Penelope A. (Penny) Woodward, aged 67, died peacefully in her home Tuesday evening, the 31st of August, after a long and particularly hard-fought battle with cancer. Born in Schenectady, New York in 1953, the second of five children to Jean Clark White and H. Donald White, Penny is survived by her husband Gregory, and children Julia, Vivienne, and Charles, father Don, sisters Pam and Patty, brothers Tom and Todd, and remembered with love by many friends, students, and extended family members.
How can we possibly find the words to capture this life? This juggernaut of love and positivity and strength and joy and care and creativity? What could we ever say that would distill the essence of Penny onto the page? Really, it doesn’t seem possible.
But in trying, we might remember Penny as the teacher who organized countless trips and adventures for her bands; who, in her 34 years as an educator, invented the Trumansburg Bio Band and hosted numerous tie-dying parties for her students to make band t-shirts. We might remember all the concerts she conducted, maybe especially the one where she donned a gorilla suit and arranged for a student dressed as Tarzan to swing in on a rope and chase her across the stage. We will remember that she cajoled reluctant students into participating in the summer parade by making them poodle-skirt-girl and greaser costumes. That she mentored dozens of student teachers; that she spent years honing and adjusting her teaching methods, always seeking better ways to make music accessible and beautiful to young people. That she pioneered the first-ever Trumansburg Middle School student-taught, parent-performed band (because she knew that teaching someone else helped you to learn). We might recall her receiving the Yale Distinguished Educator Award, or the Tompkins County Teacher of the Year (twice), or for being accepted into the prestigious Northwestern Ph.D. Program for Music Education. We will definitely remember the hundreds of lives she impacted by nurturing young musicians, caring generously for her students, and advocating for the arts in schools.
We could talk about how she ‘retired,’ and immediately spent time teaching at her alma mater Ithaca College (BM, 1976; MM, 1980), then moved to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin where she enrolled in literature and costuming classes, volunteered teaching music and finding funding in schools that lacked strong arts programs, started a women’s writing-and-needlepointing group for victims of domestic abuse, pressed the male custodial staff into service walking a mile in high heels to raise money for charity, showed up to college events in more of her signature costumes, and paraded her beloved dogs, Rocky and Bullwinkle, through the campus in handmade Carthage College doggy jackets. We will remember that she made friends everywhere she went. That so many people were drawn to her dynamic and completely authentic self, and that she had an uncanny ability to intuit the person in the room who most needed a friend. That she knew when someone needed a laugh, or tough love, or a special cupcake delivery.
Or, we could remember Penny as an artist; seamstress-cum-gardener-cum-interior decorator-cum-landscape designer who imbued the physical world around her with beauty and creativity, nurturing plants that no one else could keep alive, needlepointing seat covers and wall hangings for her homes, sewing curtains and bedspreads, designing stone walkways, wallpapering kitchens, painting murals of shoes in her teenage daughter’s bedroom, hand-felting bunny pillows for her friends’ newborn grandchildren. Or we could think of her as a musician, playing her French horn with her Swamp College Brass Quintet, patiently directing sullen daughters through piano scales, and tirelessly serenading her family with Christmas carols. We could remember that she was an incredible baker, fashion designer, Shania Twain lip-syncer, hair stylist, gift wrapper, Chipmunk-rescuer, kayaker, water and downhill skier, hiker, dancer, jigsaw-puzzler, flag-football player, painter, speaker, and many more. That, although she may have called herself a master of none, she actually did become a master of most things she decided to undertake. We will remember that she was not great at relaxing, and that she never, in 67 years, stopped trying and learning new things.
We will certainly remember Penny as an incredible mother to her three children, one who spent hours and hours sewing original Halloween costumes, and theatre ensembles, and prom dresses. Who fell asleep reading stories to her young son and good-naturedly endured long abuse over the muddled things that came out of her mouth when she tried to read and sleep at the same time. Who came home every single day of the week after dealing with kids at school all day and started cooking delicious and involved meals for a family of five, yelling simultaneously to a daughter practicing piano in the next room that she was hitting a wrong note. Who organized elaborate birthday parties with dance-offs and art projects and birthday cakes made from scratch and decorated with trucks, or fairies, or Bugs Bunny. Who loved and guided her children and who loved and walked through life with her husband of 34 years, partners in parenting and music and life. Who was their center of gravity.
And we will know that Penny was a fighter in every sense of the word. That she fought so hard she became the subject of a medical journal article as one of the longest-surviving leptomeningeal patients ever; one who helped to advance the research on treatment of the disease. That she maintained such fierce and relentless positivity her doctors told her it was a joy and honor to treat her as a patient. That she gave all her effort to continue to care for her friends and family with all the generosity she always had, even in her own hardest moments. She was relentlessly brave; whether jumping out of an airplane or into a new career opportunity, dancing at the front of her Jazzercise classes, or facing down a truly terrifying diagnosis. Once, when asked what she was afraid of, she thought for a while and said, “well, I don’t love snakes.”
The Woodwards would like to extend heartfelt thanks to Penny’s family and close friends for all their love and care over the years, and to the Drs. Parsons and Brandoff at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, for their unwavering dedication and stalwart support alongside Penny in her battle with cancer. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Penny’s honor under ‘Give Now’ at www.dana-farber.org. Memorial service to be held at 1:00 PM on Saturday, October 16 at the First Presbyterian Church of Trumansburg, NY. All are welcome.