Wisdom and Laughter
Remembering Elise Penfield
When Leadership Birmingham’s second executive director passed away in July, alumni recalled her passionate energy, high expectations, and ability to command a room and connect people. They also celebrated her warm smile, kindness and openness, and her quick wit. “She listened to all sides and was a leader to be listened to,” says Rodney Max (’90). “She could make you laugh and immediately make you reflect on her words of wisdom.”
Penfield had a “fierce determination for what was right,” notes Jeffrey Bayer (’02). As executive director from 1994 until 2004, Penfield challenged hundreds of leaders to use their talents to make Birmingham a better place. But she also took direct action to nurture the community’s hearts, minds, and neighborhoods. Formerly a schoolteacher, children’s theater director, and producer for instructional television programs, Penfield came to Leadership Birmingham after serving as the founding executive director of Partnership Assistance to the Homeless and the director of Birmingham’s Meals on Wheels. A beloved member of the Birmingham-Southern College community, she taught there and at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. And she treasured her work as a docent at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
Penfield also made a national impact, serving on the board of directors of the National Council of Churches and as vice president of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns of the United Methodist Church. She received the Brotherhood and Sisterhood Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice as well as Birmingham-Southern’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
Penfield “introduced many leaders to the challenges of the people and systems in Alabama and showed them how to make a meaningful impact,” says Samuetta Nesbitt (’92). “Elise would say, as only she could, ‘Here it is, and what are you going to do about it?’”