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Charles F. Penniman, Jr.June 9, 1928 ~ April 22, 2017 (age 88)
The Rev. Charles F. Penniman Jr., a science educator and caretaker of the famous Henri Maillardet automaton at the Franklin Institute, died April 22 at his home at the Atria Center City in Philadelphia. He was 88.
Penniman may have been best known for helping inspire the Hollywood movie about an automaton, “Hugo,” and the book it was based on, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, who he introduced to the machine. But he was also a Renaissance man of science, art and faith.
Penniman had a career as an Episcopal priest and ministered in many settings. He also worked 21 years on staff at the Franklin Institute and many more as a volunteer. He was a professional photographer as well as a painter, three-dimension artist, musician and tinkerer.
Penniman was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on June 9, 1928, to the Rev. Charles and Lucile Penniman. His father was an Episcopal priest and noted theologian.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in 1950, intending to pursue engineering, but then served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. In 1957, he received a master’s of divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary and the next year was ordained as an Episcopal priest.
Penniman’s early service as a priest took him to New York, where, as a rector in Endicott, he met his wife, Annette. They were married in 1960 and had one son.
In 1962, Penniman became rector of Trinity Memorial Church, in Philadelphia. But a decade later his love for science and education brought him back to the Franklin Institute, which had long been a favorite place. He was a staff member there from 1972 to 1993.
At that time, the Pennimans bought a gutted row house on South Street near 24th Street and rebuilt it according to his designs. They lived there and became beloved fixtures in the neighborhood for 40 years, until moving to the Atria in 2013.
The couple also helped start and lead The Church Without Walls, an Episcopal congregation that met in private homes. His ministry also included being assistant chaplain at the Graterford Prison, supply priest and photographer for the Diocese of Philadelphia, and member of the Guatemala Companion Diocese Committee.
Rev. Penniman pursued his love of photography with a professional darkroom in his basement, as well as making and playing instruments, painting with water colors, carving statues from wood, and many other creative pursuits.
The 200-year-old Maillardet automaton was donated to the Franklin Institute in 1928. It is a two-foot-tall mechanical robot capable of writing three poems and drawing four pictures with the power of wound-up springs, while its eyes seem to follow the work of its hand.
Penniman operated and cared for the automaton for years, documenting its mechanism and mechanical problems with his camera. When Selznick became interested in the topic in 2007, Penniman introduced him to the machine. His photographs allowed a restorer to bring the automaton back to working order.
Selznick’s book was made into the film “Hugo” by Martin Scorsese in 2011.
Penniman is survived by his wife of 56 years, Annette, his son, Nathaniel B. Penniman, and Annette’s daughter, Lynda Kinnier, all of Philadelphia, Kinnier’s son Paul Kinnier, of Upper Darby, and daughter Sandi Chadwick, of Downingtown, and Chadwick’s children, Elley and Naomi Chadwick; and nephews Eric E. Wohlforth Jr., of West Orange, New Jersey, and Charles P. Wohlforth, of Anchorage, Alaska.
He is preceded in death by his parents and his sister, Caroline P. Wohlforth, of Anchorage.
A funeral service will be held on Friday, May 26, at 11 a.m., at The Church of Saint Luke & The Epiphany at 330 S. 13th Street, with a reception to follow in the parish hall. Memorial donations may be made to Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, 225 S. 3rd Street, Phila, PA 19106; http://www.ecsphilly.org
Episcopal Community Services
225 S. 3rd Street, Philadelphia PA 19106