ROE R. Cross Distinguished Professor
Loren E. Pennington
1980 - Loren E. Pennington
Loren Pennington, professor of history at Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University) is a man of strong opinions and more than one face.
He is not shy, some might even describe him as gruff, about voicing or writing his opinions. Agree with him or not, Pennington’s ideas are thoroughly researched and well presented.
Pennington used equally strong probing when he readied himself to assume the public faces of two Kansas legends — President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Governor Alf Landon — at numerous events.
In 1989, he helped Kansas celebrate President Dwight Eisenhower's Centennial by portraying the former president in public appearances around the state. He also presented his one-man show before a joint session of the Kansas Legislature.
The audiences heard Pennington, as Eisenhower, talk about his early life and war years, but mostly about his presidency. Pennington would channel Eisenhower’s thoughts on nuclear power, the interstate highway system, and the landmark Topeka case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.
“I will use mostly his writings and letters from the library,” Pennington told the Lawrence Journal-World for a Nov. 5, 1989, story. “It will be from Ike’s point of view. It will not be from the point of view of his interpreters.”
After the performance, Pennington, still as Eisenhower, took questions from the audience.
Pennington ended up doing his Eisenhower show for 20 years before stopping in 2009, an especially long run since Pennington was a Democrat and did not even vote for Eisenhower.
He also portrayed another Republican, Alf Landon, the 26th governor of Kansas, at numerous Kansas Chautauqua tour events. Pennington was a founder of the Kansas Chautauqua. He also performed as Landon at the History Alive! programs sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council.
Of all his accomplishments at Emporia State, Chautauqua was one he felt most deserved some accolades.
“I think the greatest accomplishment I had at Emporia State was being founder of the Kansas Chautauqua,” said Pennington, whose view of himself does not match up with being the legend so many people claim him to be. He scoffs when hearing that sort of talk.
“The Emporia Gazette once did a story in which it ranked the top 10 intellectuals in Emporia,” he said. “I was No. 1 on this list. That is so ridiculous. I have never considered myself to be some great intellectual. There are many I have worked with that have been greater. I certainly would not have wanted to cut logic with Keith Denniston (former Emporia State English professor).
He seems to downgrade his own teaching and research, too.
“There have been a lot of better professors that were not recognized when I was. As for my research, I think I did more than I should have done. There are so many hours in the day and I thought maybe I should have spent more time with my students and less in research. I believe the accent should be on professors teaching and college professors should be rewarded for what they do in teaching.”
It appears many colleagues and former students would soundly disagree with Pennington’s assessment of his teaching and research contributions.
Virgil Dean, a former student who is now a consulting editor for Kansas History and known for his latest book, John Brown to Bob Dole: Movers and Shakers in Kansas History said Dr. Pennington deserves all the recognition the university can give him.
“As one who went on to a career as a teacher and then historian,” said Dean, “I owe Loren a great deal. Dr. Pennington's depth of knowledge about, understanding of, and passion for history and scholarship were always apparent in the classroom and in more recent years as a colleague, working as we did together on several projects for Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains. I'm honored to be able to call him a friend and mentor, one of two who had a real impact on me professionally and who deserve much credit for any success I might be able to claim.”
Dean recalled Pennington in the front of his history classes and noted that he has always been “a real Kansas character.”
“As a teacher, Loren was demanding, but always fair, and he challenged me academically as an undergraduate and graduate student; pushing me, I believe, to achieve at a much higher level than I would have otherwise and to acquire skills that have served me well over the years.”
Pennington’s overall philosophy of teaching at Emporia State was summed up in a 2013 interview when he said:
“If you were to come into my class in history, I would not try to convince you to change your values to mine, just consider them. If after examining your values, you changed, that was fine. If after the examination you did not change, that was fine, too.
An ESU professor from 1960 to 1992, who continues to be involved and do research for the university, Pennington is nationally known for his broad areas of expertise, ranging from 17th-century English geographer Samuel Purchas to the 20th-century Studebaker Corporation.
From 1975-77, Pennington directed the university's television station. He produced more than 600 television and radio programs for the university. Dr. Pennington produced many audio and video interviews of historical significance.
His History for Contemporary Man won the 1977 National Cable Television Association award for the best instructional series produced for cable television in the United States. His television course on U.S. history earned a Law Day Award, and his series of radio shows won a 1974 award from the Kansas Association of Broadcasters.
Pennington also produced and hosted a program about one of his most famous passions, the railroad. Ridin’ the Rails, a Hundred Years of Emporia Passenger Railroading, traced the history through photos and taped interviews. He did many similar projects and oral histories about Lyon County’s military veterans and the founding of Veterans Day in Emporia.
In fact, Pennington in 2013 helped produce a program, Occupying Baghdad, 2003-2004, with speaker Lt. Col. Kevin West for the Veterans Roundtable.
His study of the Studebaker automobile company included taking sabbaticals to Syracuse University in New York and South Bend, Ind., to research the writings of the Studebaker Company. Studebaker entered the automotive business with an electric car in 1902 and then switched to gasoline powered vehicles in 1904, is most famous for its failure in 1963 when generally acknowledged low profits, high labor salary and benefit costs, and investor jitters caused the company to close down its South Bend plant, leaving open only its Canadian plant. That plant closed in 1966 and Studebaker was gone.
Pennington argued against the conventional analysis of Studebaker’s demise when he contradicted a syndicated column by Donald I. Rogers. He absolutely denied labor costs — pointing out that twice labor had accepted wage reductions — had anything to do with the collapse. Pennington also noted that Studebaker had not paid one cent of federal tax in nearly 10 years.
“The story of Studebaker may be simply told,” Pennington wrote in his Gazette rebuttal. “Between 1950 and 1963, the company’s sales rate declined from 318,000 vehicles annually to about 80,000 — nearly 75 percent. To a certain extent this fall in sales could be, and was, countered by increased efficiency, but the time finally came when no amount of efficiency, tax aid, cheap labor, or anything else would permit the company to survive in the face of the public’s refusal to buy its product.
“And after all, isn’t this now how the competitive capitalist system is supposed to operated? he concluded.”
Besides the years of research, Pennington had first-hand experience as a worker on the line at Studebaker, as did his father and grandfather. He even has, rather than put down his occupation as retired professor, called himself a retired auto worker.
“I actually worked two-and-half years at Studebaker,” said Pennington. His father and grandfather worked a combined 65 years for the automobile maker.
In 1984, Pennington was a consultant for a PBS award-winning show, and his work led to a book he co-wrote with two other authors on the Studebaker Company. He continues writing a series of articles in the Turning Wheels Magazine that is for Studebaker enthusiasts.
Pennington’s long-term and successful career at Emporia State is perhaps even more remarkable because he did not get along very well with the university president, John King, he told the Gazette for a June 30, 2008 article, “On the face of it.”
King had Pennington’s respect and admiration for his work as Emporia State’s President. He understood and noted that King, “probably did more for the university than any other Emporia State President, and was extremely adept at dealing with the Kansas Legislature and the Kansas Board of Regents to enhance and improve the college.
“I think he was the kind of person that appreciated effort from people even if he didn’t get along particularly with them,” Dr. Pennington added. “In other words, at heart he was a very tolerant person, if you did your job and if you did what he thought was a benefit to the university, even if he didn’t particularly like you. I don’t think he particularly liked me.”
As usual, Pennington had an example to back up his feelings.
He recalled a time when he interviewed for a job in Illinois, and after deciding to stay at Emporia State, he received a large bouquet of flowers from King.
“He wrote, in effect, ‘I’m glad to have you, even if you are a pain in the neck,” said Pennington.
The bottom line in regard to the Emporia State Professor Emeritus, however, must be that Pennington did his job and was an outstanding teacher. He once stated his belief about being an educator was that "No teacher can hope to get the best from all students. The object is to get the best from as many as possible.”
Pennington met his goal.