The year was 1914. Babe Ruth made his Major League Baseball debut, World War One began, and the very first commercial airline flight glided through the sky. Meanwhile, in a small, central Illinois farming community, Irene Pennell was born. This soon to be centenarian recently sat down and recalled a lot of life, 100 years to be exact.
The former Frances Irene Hagan was born on June 9th, 1914 in Murrayville, Illinois, the oldest of three children. Her father worked at the local lumber yard, and completed carpentry work for contractors on the side. Her mother remained at home and tended to the children, which, according to Pennell, was a full time job in itself.
When Pennell was in the eighth grade, her father began his teaching career in a three room school house in Literberry, Illinois. That same year her family moved to Jacksonville, where she has fond memories of swimming with friends in local ponds and lakes. Pennell then completed her education at Routt Catholic High School.
Following high school graduation, Pennell began working as a switchboard operator for a local telephone company in Jacksonville. When asked if she was ever responsible for any comedic switchboard mix-ups, Pennell nodded while smiling and replied, “Many times!”
Although Pennell enjoyed her work at the telephone company, she left the company after several years, in order to pursue other endeavors. In 1936 Irene Pennell married Melvin Eugene Pennell, who passed away in 2004, and together the couple raised eight children. David Pennell, the youngest of the Pennell children, fondly remembers his childhood and the welcoming home his parents created.
“We always had a lot of kids at our house growing up because we had the big hill, and all the kids would come to our house so that they could skateboard down the big hill. If you have eight kids and you add two more, they kind of just blend in. Nobody really notices,” said Mr. Pennell.
With lots of kids, comes lots of cooking, and, according to her children, Mrs. Pennell was one of the best cooks around. Her children, grandchildren, great grand children, and neighborhood kids alike all enjoyed dipping into her always well stocked cookie jar, but she was best known for her excellent angel food cake. “I still cook, but now, just one meal at a time,” added Mrs. Pennell.
When Mrs. Pennell was not cooking, she assisted her husband with the office work for their business, Pennell Roofing and Sheet Metal Company Incorporated, which remained family owned and operated for more than 50 years, until the business sold last year. The office and house were at the same location in order for Mrs. Pennell to simultaneously complete work for the business and look after the children.
In addition to their roofing business, The Pennells operated a grain and livestock farm in Hillview, Illinois, as well as a small livestock farm on the family’s property in northern Jacksonville. The family also assisted in the expansion of Jacksonville by building and selling two homes, as well as a large portion of their property, which was developed and named Fernwood Boulevard.
While Mrs. Pennell’s daily schedule is not nearly as busy as it once was, her overall good health allows her to remain active. Each Sunday she still gathers together with her family, including her eight children who all remain in Illinois, to enjoy coffee, and almost every Sunday, Mrs. Pennell’s angel food cake. This tradition of gathering together each Sunday has been in existence for as long as David Pennell can remember. Mrs. Pennell also enjoys attending her parish, Our Savior Catholic Church, whenever she is able.
Mrs. Pennell is in disbelief that she will be turning 100 years old, and shies away from the from the suggestion that this landmark birthday earns her the title of local celebrity. She does, however, offer this advice to those hopeful in becoming a centenarian, “Don’t take life too seriously, everyday that’s important.”
The Pennell Family plans to commemorate this monumental birthday with a celebration in Mrs. Pennell’s honor. Much to Mrs. Pennell’s delight, her daughter in law, Lisa Pennell, informs Mrs. Pennell, “And we’ll have cake, a party for you with angel food cake.”