There isn’t a time in my life that I can’t remember Wardell Pennington. This not-so-large man in stature had a larger-than-life presence wherever he went. For nearly the first 30 years of my life his wife Dorothy was usually right along side. The Penningtons, or Money and Poppy as granddaughter Lindsay named them, were fixtures in our community. Everyone in town knew Money and Poppy and they knew everyone. The Penningtons were neighbors to my mother and her family on Stroud Street in the 1950’s. Wardell had a great sense of humor and liked to joke around, but don’t let that fool you, he was always the hardest worker and could always work circles around anyone a fraction of his age. Although he wasn’t the biggest man, he was definitely the stoutest man in the room. Always. He wasn’t one to start trouble, but he wasn’t afraid to end any possibility of trouble showing its face around him.
As a youngster, a trip to the orthodontist meant a trip around the corner for a cheeseburger at Midway Cafe. Always greeted with a smile and a friendly, “Hey Baby!” and a quick hug and a peck on the cheek if circumstances allowed. Always giving a word of encouragement to all, especially young people. My days were lucky if I made it to the sandwich shop early enough to get a piece of Money’s pies. German chocolate, coconut creme, pecan, and sometimes fried chocolate and peach. I can still taste them. In school, if I were feeling especially clever, I could finagle someone into bringing me a hot lunch to school that always came from Wardell’s. All my schoolmates preferred Wardell’s to the golden arches any day. The cheese was always Velveeta. Those real french fries that had been cut that morning or those hand-dredged onion rings were amazing! No one minded the grease that had to be soaked up before you could devour. Those things were like crack! You could never get enough. Always had to wash it down with a Dr. Pepper. The only options were mustard or mayonaise. To put it simply, Wardell’s burgers were magic.
So many wonderful memories of Money and Poppy flood my mind. Once as a college student, I was sitting at the counter visiting with Money while eating lunch. A scruffy dressed and disheveled man came in and sat down and Money asked if he wanted soup and a sandwich. The man nodded. Money fixed him a sackful of food and the man went on his way. Money confided in me that she did not know this man but he had been in the sandwich shop several times that week. She quickly figured out that the man was perhaps homeless and certainly hungry without funds to pay for his meal. Money obliged him without shame and helped keep his dignity in tack. Many would have ignored him or turned him away. She turned to me when he left and said, “You never know when might be feeding an angel or where you might see the face of Jesus.” I have NEVER forgotten those words. I hear her saying those words to me every time I see a begger or a homeless person. Unfortunately, I have heard those words more and more as I see more people in need in recent years. I am also certain that was not nearly the first or the last time Dorothy would feed someone who couldn’t pay for a meal.
In 2001, Wardell’s beloved Dorothy succomed to cancer. Although he tried to retire several times before this, Wardell kept on working. He needed the community and the community needed him. His daughter Betty picked up the slack after Money passed and kept Poppy going in the restaurant. Somewhere around 2004, I traveled with a local group to Italy. The trip was great, but as usual, after being away from home, our habits and comforts were missed. The group arrived back in Memphis very late one Friday night. As expected, bright and early Saturday morning at least ten of us from the trip gathered at Wardell’s for a burger and onion rings. Being halfway around the globe makes you crave the familiar things of home. When Wardell learned we just returned from Italy, he told us that he’d been stationed in Napoli and began speaking to us in Itatlian. He spoke freely of his European missions and shared a great deal of himself with us that morning. While I knew Poppy was a WWII veteran, I never knew to what extent his activity was and that he had spent much of that time in Europe. In my entire lifetime, I had never heard him speak so openly of his service. That day Wardell became even more of a hero to me than he had already been. Not long after this, Poppy lost his beloved Betty to cancer. This took a toll on Poppy and he began to slow down a little in the sandwhich shop. Maybe too many reminders of the both of them working beside him, but this certainly did not stop Poppy.
Poppy became as social as ever. He still attended Newport Greyhound football games always sitting at the top of the bleachers to the left of the press box. He hollered and cheered as loud as possible. Often he and his friend Daveene were spotted out at dinner where he would greet all of his friends with handshakes, hugs, kisses, and a little nudge on the shoulder. All people of all ages loved Poppy. He was mulitgenerational. He was ageless and timeless. He was a fixture and an institution in our community. Just as Dorothy’s sermon she gave me years ago by her quiet example of taking care of people, Wardell continued to live by that too. At the age of 93, he worked tirelessly at the local foodbank each week and had since its beginning. Wardell only knew one speed – full throttle. He went wide open all the time. His failing vision was not an excuse for him to sit down and quit. Ever.
Last week while taking care of his people, in his town, Wardell took a fall at the food bank. The injuries from this fall would not have the outcome we wanted and Wardell is now reunited with his beloved Dorothy in Heaven. But even in the final moments of his consciousness, he was as resillient and determined as ever to continue his work to for his people and demanding to son John, “Someone get me cleaned up! I’ve got work to do! I’ve got finish what I was doing so that I can get folks taken care of!” Never selfish. Always selfless and working for others unitl the end.
I and all of the people of our community are all the better for having Dorothy and Wardell Pennington in our community, in our lives and in our world. Truly another example of what made the Greatest Generation so amazing and made our country so incomparable. Let their sermon, their lives that they lived by example, be a true testimony of how each of us can make that same difference in our community and in our world.
When it’s my time Poppy, I hope to meet you and Money at the pearly gates with your cheeseburger, onion rings, and a slice of German chocolate pie. Until we meet again Arrivederci, Poppy!