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Generation X: Helen Horne & Mitchell Clayton Penley

Eulogy for Helen


Helen’s Story

Thank you for coming here for Helen and for us.  We moved to Florida 60 years ago.  When I see you all here, it is obvious that we never left.  We grow tight families. You know how we hurt because you hurt the same way, deep, it’s in our blood.  


Helen and Mitch formed long and loyal friendships too.  Troy Orender, 1956.  Wattwoods, 1957. B J and Eddie Fine, from 1961.  Mom found her best friend in 1941, June Hammond, and they have loved and laughed for 75 years.  Her daughters are here today.  How many people in this crazy world can say they kept their best friend for 75 years?


I am the daughter of Mitch and Helen Penley, and I am a lucky girl.  We all were.  Helen Frankie Horne was born November 5, 1922,  to Jesse Frank Horne and "Bess" Ramey in Nickelsville, Virginia. They lived "at the crook" of Copper Creek. She grew up with four sisters and one very special brother, Charles.


Helen grew up during the Great Depression.  Tough times, but they were farmers and never went hungry.  She graduated from Nickelsville High School in 1940. The local doctor wanted to send her to nursing school, but her father wouldn't allow it. But she was determined to leave those tobacco fields behind. Helen moved to Kingsport and worked at Holston Valley Hospital, and later the Kingsport Press.  


During the war she wrote letters to soldiers.  That was just the patriotic thing to do.  But it was a Marine who captured her heart.  When Mitch joined the Marines, he had to sell Uncle Luther’s car.  Helen went with a boyfriend to see the car.  And yes, a 1937 Plymouth changed the course of history.


They wrote flirtatious letters during the war and began dating when Mitch came home.  When Mitch proposed, he asked Mom to come see the world with him. They married on Saturday, December 21, 1946. On that freezing night, they took a taxi to the preacher's house in a blinding snowstorm and caught a bus to Bristol for a honeymoon at the Martha Washington Hotel.  “Let It Snow” was a song all about Mitch and Helen. Through all kinds of weather and ordeals, they were a united force for 55 years. 


The first part of the world they saw was the coal mining town of Neon, Kentucky.  She had to know better days were coming. 


He was hired by Holston Defense and they moved back to Kingsport, bought their dream land on Dora Street, built a cozy basement to live in while they built the house on top.  But the job went up and down with the Cold War, too many layoffs for Mitch.


In 1956, Mitch and Troy Orender heard of steady work at a place called Cape Canaveral.  On a lark they drove down and were hired on the spot. By July of ‘56, we were Floridians.  Dad worked federal security at the Cape for 30 years--without a layoff.  


We moved to Orsino on Merritt Island.  It was hot, swampy and mosquito laden.  Yes, another part of the world Mitch promised they would see.  She knew better days were coming.  


For moon missions, Congress bought thousands of acres on Merritt Island in 1962.  We moved to Mims.  They started over again, grubbed the palmettos, built up a small farm, and made a bountiful garden.


Helen stayed home with her girls for the first twenty years.   She cooked and sewed and made our house a home.  Helen worked as a substitute teacher and teacher’s aide for twenty years.  She loved teaching the little ones to read. 


If we got out of line, Mom was the first obstacle.  She had a look that could freeze a child at 50 yards. But we had better make peace with Mom before Dad got home.  


If you tried to justify a flaw with someone else’s bad example, the big guns came out. "That was the best they could do in those families. They aren't Penleys”.  


That's where cousins came in handy.  If you could quote family, or a Wattwood or a Hammond, you might get somewhere.


Mitch and Helen didn’t argue, they listened.  With mutual respect, they chose a path forward. There was no better half in this marriage, just two strong people who adored each other. 


Helen joined a movement for a Christian church in Titusville. In 1957, eight families started First Christian Church.  Helen and her dear friend Betty Wattwood stayed with the church through thick and thin.  Long before Herman and Mitch officially joined the church and became Elders, they did the heavy lifting for Betty and Helen’s visions. The Wattwoods became lifelong friends; Betty passed on in 2009. The church celebrated it's 59th anniversary a few weeks ago.  Betty and Helen were honored for their stamina, leadership and contributions as the last of the charter members.


They raised the girls in the church and focused on education, “the one thing that no body or no thing can ever take away from you". 


They merged family, church and school into one mission to learn more and be more everyday. 


They took pride in their work, but their careers were the means, never the main event. Their girls’ dignity and dreams would never be diminished because they were not sons. We had to be ready to stand on our own. The world, and the men in our lives needed be aware of that.


They flew off to exotic vacations in England, Japan, Canada, Hawaii and California. They also loved road trips, to ... anywhere and everywhere.  Years ago they did motorcycles and helicopters, cruised out to sea for a Polaris launch, and went 900 feet down on a Navy sub.  They saw the Grand Ole Opry with Ewell and June Hammond.   They criss-crossed the US in a van with Mitch’s family, from Sea to Shining Sea. They kept their promise to see the world together.


They always found adventures, or made their own.  Mitch was still making up for those years in Neon and Orsino, and Helen loved it.  She always knew better days were coming.  


But Mitch was in a car accident in 1986.  For fifteen years, Helen rarely left his side. She hovered a few feet away, and anticipated and catered his every need. No greater love and devotion has ever been shown than in Helen's care for Mitch during those years. 


They needed to find a new home with less maintenance.  Joey rode his bike around Sherwood and wrote down every "For Sale" sign.  The realtor should have split a commission with Joey, but he and Jane got the best deal anyway.  


For thirteen very important years, Granny and Grandpa were just through the gate in the back yard. Granny's kitchen was always open.  Grandpa's wood shop was too. They delivered science projects, picked up puny kids from school, and watched recitals, soccer, baseball, volleyball games.  At every meeting there was an endless transfer of wisdom to their grandchildren.


Mitchell passed away in 2001.  Helen was weak and broken for a long while, exhausted and sad. Thirteen years ago, she moved in with Michelle and David and strengthened under their tender loving care.  We are so grateful to them.


She found her SPUNK again.  Priscilla put her on the Saturn Blimp for a sky-cruise, and she wasn’t satisfied until she made her way to the cockpit.


Always ready for the next adventure, a car show with Linda, church mission, theatre, or a lighthouse she hadn’t climbed yet.  A road trip with Betty Sipe.  Getting lost somewhere on the way was part of the fun.  


She stayed current, proud and fashionable to the end.  Mom was always up to the minute on news, weather, her Orlando Magic and POLITICS.  She worked campaigns and took a computer class.     She was not a woman to be left behind in the previous century.


Her greatest energy was found when one of us needed her, and she went into overdrive when Joey or Jane called. Down to her last day, she was still raising her family.  She never gave up on us.  With us, she always hoped better days were coming.  


It was one tough job to amaze Helen Penley.  I’m not sure we ever did.  We kept trying, we just ran out of time.  


Helen was the last of her siblings, and the last of her first cousins. She never recovered from losing Priscilla. No matter how full the house, she was still lonely for Mitch. 


Helen said goodbye to too many people in her life.  I can’t say goodbye to Mom, she was such a force, she will always be with us.