A Lifetime of Learning; a Moment to Shine ​

Marla Elsea
May 5, 2022

Cecil "Ray" Penn has seen a lot in his 73 years, but few moments have surprised him as much as the invitation to join Phi Kappa Phi. "I've only been speechless four times in my life," he recalls. "The honor just took my breath away. It was a soul-affirming kind of award."

Penn is a true life-long learner having earned seven degrees over the course of fifty years. His educational journey began at McKendree University where he turned 18 during his first week of school. As an English major, he earned his first degree there in 1970. His most recent degree – his second Ph.D. – was earned in 2020 from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

Penn shared his story with Phi Kappa Phi recently as he prepared to travel back to McKendree for the initiation ceremony where he was set to be inducted as an alumnus. He recalled his childhood as being one filled with the desire to learn. "I've been perpetually curious about things. No one in my immediate family had graduated from high school, much less college. But even though they did not have formal education, there were always books and magazines and newspapers," said Penn.

"My hometown was 500 people – not even a town, it was considered a village. The only thing we had other than some vacant lots to play baseball on was the library. That was the center of the community and of kids' lives," he said. "I was an only child, so my grandmother got me a set of World Book encyclopedias. When it was a rainy day, I would stand them up on edge and page through article by article."

His interests and schooling took him down two very similar career paths. Not only does he have 53 years of experience as an ordained Methodist minister, but he also spent 23 years in university teaching. "Those two careers have been intertwined throughout my life," said Penn. One of his doctoral degrees is in speech communication, so he's taught public speaking, news writing, communication and more. "Learning how to interpret a poem and learning how to interpret a piece of scripture are very, very similar. So in terms of communicating, I've been traveling down the same hallway – sometimes on one side of the hallway, sometimes on the other side – but always the same hallway."

Now retired, Penn continues to look for new opportunities to fill his time. "I've only got two talents – I can write and I can speak," he joked. He intends to put those talents to good use and is currently working on two books, one of which is his autobiography, tentatively titled Bless Oh Lord This Fool.

When asked what advice he might offer to his younger peers being initiated alongside him, he encouraged them to stop chasing happiness for themselves and instead find the joy in bringing happiness to others. He tried to give that advice in his years of teaching, as well. "I don’t teach just to the head but to the heart. This is sort of the recognition of my life's orientation, and I deeply appreciate this honor."