Generation X: Helen Horne & Mitchell Clayton Penley
Helen & Mitch: from the Horne Book
Helen Frankie Horne and Mitchell Penley
Helen Frankie Horne was born on November 5, 19XX at the home of her parents, Jesse Frank Horne and Mary Jane "Bess" Ramey Horne in Nickelsville, Virginia. She was the seventh of eight children born to Frank and Bess. At the time of her birth, they lived in a house "at the crook" of Copper Creek, about one-half mile from the Kilgore Fort. She grew up in a loving family with four sisters and one very special brother, Charles.
Frank Horne was a sharecropper, and they moved often around Nickelsville in search of better land. Helen was born just before the Great Depression and the United States was in economic decline through most of her childhood. Times were tough, but this family was never hungry. Frank and Bess always had a bountiful vegetable garden, and kept chickens, a milk cow and a few hogs. At harvest they canned vegetables and buried potatoes and cabbage to last through spring. In the fall they raked chestnuts, walnuts and slaughtered hogs, cured and canned the meat to last through the year. Helen and her sisters grew up determined to leave the tobacco fields in their rear view mirror. Bess was a protective and nurturing mother and an excellent cook. Fortunately for all of us, she passed those regal talents on to Helen. Helen regrets not learning more of her mother's needlework skills, but Helen was an excellent seamstress and sewed her children’s clothes and curtains.
Helen graduated from Nickelsville High School in 1940. A local doctor wanted to send her to nursing school, but her parents wouldn't let her leave home. In 1940 she was Aunt Wanda's substitute teacher during an illness. By 1941, Helen had rented a room in Kingsport, and was working at Holston Valley Hospital. After Pearl Harbor, a better job opened at the Kingsport Press and Helen moved up.
During World War II, Helen corresponded with several soldiers, but it was a Marine who captured her heart in the end. Mitch and Helen met in 1943 when she went with a boyfriend to check about Luther's car which was up for sale. When Luther left for the Army, he left the keys with Mitch so he could transport the family. He did that and more, but in 1943 when Mitch was leaving for the Marines Luther told him to sell the car. Just as friends, Mitch and Helen wrote flirtatious letters during the war. He returned home in December of 1945, and they began dating not long afterwards. Helen’s best friend was June Horne and Mitch formed a fast and lifelong alliance with Ewell Hammond.
Mitchell Clayton Penley was born in Kingsport, Tennessee on February 7, 1925 at the home of his parents, Rufus and Stella Lowe Penley. He attended Bell Ridge School in Morrison City through eighth grade, and later earned a GED in night school. Mitch was a World War II Veteran, Fourth Marine Division, 4th Service Battalion, 23rd Regiment, Company S, Marine Sharpshooter. He fought for the islands of Roi Namur, Tinian, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. He was injured by shrapnel on Saipan, and bore the scar proudly. Nightmares about his war experiences came for many years. Helen sometimes awakened to find herself being lifted in the air as a rocket shell to be loaded. Mitchell saw the famous flag go up on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.
When Mitch proposed, he promised they would see the world together. Mitch and Helen married on Saturday, December 21, 1946. They took a taxi to the preacher's house in a blinding snowstorm. After the ceremony, the taxi driver took them to the terminal in Kingsport to catch a bus to Bristol for a honeymoon. It was a treacherous night to be out on the roads, but Mitch had only three days off from work. They stayed at the Martha Washington Hotel in Bristol. Through all kinds of weather and other ordeals, they remained a united force for 55 years.
After Mitch’s promise to see the world, Helen could have been discouraged when their first move was to the coal mining town of Neon, Kentucky. She must have known better days were coming. After the war, Mitch was still in the Marine Reserves, which ironically hindered getting the good job he wanted at the onset of the Cold War. They lived in Kentucky until 1950, Mitch drove a coal truck there. Around 195o he hired on with the security force at Holston Defense in Kingsport. They lived in Morrison City, at the top of Long Street. About 1954 they bought their dream land on Dora Street, and by 1955 they had built and moved into a cozy basement. They were preparing to build the house above it, but defense jobs fluctuated especially after the Korean War ended and there were sporadic layoffs.
In early 1956, Mitch was laid off again. Tired of layoffs, he and Troy Orender heard of jobs at Cape Canaveral, Florida. On a lark they drove down and were hired on the spot. In April of 1956, Mitch returned for supplies, and left a pregnant Helen in Kingsport to await Priscilla’s birth. He bought land and contracted Floyd Briggs to build our house.
Priscilla did her part by delaying her arrival until her Daddy got back to Kingsport. Uncle Luther and Aunt June drove Helen and the girls down when Priscilla was six weeks old. By the end of July, 1956 we were Floridians.
Mitch and Helen found their future with the space program where Mitch worked security for Pan American World Airways for over 30 years without a single layoff. We first moved to Orsino on Merritt Island, as close as possible to Dad's work at the Cape. Troy and Billy Orender and daughter Carolyn were friends for life. We adopted neighbors Uncle Rob and Aunt Martha Honaker as family. Uncle Rob was a Spanish American War veteran. The Briggs family knew all about the nearby swamp and brought us strange creatures. Mitch cleared land for a softball field, and the Briggs and Richard McDaniel families added enough kids to form teams.
In 1962, Congress bought thousands of acres and our home on Merritt Island to expand for the Apollo moon launches. The Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) now stands less than a mile from our old home. In 1962 Helen and Mitch moved the family, and our house to 3980 Cushman Drive, just north of Titusville, near Mims. They could still step outside and watch the missiles fly, and the ground still trembled and the windows still rattled for moon launches and shuttles.
Mitch worked security at the living quarters for the Original 7 Mercury Astronauts, and had many conversations with John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom. Glenn was a favorite, he greeted Mitch by name and made casual conversation each day. Mitch and John Glenn were both Marines, Glenn was happy to be guarded by a fellow Marine. He pleasantly autographed a photo to Mitch’s daughters. Helen eventually met John Glenn as well, and conveyed her husband’s admiration. All seven of the original astronauts signed a photo for Mitch.
Helen stayed home with her girls until the late 1960s when she worked as a Brevard County substitute teacher and reading tutor for nearly twenty years. Linda, Karen, and Priscilla were born in Kingsport, Michelle was their Florida girl. Helen had a certain look that could freeze a child at 50 yards. If we wanted to get out of line, bicker or skip chores, Mom was usually the first obstacle. Their fort was cloaked against divide and conquer strategies, we had to make our peace with Mom before Dad got home.
When we disappointed Mitch, there was a certain hurt look on his face, followed by the chat. If you dared justify an error by citing someone else's example, the big guns came out. "That was the best they could do in those families. They aren't Penleys. You're a Penley, and you can do better. Find a rose to compare yourself to, don't waste time telling me about the thorns." That's where cousins came in handy, if you could quote a Horne or a Penley, you might get somewhere.
After work, they did everything together, they buddied each other for groceries, to the lumber yard and everything between. If there was a solo event, the other would sit in the car waiting for the finish. The evening news, voting and politics were important, and they raised four politicians to inquire about all sides of a story before deciding anything. Together they cleared land, produced a bountiful garden and sometimes raised their own beef. They never argued. They listened, discussed, and with deep seated mutual respect chose a path. There was no better half in this marriage, just two strong people who adored each other. The devotion and faith gave their union incredible strength and created a haven where many leaned during rough patches.
Finding no local Christian Church, Helen joined a movement with people she met at the Cocoa church. In 1957, Helen was a charter member of First Christian Church of Titusville. Eight families started the church, but Helen and her dear friend Betty Wattwood stayed with the church through thick and thin and became the backbone of the early church. Betty’s husband, Herman Wattwood eventually joined the church, Mitch joined in 1963. Mitch and Herman became Elders, but long before they officially joined the church they bore the heavy lifting of their wives’ mission, Both worked tirelessly to build and maintain the church. The Wattwoods became lifelong friends; Betty passed away in 2009.
The thriving church celebrated it's Fiftieth Anniversary in 2007. Betty Wattwood and Helen Penley were widely honored for their leadership, contributions and stamina as the only remaining charter members. The Wattwood and Penley efforts and labors for that church were monumental. Sufficient words to describe their goodness and our fortune do not exist.
In 2007, Helen and Betty were interviewed by the Florida Today newspaper.
Titusville- Helen Penley came to Titusville hoping to attend an independent Christian Church. But there wasn't one. So she and eight other like-minded folks got together and formed their own.
Fifty years and almost 400 members later, Penley remains humble about her hand in forming the First Christian Church of Titusville.
"They say we started the church," Penley said, referring to herself and another charter member, Betty Wattwood. "We're just the two that are left from when the church started."
Penley, Wattwood and a crowd of 250 celebrated the church's 50th anniversary this week with a banquet, former ministers and a homecoming picnic for many more at Fox Lake Park on Sunday.
Mitch and Helen both joined Mims Volunteer Fire Department and Titusville Coin Club, but their priority was always the church. They raised the girls in the church and focused keenly on education. "Education is the one thing that nobody or no thing can ever take away from you" was the family mantra. They seamlessly merged the priorities of family, church and school into one big mission to learn more and be more everyday. They both took pride in their work; their careers were the means to achieve their goals but never the main event.
If Mitch ever had a chauvinist bone in his body, it disappeared the day Linda was born, if Helen hadn't already removed it. Their children's dignity and dreams would never be diminished because they were not sons. They wanted every opportunity for their girls. Friends at work tried to ridicule Mitch for sending girls to college, but he laughed back. They just didn't understand that education was more important for females. Everyone had to be ready to stand on their own in respectable careers and care for others. The world and the men in our lives needed be aware of that capability.
Mitch eventually kept his proposal promise to see the world with Helen. They saw the places they cared most about and much of the world, with a little help from Pan Am’s employee fringe benefits for air travel. Both homesick, most of their early vacations were back to their families in Tennessee and Virginia. Soon enough they flew to exotic vacations in Hawaii, England and Japan, Canada, California and as well as Tennessee. They also loved road trips, traveling to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Niagara Falls, Chicago, and across the southwest to Lubbock, Texas. Mitch arranged for Helen to take the girls to sea on the USS Alcor to observe a Polaris missile launch from a submarine down under. Mitch and Helen did their own rock n’ roll when their Navy submarine, the USS Nebraska took a sudden plunge to 900 feet below during a shakedown on a cruise arranged by Michelle. They went to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry with Ewell and June Hammond. In later years they traveled in a van with Mitch’s family across the entire United States to California and back. They still flew or drove back to Tennessee and Virginia often, sometimes three or four trips in a year. One must wonder if Mitch was still trying to make up for those three years in Kentucky.
While driving to work on April 15, 1986 a truck hit Mitch's car, he never worked again. He struggled heroically against the injuries until 2001. Dad said if he was going to hurt anyway, he might as well hurt while doing something. They sold their place and moved to Caradoc Circle, closer to their daughters. As soon as he heard they were looking, Grandson Joey rode his bike around his neighborhood and wrote down every "For Sale" sign. Joey picked his favorite, and sold Grandpa on the deal.
The realtor should have split a commission with Joey, but he and Jane got the best of the deal anyway. For thirteen very important years, Grandpa and Granny were just around the corner. Granny's kitchen and Grandpa's wood shop were always open. Mitch and Helen nursed sick kids, delivered science projects, picked up puny kids from school, and watched dance and chorus recitals, soccer and baseball games. Upon every meeting there was the endless transfer of wisdom and high expectations to their grandchildren.
They also bought another house "back home" a mile from Aunt Jeet, just across the line in Virginia. Eventually, it became physically impossible to travel to and fro to keep both homes going. When forced to choose, they gave up the house "back home" and stayed in Florida near their daughters. Helen rarely left his side during those last 15 years, she hovered a few feet away. There was so much he could not do without immense pain. She anticipated and catered to his every need. No greater love and devotion has ever been shown than in Helen's care for Mitch during those years.
After a long struggle, Mitchell Clayton Penley passed away on November 16, 2001. Exhausted from caring for Mitch, her grief and loneliness, Helen was weak and broken for a long while. Slowly she regained her strength, and in 2009 she is quite healthy for a grand lady of 86 years. She is an active force in the church and the community. Helen is still a licensed driver, but she relies more on chauffeurs today. She roots for her favorites in basketball and politics, she even worked at election headquarters in the 2008 races for Congress and President. Most important to us, she is still raising her family to ever higher levels of expectations. Her greatest energy is found whenever one of us needs her, and she goes into overdrive when Joey or Jane calls with a question. No matter how full the house, she's still lonely for Mitch.
A few years after Mitch’s death, Helen’s adventurous side emerged again. In 2004 she mentioned that the only place she really missed seeing was Washington, D. C., so Karen and Jane made the trip happen. Priscilla arranged for Helen to take the Saturn Blimp on a sky cruise over Central Florida. Helen wasn’t satisfied until she made her way to the cockpit. She’s always ready for the next adventure, a church mission, live theatre, historic site or lighthouse she hasn’t climbed yet. Michelle learned to pack her suitcase quickly, whether for a road trip with Betty Sipe or another trek back to Tennessee. Linda takes her to car shows, concerts, plays and back to Tennessee. She is always ready to visit her grandchildren, whether for a quick trip to Orlando to see Grandson Joey or a long haul to Birmingham to check out Granddaughter Jane’s new place. Not satisfied with her computer skills, she enrolled in a computer class at the local library. She’s already done motorcycles and helicopters, it’s a tough job to amaze Helen Penley. Efforts are underway to arrange for a hot air balloon trip, unless we can slow her down first with a bunge jump. Paraphrasing Janie Clark, "Might as well, she can't dance". Perhaps we need dance lessons on her agenda.
In addition to her adventures, Helen visits and talks on the phone to her nieces, nephews and many friends acquired along the way through church, Pan Am and her school career. Aunt Jeet and June Hammond keep her current with all the fresh news from Kingsport. Bob Ramey is planning a visit to Helen this month. Bob is Helen's only first cousin known to be still living [Bob Ramey passed in 2015]. Helen is the last surviving daughter of Frank and Bess Horne. Helen has had to say goodbye to too many people in her life.