Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Beyond the Grave

Smith Bizzell & Warner’s Kelvin J. Pennington breathes life into struggling Gary community

By Leslie L. Fuller

Kelvin J. Pennington steps through the doors of Smith Bizzell & Warner Funeral Home in Gary, as he has done hundreds if not thousands of times before, to help family, friends and coworkers say their final farewells.

As owner of the single-story funeral home with the pillared portico and immaculately manicured lawn at 4209 Grant St., death was a fact of life for Pennington. But from the 18-page commemorative program to the remarks from Purdue University Trustee Mamon Powers Jr., this emotional “homegoing celebration” in March 2009, was no typical day for Pennington or Smith Bizzell & Warner.

“There were tons of floral arrangements; I couldn’t even describe the number,” he recalled. “It was comparable to the passing of the mayor of Gary in terms of the scale and presence of it. It was also a family coming out to pay respect to a great leader and family member.” The deceased was Pennington’s mentor – the man he, like countless others, came to view as a father figure – Dr. Cornell A. Bell, retired director of Purdue University’s Business Opportunity Program.

Perhaps ironically, it was his close association with Bell, an Evansville native and Sagamore of the Wabash, that led Pennington to that day, to his ownership of that funeral home. But that close association also meant he was less involved than usual in the planning of this grand event.

“My role would normally be there for the family and being the service provider. But when it’s someone you care about, someone else has to handle that role because you’re more of the family,” he said.

As a business leader who owns a variety of enterprises, Pennington’s Concord Family Services Inc., chain is considered among the top five largest African-American-owned funeral management services in the United States.

AT THE ROOT OF THINGS

Growing up, the Hammond native, 56, knew he wasn’t a true Pennington. His mother Clara had married and divorced a man named Melvin Pennington, yet his father remained unknown to him.

Then one day, he and his older brother, Melvin Pennington Jr., walked into an area barbershop, Pennington recalled. “There’s this guy in there that looked just like me, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that amazing?’” he said.

Later, Pennington asked his mother about the man. “She said, ‘He’s nobody. Don’t worry about it.’ Five years later, I found out that was my father,” he said. By age 12, Pennington was riding his bicycle secretly from his mother and stepfather’s home in Hammond, to his father’s Gary residence, more or less 10 miles away.

Meeting his biological father Willie James Davis filled a void, Pennington said. He also found encouragement from male schoolteachers, first at Lafayette Elementary School in Hammond, and later, Hammond High.

“I was spending more time in school and liking it, because this is where the encouragement is coming from,” he said. In high school, Pennington found he could flourish on little sleep.

“I’d go to school, then work 4 to 10, go by my girlfriend’s house to 10:30 p.m., go home, study until 1:30 in the morning, sleep five hours and get up and go to school,” he said.

MEETING A MENTOR

Upon graduating in 1976, Pennington knew he wouldn’t be content working in a steel mill and wanted “some executive-type” job. He planned to attend Indiana University. Then came a knock at the door from Dr. Cornell A. Bell.

The former Gary high school administrator wanted young Kelvin to join other talented minority students in the Business Opportunity Program (BOP) of Purdue’s Krannert School of Management. “I wasn’t interested,” Pennington recalled.

“I was highly confident, I’d graduated summa cum laude; there was nothing you could tell me. “Then Dr. Bell told me, ‘You probably couldn’t handle it at Purdue, you’re just going to Indiana University because it’s easy.’” The perceived insult spurred Pennington to change course.

“I went to Purdue, got into the BOP program, and at the end of the first semester, I wanted to show Dr. Bell how well I had done,” he said. However, Bell employed a different motivational technique on Pennington’s half-brother Clinton Wilhight, Pennington noted. “Dr. Bell always got under my skin to bring out the best in me, but my younger brother got more nurturing; he’d respond to that,” he explained.

Pennington describes his Purdue years as a stirring time. “(Bell) started bringing those successful African-American kids back to campus, so you could see it. Then we were learning about networking, making sure you got that great summer job, leading to the next summer job. Once you got in, you just kept growing from there,” he said.

During his sophomore year, Pennington’s first child, daughter Tenesha Franks, was born.

“Again, there were various meetings and advice from Dr. Bell,” he said.

Embracing parental responsibility benefitted his work ethic and career, Pennington added.

“I’d probably say my daughter made me sharpen my focus,” he said. “I’ve got to first have enough money to pay child support for a year, to save enough money to pay for tuition. I had someone to take care of.” Today, Pennington notes proudly, Franks is a Purdue alumna herself, married with children and employed by the Veterans Administration. “She (Franks) is studious. She’s got the studious focus like me,” he said.

BELL KEEPS SHOWING UP

Even after Pennington was graduated from Purdue’s Krannert School of Management in 1980, he found that his college mentor continued to show up in his life.

“I was working my first job at Prudential Capital Corp. in New York. Guess who checked up on me: Dr. Bell. Just because you graduate, doesn’t mean you’re not still one of his kids,” he said. In 1982, Pennington earned an M.B.A. degree from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. After a five-year courtship, Pennington married Audrey J. Anewishki on June 21, 2002, in Las Vegas.

“I dated a lot of women who aren’t comfortable with the long hours that go with being an entrepreneur and starting your own business,” he said. “But Audrey understood.”

As with previous milestones in his life, Pennington noted, at the wedding, “there was Dr. Bell with his dark suit on.”

Today, the Penningtons have a 10-year-old son, Brent, who attends the University of Chicago Lab School. In 1990, Pennington left Prudential, where he had held positions, including vice president of corporate finance. But there was one glaring void.

“I had no opportunity to work with African-Americans at all,” he says. “Corporate finance? We weren’t there.”

Pennington’s decision to strike out on his own was difficult for some to understand. “At the time, everyone said, ‘Don’t leave,’” he said. “They wanted me to stay. I’d done an excellent job.” But entrepreneurship proved too compelling.

“It’s the challenge of starting something, being in the marketplace, create a business. You train for it; you’re ready for it. It was one of the things, from this point in my career, that I wanted to do,” he said. He formed the investment management and financial consulting firm, Pennington Partners & Co, headquartered in Chicago, where he serves as managing principal. Pennington also has served as general partner of PENMAN Asset Management, L.P., the general partner for the PENMAN Fund, since 1991.

BROADENING HIS REACH

In 1996,Pennington began serving as a director of Atlanta, Ga.-based Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, a post he recently resigned. “All boards have to continue to evolve, and I felt at 18 years, it was time to transition off and get new blood involved,” he explained.

Though about one-third of Popeyes’ board included people of color, the participation of an African-American on a major corporate board is a rarity. The Alliance for Board Diversity reported in 2010 only 5.7 percent of board seats at the nation’s 500 largest publicly traded companies were held by African-American men, and only 1.9 percent were held by African-American women.

“That’s a public, big brand, a $2 billion system, with stores all over the world,” Pennington said. “When you’re getting ready for something like that, you need a certain type of academic experience, business background. Start by serving on a nonprofit board, or community or charity type board so that you get into the activity of being a board member.”

Also in 1996, Pennington learned that Smith Bizzell & Warner Funeral Home was for sale and moved to acquire the historic business. Though most mortuary service providers inherit their funeral homes, he saw the buy as good business and as a chance for involvement within his childhood community.

“It was my first opportunity to work with African-Americans, Black people, to get involved in community activities. I didn’t have that avenue in what I was doing,” he said.

Pennington soon acquired several other community funeral homes: Golden Gate Funeral Home in Chicago; Wilson Funeral Home in Tampa Bay, Fla.; the Thomas T. Edwards Funeral Home in Buffalo, N.Y.; the Stinson Funeral Home in Detroit; Williams & Williams in Savannah, Ga.; Tunsil Funeral Home in Palmyra, N.J.; and Henry L. Fuqua Funeral Service in Bloomfield, Conn. He has no current plans for expansion.

GIVING BACK TO BOP

It’s important that Smith Bizzell & Warner give back as well, said Pennington.

“We care about what you’re doing, we care about your health, we care about your kids’ education, we care about you as a citizen, and we enjoy doing it. We enjoy doing that to be part of the community. It’s part of who we are,” he said.

“Social good is just a big aspect of what we do. We look for opportunities to display it, enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a two-way street. We’re getting a good feeling.”

Darren L. Henry, managing director of Purdue’s Dr. Cornell A. Bell Business Opportunity Program, said Pennington emulates his mentor’s legacy by giving his time and finances to the BOP program.

“To date, no one has given more to the BOP program than Kelvin Pennington; no one,” Henry said. “It’s in the six figures, and he is not seeking credit. He gives back all the time, and he is a great person for Purdue, not just BOP.”

Giving back is good business, Pennington said. “In business, there is competition,” he said. “You have to think about, ‘How do you compare with the competition?’ I’d say for our funeral homes, doing good is our strategic advantage. You can make money, do strategic good and be a better organization.”

Although “social good” may sound abstract, it’s a concept that assumes tangible form when businesses make it a priority, said Pennington, who received the Distinguished Hoosier Award in 2008.

“We look at how should we focus on community. Where do we get involved; how do we give back? When you make social good part of your budget, part of your activities, you dedicate the resources to it, then you’ll have it,” he said.

KRACKERJACK THE CLOWN

Those company resources, Pennington said, include the right hires.

“I hire a dedicated, full-time person like Sandi Cogan to lead up an effort to do social good,” he said. Cogan is director of Community Affairs and Public Relations for Smith Bizzell & Warner. She’s a former director of public information and a director of special events for the City of Gary, as well as being the former mayoral press secretary.

Under Cogan’s direction, throughout the calendar year, the funeral home hires Krackerjack the Clown to entertain children with her antics at area events, and donates sheet cakes to Bible Bowl and the veterans home. In the summer, Cogan dispatches “Ice Cream on Wheels,” a program to donate Blue Bunny frozen treats to families attending the Annual City Wide Health Fair at the First AME Church, 2001 Massachusetts Ave., in Gary.

In 2010, the Gary Public Library sponsored author Sapphire to discuss her book and the resulting film, “Precious,” as part of its African-American History Program. Cogan was there to present the visiting literary celebrity with a bouquet of flowers on behalf of Smith Bizzell & Warner.

When Dr. Evelyn Idell Bethune, granddaughter of famed African-American educator Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, flew in from Florida to speak at the Gary Library, funeral home staff arranged her transportation.

Boston Celtics basketball star E’Twaun Moore, who previously played for East Chicago and Purdue, conducted a Skills Camp at East Chicago Central High School. Cogan arranged for a photographer to shoot photos of students with “No. 55.”

Each event represents the potential for community outreach, Pennington said.

“This is a community-based business. You need to provide good community support,” he said. Pennington also serves on the advisory board of Learning Enhancement Corp., a business run by CEO Roger Stark, and has sponsored the educational software BrainWare SAFARI in the local public schools. “Kelvin can run with the best and brightest regardless of their cultural background,” said Stark. “Quite a few people leave a disenfranchised community – leave and never come back. Kelvin wants to help others and help them get a leg up.”

‘BEST KEPT SECRET ON GRANT STREET’

Smith Bizzell & Warner also is qualified to conduct military funerals, and has helped area vets, Cogan said. At the funeral home, veterans can receive traditional military honors including the playing of “Taps” and a gun salute during their funeral services, and can be buried within the grounds of Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill.

U.S. Army Retired Lt. Col. Antonio Daggett praised the business for recently sponsoring 50 student JROTC cadets on their trip to Washington, D.C.

“It was the first time many of the Gary students had even been out of the neighborhood, and we were in the White House,” he said. “Without Smith Bizzell & Warner, I don’t think I would have been able to do it because the resources we were receiving from ROTC were just not enough.”

The cadets also received the opportunity to give back by assuming honor guard duties during veteran funeral ceremonies, Daggett says.

“It really impacted them in such a way, they saw value in doing something positive,” he said. “The conversation used to be who got shot, how many drugs were being found, and now it was about how to assist grieving families even after the service was over. It changed the conversation; it elevated their thinking.”

Karyn DuBose said she was surprised by the outcome of her recent trip to Smith Bizzell & Warner to pick up a check supporting the 15th annual Walk for Sojourner Truth House.

“I walked inside and heard gospel music playing,” the director of development for Ancilla Systems Inc. said. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to be putting my head in different places in a funeral home.’ Then Sandi greeted me with a hug, and instantly, I knew this would be something different.”

The expected quick errand to pick up a check turned into a two-hour coaching session, DuBose recalled. Cogan arranged for the event to be featured on the Saturday morning Gospel Express radio show on Gary-based WLTH-1370 AM and provided suggestions on promoting the charitable event.

“Why is a funeral home doing all this?” DuBose asked. “Why are they the best kept secret on Grant Street?

“They’ve engaged in the life of the community,” she said. “They care about you, not just when you’ve passed away, but also about the living.”

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