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Tributes to Elise Penfield

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Elise Penfield

Executive Director of Leadership Birmingham



“I fondly recall how easily I could know her mood from the way she called my name:  sometimes hastily, meaning act or speak now; endearingly out of genuine respect; quietly when facing a dilemma; loudly out of eager anticipation; laughingly to say can you believe that?!; and gently meaning another good day coming to a close. Those were 10 years of our lives inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Leadership Birmingham.”

-Charlena Bray, Class of 1984


“It was the Opening Retreat Breakfast in 1990 and the class had just met for the first time. After breakfast, as we gave out assignments for bus seatmates, Elise, who was a class member that year, shrieked when she looked at hers and said “oh, no, I can’t possibly sit with him!” Well, our pairing was hardly scientific, but we felt pretty sure they didn’t move in the same circles, so naturally we asked why. As the whole room listened, she shouted, “Because he’s my gynecologist!” The class exploded in laughter. Sometimes the best ice-breakers are unplanned. Dear Elise….I will miss her.”
-Sheila Blair, Class of 1984 & Executive Director, 1983-1993


“When it comes to building community leaders, Elise Penfield was a ‘rock star.’ Countless people and organizations have benefitted from her leadership and tutelage. Many of those people never had the privilege of meeting Elise or knowing of the positive influence that she had on their lives and organizations. Elise will be sorely missed by the Birmingham community and far beyond.”

-James E. Rotch and Houston L. Brown, Class of 1992


“I went through Leadership Birmingham a year into my work at the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, and I am thankful to this day for that gift. Despite growing up here, I didn’t really know my community. Elise exposed me to the people and things and places I didn’t know. And she was a taskmaster- I remember her following me into the bathroom to tell me to get on the bus! I think she knew the job I was faced with and she wanted to make sure that I learned thoroughly. I am thankful she stayed on me. Elise was a gift.”

-Kate Nielsen, Class of 1996


“Elise Penfield epitomized all that was good about Leadership Birmingham and all that may be good about Birmingham. Her openness to all was always apparent and her clear challenge to us all to join her in that attitude never ceased. Elise was an original!”

-Mike Warren, Class of 1986


“Elise had a humanitarian streak that was always visible. I have fond memories of a trip to Jordan in 1985 with Elise, Irvin Penfield and ten others, organized by Ed and Ruth Lamonte. We visited refugee camps, children’s shelters, health clinics, schools, religious leaders, politicians and families. No matter how dire the circumstances, or tense the conversations, Elise’s personal warmth and reassuring words helped our group make friends. Whether home or abroad, Elise could bring out the best in anyone.”

-Odessa Woolfolk, Class of 1984


“We mourn the loss of a woman who knew this community’s needs and worked to fill them from the frontlines. She knew the disparities because she worked with many marginalized groups. She called many of her clients her friends, had them over to dinner and shared face to face social interactions with them. She made many significant contributions to the quality of life in our communities before Leadership Birmingham. But, it was in that role she introduced many corporate leaders to the challenges of the people and systems in Alabama and showed them how to make a meaningful impact. In my year (1992) I heard too many times “I didn’t know.” Elise would say as only she could, “Well here it is and what are YOU going to do about it?” She left all the classes during her tenure with over 100 projects, many were implemented but so many good ideas were left on the table. In her honor, let’s revisit those projects and do just a little more.”

-Samuetta Nesbitt, Class of 1992


“I loved Leadership Birmingham more than anything I had ever done. I just loved the class, learning things I thought I already knew, but didn’t. I just loved everything about it. One Wednesday night, Paul and I went to a movie. We were coming home on Interstate 459 and it was raining. Paul skidded, and we hit a barrier. The first thing I did is to make sure he was alive and I was alive and fine, and then I remembered I had Leadership Birmingham the next day. We had to go to the hospital, and I thought, I just can’t miss, I can’t miss! We were up until 2 or 3am at the emergency room, and I was cut up but ok. I made it to Leadership Birmingham on time that morning and told Elise what had happened, and that I just wasn’t sure what I was going to say or do. She told me, ‘Cathy, I never know what you’re going to say or do!’ Here I was thinking I could get credit for being there after what happened, but no! I just loved her.”

-Cathy Friedman, Class of 1995


“Elise made a difference for good in all that she did. She was high energy, and so capable and caring. Elise had high expectations for herself and she had a gift for bringing out the best in others. Whether it was in her role of working with homeless women and children, or as Executive Director of Leadership Birmingham, or as a volunteer in the community, she gave outstanding leadership and service. She served and loved this community so effectively, and hers was definitely a life well lived. She will be missed and we join with her family in celebrating her exemplary life as we mourn her passing.”

-Neal Berte, Class of 1984


“Elise was a woman who both listened to all sides and was a leader to be listened to. She could make you laugh and immediately thereafter make you reflect on her words of wisdom. She will be deeply missed.”

-Rodney Max, Class of 1990


“I loved Elise. We were partners in so many activities. The founding PATH Board. Leadership Birmingham. Docents at the Birmingham Museum of Art. The National Conference for Community and Justice. A life changing interfaith community study mission to Israel. She is an irreplaceable force in my life and in the community.”

-Jim Sokol, Class of 1985


“Three things about Elise: She hired me at PATH in 1992 straight from the Fire House Shelter to be Housing Coordinator. Moving from work with homeless men to work with homeless women and children was no walk in the park but she made it seem so! For several years she talked about wanting to travel to Italy with Sr. Jackie and me. It made for a good number of lunchtime conversations, even as recently as late last year. We often laughed at her frustration with commercials for Children’s Hospital. “They call it Children’s of Alabama. Children’s WHAT?” she would say!”

-Sister Mary Robert Oliver, Class of 1992


“From the moment I met Elise Penfield in 1994 until the last time we spoke in 2018, she infected me with her joy and her interest in life. Her manner made those around her feel comfortable and at ease. Such a treasure she was to BSC, to Leadership Birmingham, and to all who knew her!”

-Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith, Class of 1992


“Elise had a grace about her that was as lovely as her laugh. I always felt that I was encountering an understanding heart whenever we would speak. She will be a candidate to lead Leadership Heaven and we will all clamor to get into the cohort when our time comes.”

-Rabbi Jonathan Miller, Class of 1992


“Such a wonderful Birmingham Leadership leader. She always presented challenges to benefit the community. She will be remembered for her guidance and inspiration to all of us.”

-Flora Blackledge, Class of 1991


“A GREAT lady … who made her community and all in it better.” “ WELL DONE. BE THOU AT PEACE.”

-Cris Stone, Class of 1991


“Elise could work a room like no one I’ve ever met. Days later you soon realized that she had put a committee together for a project to build community. She was passionate about elevating Birmingham and it’s citizens, and was always on a team to build bridges in order to make connections! That was very important to her. What a joy and honor to have known this consensus builder. Close your eyes for a moment. You will see that million dollar smile she boasted every time you saw her. I am truly fortunate as numerous others to have known Lady Penfield!”

-Yvonne Baskin Bendross, Class of 1990



“Elise was such a role model for so many of us. I was privileged to serve on the PATH Board under her leadership and, in fact, was appointed to fill her shoes when she was selected as Leadership Birmingham’s Executive Director. My few months as PATH’s Interim Executive Director left me with even more admiration for her many gifts, particularly as a community leader and bridge builder as well as a fierce and committed advocate of those women and children she served so well. Needless to say her shoes were impossible to fill but the example she had set and the encouragement she generously offered I will always remember with gratitude. She was a true bright spirit whose presence enriched every activity she undertook. She was very special indeed.”

-Carey Hinds, Class of 1985


“I first knew and worked with Elise and her husband Irvin as a student at Birmingham Southern College in the late 1960s. A life-changing encounter. You instantly knew they cared deeply and with vision and integrity about their school and city and state. They complemented each other so well that the sum of their parts far exceeded the whole. Elise cast a shining and everlasting light on Birmingham. We need more like her. And Irvin. Rest In Peace.”

-Walter Browning, Class of 1994


“I was fortunate to first meet Elise and Irvin Penfield as a freshman at Birmingham-Southern in 1967. Irvin was my teacher, mentor and 20 years later, my LB classmate. Elise became a dear friend, confidante and tireless supporter of the values and community goals that I, and so many of us, have worked for. I will never forget her, and her impact and influence will be sustained by all those who she so ably led.”

-Bob Corley, Class of 1986


“I did not know Elise when we started (our opening retreat was cancelled due to 9/11) but knew that her “ rules” were not to be challenged . As our year progressed I learned she was a caring , compassionate and loving person. I always cherished the relationship we developed and respected her fierce determination for what was right.”

-Jeffrey Bayer, Class of 2002


“My memories of Elise Penfield predate Leadership Birmingham by many years. I was among her students the first year that she and her late husband, Irvin, joined the faculty at Birmingham-Southern College in the 1960s. I was also a student of Irvin, who became one of my classmates in Leadership Birmingham. Elise’s class was debate, but it was not the mechanics of that academic endeavor that I remember. Without ever revealing her own opinion, she drew every student into a deep study of the topic she had chosen, U.S. involvement in Vietnam. That talent to bring out thoughtful consideration by others is one that served this community well in the various roles she filled, including at Leadership Birmingham.”

-Karl Seitz, Class of 1986


“Oh my, what a wonderful kind hearted person Elise was. She had a way of getting her point across while inspiring all to focus on the good of all. Her command of a room and ability to network individually was masterful. She believed in inclusion before it became popular………. thank you Elise! Prayers and blessings to her family.”

-James Camel, Class of 2004


“Wise, enlightened, informed, perceptive, strategic, shrewd, thoughtful, gracious, tolerant, beneficent, exceptional, insightful, competent, discerning, memorable, rare, substantial, talented, adept, capable, brilliant…Need I say more? I will always remember Elise for these qualities and more. Rest in Glory!”

-Antoinette Smith Epps, Class of 1995


“I learned more about Birmingham, and the people and organizations that run her, in that one year, than from anything else I have ever been exposed to. It was a great honor for me to participate. Elise was remarkable in her leadership of this widely diverse group of our citizens.”

-Wimberly Miree, Class of 1993


“Elise will always be remembered. She was so loving and kind. Her knowledge and connection with the corporate community and the community at large was far reaching. She too, as we all know, was a stickler for being on time. She is definitely missed. However, when I hear a bell ring, I smile at the thought of her.”

-Binne Myles, Class of 1994


“I did not experience LB with Elise, but with Sheila. However I had so many opportunities, through community involvement, to experience Elise’s staunch dedication to good causes, openness to all voices, and warm smile. She has left our community in a better place and she and Irvin are missed.”

-Barbara Royal, Class of 1987


“My experience with Elise in Leadership Birmingham was wonderful. It was an experience that opened my eyes to many things about the responsibilities associated with being in Birmingham and how much we can accomplish together as a community. She was the perfect person for the Executive Director position because she believed so genuinely in the mission of LB and had endless knowledge of the people and circumstances that comprise the fabric of the City. However, Elise and Irvin Penfield impacted my life long before 2001 because in 1975 I arrived at Birmingham-Southern College as a freshman. Irvin soon became my academic advisor and Elise became my mom away from home. Irvin and Elise were like no two people I had known before that. Although I had been very fortunate in my upbringing in Anniston, I went to BSC to grow and work to have a life of significance. Elise and Irvin showed me what happy, enlightened adults in love look and act like. They shared their love of and devotion to their sons, they debated with one another, they enjoyed the company of one another, and they reveled in the successes of one another. Irvin was so proud of Elise and she was equally proud of him. I am so sad to have lost Elise, but so grateful for the time she spent with us and for the lasting impact she had on me. Virginia and I loved Elise Penfield.”

-David Smith, Class of 2001


“I first met Elise at Birmingham Southern. We were “faculty wives” but even then I knew she was bigger than life. I was one of the people guilty of talking her away from school curriculum development to director of the women’s day shelter. She called me soon after the opening when a woman decided to stand on the coffee table. Days later we laughed about how different this work was but she loved it. We reunited when she moved to Leadership Birmingham and remained connected throughout her tenure there. I loved her spunk, her sense of humor, her amazing laugh and her love of her family. But most of all I loved her passion for justice and a better world. When I felt overwhelmed she would give me a loving kick in the pants and remind me that a lot of people were counting on my best work. Well done good and faithful servant.”

-Pat Hoban-Moore, Class of 1985


“When I first met her, she was Mrs. Penfield (Dr. Penfield’s wife). Over time, I came to know Elise. She was as comfortable with the women who came to PATH for clothing as she was with the corporate and elected leaders in LB. Even when spending time with the leaders, she never forgot the women. I always suspected she intentionally put me in a small group with a city council member so I could talk to him about Pathways. Clearly Elise knew that casual conversations could get more done than formal presentations and she made room for that in every LB day.”

-Connie Hill, Class of 2002


“Elise was my very first friend when Jim and I moved to Birmingham. Her husband, Irvin Penfield, hired me to join him in political science at Birmingham -Southern College. We became great friends. And over the course of nearly 50 years, we laughed, we played, we sometimes cried, but we were never far away from each other. As someone who had no roots in Alabama, Elise welcomed me and Jim and our kids from the beginning. I remember beach trips with the kids – – Gwen, Toni, Russell, and Matthew. We were all in each others lives. We cared about each other‘s kids. When Gwen was getting ready for her senior prom, the first person I thought of to “show her off to“ was Elise. We drove over, and Elise appropriately “oooohed” and “aaahed,” and Gwen beamed. After Irvin passed away, Elise joined me and Janie Spencer and Dudley Long taking a group of students to Europe during our January term. We laughed and ate and drank and had the best of times.

Elise was committed to do good. She not only supportEd all of the efforts of the college, But she was involved with every major effort to improve the lives of those who had less in our community. Whether it was the homeless, or the poor, or at the national level with the National Council of Churches, or for individuals who are having problems, Elise was there to hold hands to support you—to love and to laugh. As we all age, we grow apart whether through illness or in action or changes in our lives forcing us to move away. Whenever we could connect, Elise and I took up where we had just left off the day before. That’s what friendship is, and I will always treasure ours.”

-Natalie Davis, Class of 1984


“Class days with Elise were enjoyable. And she made them so. She was compassionate and caring, yet she always had the bell. As a regular victim of “the bell” I would wager that she is still ringing it today. God speed!!”

-Al Folcher, Class of 1998


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