equity and inclusion.”

One Comment

  1. Chinta Strausberg Chinta Strausberg October 17, 2020

    I too miss my cousin. I remember when she announced she would be going back to school to get her Ph.D. I miss her smile, and I miss the many talks and emails we shared about our family history. I looked to her for historical facts like when people on the Internet would claim they were related to the Spencer family. She would rule them out. I often invited her to press conferences to speak about our cousin, Milton Lee Olive, III. My then boss, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, enjoyed her speech at a military museum. He recently mentioned her at an event. The last time, which was one of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s last acts before retiring, she could not make the event and sent her daughter, Kim, to represent her. I miss Barbara Jean, but I am so glad she had two girls to follow in her footsteps. May her soul rest in peace. Chinta Strausberg

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