Penny Colman is the author of award-winning biographies and social histories. Her intriguing topics range from Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II to Thanksgiving: The True Story. A popular speaker, Penny has appeared on television, radio, including National Public Radio, and on Book TV, C-Span2.
She has been honored by the New Jersey State Legislature for her books and public appearances that have “contributed to the advancement of women.” The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs presented her with the New Jersey Women of Achievement Award.
A graduate of The University of Michigan and The Johns Hopkins University, Penny has taught nonfiction literature and creative writing at various colleges and universities, including Teachers College, Columbia University and Queens College, The City University of New York, where she was a Distinguished Lecturer from 2003-2010.
In her own words . . .
“I was born in 1944 in Denver, Colorado, and lived in Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Lexington, Kentucky, before my parents settled on the grounds of a state mental hospital in North Warren, Pennsylvania, a village located three miles from Warren, Pennsylvania, a small town located at the confluence of the Allegheny River and the Conewango Creek in the northwest corner of the state. My father was a psychiatrist, and we—my mother, who was an artist, and three brothers and I—lived in a house on the grounds of the hospital, a self-contained institution with houses for doctors, buildings for thousands of patients, barns for dairy cows, fields for growing vegetables, and places for recreation—baseball, tennis, kite flying, and field day games. When I was eleven years old, a writer and photographer came from New York City to our house to do an article titled “The Strangest Place to Find a Happy Family,” that was published in Redbook Magazine.
My three brothers and I were close in age, and we were always into something—backyard baseball games, canoeing, swimming, and fishing in the creek that ran behind our house. We had a family orchestra: My Dad played the piano, my Mom and brother Vin played the cello, my brother Kip and I played the violin, and my brother Jon played the clarinet. We kids weren’t very good, but we played anyhow.
For several years, my parents also owned a farm with a huge barn and a swimming hole. We had three horses, six sheep, a goat who jumped on the hood of a moving car, and a flock of exotic-looking chickens that my Dad and I ordered from a catalog. When all the noise and activity got to be too much, I would go for long bike rides. I loved to ride with “no hands” on the handle bar; I got to be so good that I could read a book and ride my bike at the same time!
My mother fueled my interest in history by taking me and my brothers to historic sites, landmarks, and museums. In particular, I remember visiting the poet Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts; the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and the Museum of Natural History in New York City, where my great uncle Walter Granger had worked as a vertebrate paleontologist and gone on exciting fossil-hunting expeditions.
Both my parents gave me a close-up view of being a writer. I was nine years old when my mother joined the staff of a local newspaper as a journalist and photographer. Occasionally she took me with her when she went off in pursuit of a story. That same year my father started writing a weekly column, “Everyday Psychology,” for several newspapers. Two years later, I published my first article in the first edition of newsletter I created to announce the start of our neighborhood orchestra comprised of me, my brothers, and some of our friends.
When I was fifteen, I, plus nine other kids and one adult leader, took a seven-week bicycle trip across the United States. All of our stuff—clothing, shoes, toothbrush, flashlight, etc.—was packed in forest green, canvas saddlebags that we attached to a rack of the back fender of our three-speed bikes. We tied our compact sleeping bag to the back of our seat. Although we did take some long train rides, we rode our bikes for miles and miles, including parts of Pennsylvania Dutch country, through Yellowstone National Park, up and over the Teton Pass in Wyoming, and down the coast of California on U.S. 1, a two-lane, curvy, oftentimes perilously narrow road, high above the Pacific Ocean. ‘The ride along the coast was really nice,” I wrote in a letter to my family. “One day we had terrible fog. You could see only 5’ ahead on a winding road. My hair was really wet and so was I after that ride . . . . since we could not see anything, just hear, we really put our imaginations to work.’
The year I graduated from high school, my parents had another child—my sister Catherine Ann, known as Cam. I took lots of pictures of Cam with me when I went to college.
After two years of college, I hitchhiked through Europe. By trucks, cars, on the back of motorcycles, and in the cab of a Caterpillar Road Scraper, I traveled from England to Sweden to Turkey to Greece to France and lots of places in between. I also took trains, ferries, and ships. In Sweden I worked for six weeks in a frozen food factory cutting up broccoli and packing peas in little boxes. When I returned, I finished college, went to graduate school, got married and had three children (two were twins), all within four years. For the next seventeen years, I threw myself into being an active mom, volunteer, on-and-off writer, teacher, consultant, project manager, and art gallery owner. Finally in 1987, I decided to become a full-time freelance writer. As I was starting out, I earned money by getting up at 3 a.m. to deliver newspapers.
Now, many years later, I have published many articles, essays, a one-act play, stories, and books. In 2001, I started teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. From 2003-2010, I was a distinguished lecturer at Queens College, the City University of New York. My three sons have grown up and started their own careers. My family has expanded to include wonderful grandchildren, with a set of twins due in 2014.
I live with my partner and write in Englewood, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. In my free time, you might find me walking along the river, reading in a library or archive, visiting a museum or historic site or exploring a cemetery. I love road trips, music, kayaking, bike riding, doing puzzles, playing games, and thinking and talking about ideas.”
To learn more about me, you can read my “Autobiography Feature” in Something About the Author (2005, volume 160, pp. 49-68) http://biography.jrank.org/pages/1586/Colman-Penny-Morgan-1944.html
The online version has the captions but not the photographs, so here they are in the order they appear in the hard copy of my “Autobiography Feature”