James Edward Penny brought a whole new way of thinking to the Grambling State University Television Center when he arrived on campus in the fall of 1986.
“Through his leadership, he bridged a wide gap that was missing and moved the Television Center to the next level,” said Sharon Ford-Dunn, who retired as associate professor and internship coordinator in the Mass Communication Department in 2018.
As a recent GSU graduate with a degree in liberal studies in 1986, Ford-Dunn had a front row seat to the development of the Television Center when she was hired as station manager at KGRM and a broadcast instructor in new Mass Communication Department.
“He was my mentor when I first started,” Ford-Dunn said. “He helped me set up my broadcast classes. He just took me under his wings and helped me greatly.”
Penny died Tuesday, February 2, 2021, following a short illness at his home in Missouri City, Texas, a Houston suburb. He was 76 years old.
A memorial service was held Saturday for the Odessa native, who retired in 2003 as director of the Television Center and assistant professor of mass communication at Grambling State University.
“Many students in the program received internship opportunities and jobs as a result of his teaching and guidance,” Ford-Dunn said. “We have a lot of people working in the field because of J. Penny.”
Penny had the professional broadcast experience that was needed in the new department, which was seeking national accreditation in mass communication at the time, said Rama Tunuguntla, who retired as acting dean of the College of Professional Studies in 2013.
“It was the early years of the mass communication program and the TV Center,” said Tunuguntla, who was mass communication department head at the time. “The broadcasting component needed a strong and knowledgeable person with practical experience and theoretical knowledge.”
He said Penny did that very successfully. “His experience was very much needed at the time and that came in handy in the process of national accreditation of the mass communication program.”
“Mr. Penny was beyond just a professor to me; he was my friend,” said Jackie Greggs-Walden, a former student who worked as a news anchor at KNOE-TV in the 1990s.
“If Mr. Penny’s legacy for coming into this world was to inspire people, to show them their potential that they can be anything they wanted to be, you can check that box off, because he did that for me,” she said.
She said he was more than a teacher, he was a mentor, a best friend.
His most important quality as a teacher was his honesty, his honesty about the business, learning the business the right way, said Kim Betton, who works in public affairs in Atlanta. She worked some 20 years as a TV anchor in several major U.S. markets, including Memphis and Washington, D.C.
“He cared about us, about students,” she said. “He talked to us about working in the business. We always kept in touch. It was a very good setting. The way he taught, he taught with passion.”
Penny had a special impact on many male students at Grambling, such as Marvin Hurst, who graduated in 1995.
“Many of us had fatherhood wounds and a lack of leaders — male figures who were educated and fearless like Mr. Penny,” said Hurst who has worked as a journalist and news anchor at KENS TV in San Antonio, Texas, for 16 years. “Mr. Penny was an elevation in manhood for me. I think that is what made him so central in my development."
Because of Vice President Kamala Harris, who graduated from Howard University, Hurst noted there’s much talk these days about the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“It is people like Mr. Penny who make HBCUs so unique and essential,” Hurst said. “During that time, we were so fortunate to have people like Mr. Penny to help us harness our talent.”
Another student echoed Penny’s dedication to developing students into professional journalists.
“He always spoke to us from the potential he saw in us as a professional rather than as students trying to be journalists, said Pam McKelvy-Hamner, who spent most of her 20-plus year broadcast career as a TV news anchor in major U.S. markets.
He told McKelvy-Hamner and other students they need to know how to do everything to succeed in the TV news business.
“You couldn’t just be the anchor, you had to know how to do everything,” she said. “Have an understanding of every aspect of the job.”
Penny was born May 20, 1944, in Lubbock, Texas, the son of Edward Evalue “E.P.” and Emma Elizabeth Mondine Penny, who preceded him in death.
He spent all of his early school years in Odessa, Texas, where he graduated from Blackshear Junior/Senior High School. Upon graduation, he attended Texas Southern University in Houston for a year before enlisting in the United States Air Force. He was honorably discharged in 1969. Following his four-year military experience, he enrolled at Northeast School of Broadcasting in Boston, where he received his 3rd Class Radiotelephone license. He later earned his 1st Class Radiotelephone license.
When Penny returned to Texas, he began his broadcast career as a disc jockey in Odessa. He worked in radio in San Antonio before eventually finding his way to Houston, where he became the first full-time Black on-air talent at KRLY FM Radio.
In 1978, he completed his undergraduate degree at Texas Southern University in telecommunications with a concentration in radio/TV production.
While enrolled at TSU, Penny was selected to serve as station manager of campus radio station KTSU. While in this position, he authored a federal grant that allowed the station to move from 10 watts to 18,000 watts, which greatly expanded the station’s reach beyond the campus. In 1986, he received a master’s degree in telecommunications with a concentration in media management.
During this period, Penny produced and hosted “Right Off The Top,” the first independent weekly television program in Houston that targeted an African American audience.
Penny also produced the first historically black college football game played on Sunday — Alcorn State vs. Mississippi Valley State in 1983. He produced and directed the first live telecast of the famous Bayou Classic football game from the New Orleans Superdome for Beta Sports and Home Sports Entertainment.
In 1986, he accepted a position at Grambling State University as an assistant professor in radio/television and director of the Television Center, where he served for 23 years. During the 2003 academic year, he was selected as a Distinguished Professor at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where he held the Carter G. Woodson Chair in the Walter Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Following his retirement from Grambling in 2003, Penny returned to the Greater Houston area. From 2008 to 2011, Penny was a visiting professor in the School of Communication at his alma mater, Texas Southern University.
He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Wanda; sons Edward J. O’Neal and Shawn C. Penny; daughter Semaj C. Penny; three grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; two half-sisters; and a host of family and friends.