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Generation X: Helen Horne & Mitchell Clayton Penley

Mitch & Helen: Life & Times

Mitchell Clayton Penley and Helen Frankie Horne

Mitch and Helen met in Kingsport, 1943, when Helen went with her boyfriend to check about Luther's car which was up for sale. When Luther joined the Army, he left the keys with Mitch so he could transport the family while Luther was gone. He did that and more, but in 1943, Mitch was leaving for the Marines and Luther told him to sell the car. Just as friends, Mitch and Helen wrote flirtatious letters during the war, Helen sent photos. Mitch returned home in December of 1945, and they soon began dating. When Mitch proposed, he asked Helen to marry him so they could see the world together.

Mitch and Helen married on December 21, 1946. They took a taxi to the preacher's house in a blinding snowstorm and sang "Let It Snow". On most of their vacations they went back to their families in Tennessee and Virginia, but Mitch kept his promise. They managed trips across the country and on to Hawaii, England, Japan, Canada and numerous places along the way. Through all kinds of weather and other ordeals, they were a united force for 55 years.

On November 5, 1922, Helen Frankie Horne was born on Copper Creek near Nickelsville. She 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. During the war, she moved to Kingsport and worked at Kingsport Press and the hospital. In 1957, Helen was a founder and charter member of First Christian Church in Titusville. Mitch became a member in 1963, both served the church in many capacities. Helen stayed home with the girls until the late 1960s when she worked as a substitute teacher and reading tutor.

Mitch was born at Rufus and Stella's home in Kingsport on February 7, 1925. He attended Bell Ridge School in Morrison City through eighth grade, and later earned a GED in night school. His Bell Ridge basketball team won the county championship in 1941, a lifetime source of pride for Mitch.

Mitch was a U.S. Marine in World War II, Fourth Marine Division, 4th Service Battalion, 23rd Regiment, Company S. All that target shooting on Priscilla's mountain fared well for him. He was classified a 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. The closest he came to death was a horrible bout with dengue fever after Tinian, he spent two weeks on a hospital ship in the Pacific. 

Because of Kamikaze attacks he hated being aboard Navy ships, especially below deck. Always on his mind was that his cousin, Uncle Jerry's boy Charles went down with The Hornet in 1942. Marines were ordered below deck during transit, to give the sailors room to work. Mitch was disciplined a few times for hiding out in various places topside, once he was caught sleeping in a raft. It wasn't just a case of claustrophobia, it was the need to be able to see his enemy and fend for himself.  Sorry, sailors, Mitch never got over his displeasure with the swabbies' attempts to keep him below deck, nor their "tin can taxi service".  He crossed the international date line on the perfect day in 1944 and earned Thanksgiving feasts on back to back Thursdays. 

Mitchell watched the famous flag go up on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945. He was fighting his way out of a valley below Suribachi. Marines reacted joyfully to the signal that the top was finally theirs. But their hoopla exposed their positions and the worst gunfire Mitch experienced throughout the entire war was in the hours after that flag went up. The battle raged on for another month after the photo. Mitch's battalion took Yellow Beach #2 at Iwo. Even after the island was declared "secure" on March 25, it wasn't safe. 

In a funny war story later relayed to Joey for a homework assignment, he told about accidentally running into Henry Powers on Iwo Jima after the battle ended there. Henry grew up near Priscilla's farm, coincidentally he was a close friend of Helen. Dad was thrilled to see a familiar face. They walked along the black sand beach sharpening their knives, talking about home and comparing their battles. Suddenly Japanese planes flew over and began strafing the beach. The boys ran for the nearest foxhole. When the attack ended, the beach was riddled with spent shells next to their footprints, and blood was everywhere. 

Mitch had been hit! In a panic, Henry and the others carried Mitch to safety and grabbed tourniquets to save his life. But they couldn't find the wound in the bloody mess. Finally, one of them noticed blood gushing from Mitch's hand. He had cut his own thumb with the knife he was sharpening. They got up and had the best laugh of the war. Mitch didn't mind the ribbing, and even enjoyed the pain in his thumb, he was just glad to be alive. 

Most of his war memories were not so amusing. He talked about disguised Japanese soldiers who sneaked into a group of civilians surrendering and threw grenades at the women and children to punish them for giving up. The suicides he witnessed on Saipan where old men and women clutching babies jumped over cliffs rather than be taken prisoner haunted him. Nightmares came for years. Helen awakened to find herself being lifted in the air as a rocket shell to be loaded. When heavily medicated at the end, he relived memories deeply buried for fifty years. He hushed us so the Japs wouldn't hear us, told us to duck down in the hospital room. He would suddenly sit up and begin cleaning a weapon, folding supplies.

During the war, Stella made scrap books and tried to decipher where Mitch and Luther were located from clues in their letters and newspapers. Granny also wanted a historical record. In 1945 she summarized her notes in the back of his Red Marine Book.  In Stella's own words:

Mitchell left us to be examined at Fort Oglethorpe April 28, went on to Nashville to be examined for Marines. Came back home May 2nd and left May 13. He took boot training at San Diego, Calif., came home July 14, 1943, went back July 16 at 3 o'clock A.M. Left in smiles both times. He spent Christmas Day 1943 loading his ship. Sailed the 11th of Jan 1944. We heard over the radio that the 4th Marine Div had landed in the Marshall Islands, Feb. 1944.

Mitchell said the excitement was all over by Feb. 7 which was his birthday, he spent in a foxhole. The 4th & 2nd Div and the 27th Inf. landed on Saipan June 14th captured it after 25 days of fierce fighting. The 4th captured Tinian in July 1944. Iwo Jima was the toughest of them all to date. The Third, Fourth and Fifth Div landed Feb. 1945.

Mitch wrote letters home to his mother often during the war. He promised his mother he wasn't there to die for his country, and he kept his promise. This one was published in the Kingsport Times:

"Mom, we are going there for further training. We will not be in combat areas for a long time so don't worry Mom. You know me, I can take care of myself Mom. I am strong enough to take anything they dish out....

I am still liking the Marine Corps and I am not sorry for my choice. I am proud I can say I am a Marine. And Mom, this is one Marine that is coming back in good shape too. It will be a happy day when we come marching home, Mom, and we will too. It just seems that somebody keeps saying to me, you'll see this thing through.

Mom, they tell us the orders may be changed and we may be going over there, but I will be on guard duty someplace .... I don't mind going over. There is a feeling I have always had--someone has to do it and why not me be part of it? Someone has to die, but that's going to be Japs and Germans, anyway, not me. I'm going to see that some Jap and German dies for his country, not me dying for mine. Dying won't help any--but dying for your country is an honor just the same. But Mom, let's skip that."

Mitch also wrote letters back to his cousins that convey the strong family ties in his own words. Cousin Alpha saved hers through the years, and Jack and Benny returned the treasure to us. 

May 20, 1943
"Dear Alpha, ....I already have my uniform, and boy it's the stuff, I think anyway. I'm proud of it. ... We get our rifles next weekend and they are the best rifles in the world. That's not hay neither. That's facts. The Marine gets the best of all equipment put out."
June 25, 1944
Hi Alphy,
"...We have pretty good chow here, but the cooks are not so hot. If the stuff was fixed right we could really have good chow."
September 11, 1944
"Dear Alpha, ...I received your letter a few days ago after getting back from Saipan and Tinian....I bet Jack and Benny are growing fast. Sometime we will go fishing again. I had a swell time the last time we went. I remember breaking the lock to the boat, Ruth losing her hat and then eating the fish we caught. And Jeet got mad because we fried the fish she caught....I owed Virginia a letter for quite sometime".

After the war, Mitch was kept in the Marine Reserves, which ironically hampered his finding the good job he wanted. They lived in Kentucky for a while before 1950, Mitch drove a coal truck there. Around 1950 he hired on at Holston Defense. But defense jobs fluctuated in the 1950s, and they grew tired of the layoffs. 

In 1956 they found their future with the space program in Florida, where Mitch worked the same job for 30 years without a single layoff. We first moved near Orsino, P.O. Box 21,on Merritt Island, as close as we could get to Dad's work at Cape Canaveral. In 1962, NASA bought our home, and 83,000 thousand acres to expand for the Apollo moon launch. The VAB now stands less than a mile from our old home. 

Mitch worked security for the astronaut quarters in the Mercury launches, and had many conversations with Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn. Glenn was his favorite. 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 windows still rattled for moon launches and shuttles. 

Linda, Karen, and Priscilla were born in Kingsport, Michelle was their Florida girl. 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.

Helen had a certain look that could freeze a child 50 yards away. If we wanted to get out of line, bicker with a sister 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." Or, "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 Penley or a Horne, you might get somewhere. 

After work, they did everything together, they buddied each other to the grocery store, 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 always important, and they raised four politicians to inquire about all sides of a story before deciding anything. Together they cleared the land, produced a bountiful garden and sometimes raised their own beef. They never argued. They listened to each other, discussed controversy, and with deep seated mutual respect chose their path. There was no better half in this marriage, just two strong and wonderful people who adored each other. The devotion and faith gave their union incredible strength and created a safe haven where many leaned during rough patches. They both joined Mims Volunteer Fire Department and Titusville Coin Club, but their priority was always the church, and Helen and Mitch's labor there was monumental. Sufficient words to describe their goodness and our fortune do not exist.

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 a home on Caradoc Circle, closer to their daughters. As soon as he heard they were looking, grandson Joey got on his bike and found every "For Sale" sign in the neighborhood. Joey picked out his favorite, and sold Grandpa on the deal. The realtor should have split the commission with Joey, but he and Jane got the best of the deal anyway. For ten 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 Mitch's passing in 2001, Helen was weak and broken for a long while. Slowly she regained her strength, and in 2016 she is quite healthy for a lady of 93 years. The thriving First Christian Church of Titusville, of which she was a founder, celebrated it's 50th Anniversary in 2007 and she was greatly honored for her leadership and contributions, and interviewed by the local press. She is an active force in the church and the community. She loves her Orlando Magic in basketball. She roots for her favorite politicians, and even worked at campaign 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.

Obituary from the Florida Today and Kingsport Times newspapers:

Mitchell Clayton Penley of Titusville died at his home on November 16, 2001, surrounded by his family. He was an active and devoted member of First Christian Church of Titusville, serving as Deacon, Elder, Trustee and Building Committee Chairman. In 1956, he joined the space pioneers in Florida, providing security at Cape Canaveral with Pan American World Airways for 30 years. Throughout his life, he remained devoted to his family, his church, and his country. An incredible source of strength to family and friends, he is revered for his honorable character, genuine compassion, and tireless efforts. His legacy includes a strong and loving family, a thriving church, and a free nation. Mitch was taken home to Tennessee for burial at East Lawn Memorial Park in Kingsport.

Mitchell Penley’s Eulogy Delivered By Herman Wattwood, Jr. in Kingsport

At a funeral service, we seem to always zero in on our loss, but for just a few minutes, I would like to talk about our gains as we think of Mitch Penley’s life on this earth. First, there is Helen’s gain of a strong, loving, faithful husband for well over fifty years. Then there is Linda, Karen, Priscilla and Michelle’s gain of a loving, concerned, responsible father all their lives to this point. There has been our nation’s gain of a courageous Marine who fought in the South Pacific and was wounded there, defending you and me.

There is the church’s gain of a faithful leader who served Christ’s church as a deacon, as an elder and as a major mover in four building programs. The space program gained the services of a very good employee for many years and all those who knew Mitch gained a lot from knowing and associating with a man of his caliber. I could follow this line of thought much further, but I hope you can see the point I am making. Mitch was a very special person and touched our lives in very special ways.

I personally could speak for hours of my relationship with Mitch. I remember his great interaction with his girls. I remember my son, when he was very young, telling me that he felt sorry for Mr. Penley because he had to put up with all those girls at his house. I remember the two of us helping Helen and my wife Betty as they worked to start the First Christian Church in Titusville.

I will miss our discussions on unions, politics, religion, which branch of the service was best, what make of car was best, and many other topics. I must admit that I never succeeded in changing Mitch’s mind in 45 years, but I sure enjoyed trying. It has been a tremendous gain in my life to have served with Mitch as an Elder for many years and to have had the privilege of being very, very close to him and his family.

Yes, there is a loss, but look at the gain. Mitch has gained freedom from his pain and his disability, he has gained peace and a home in a place that is better than we can possibly imagine. We have gained the promise, that as Mitch’s brothers and sisters in Christ, we will be with Mitch again for all eternity. That is our hope and that is our faith.