London and Laurel County lost a key player in the business boom that has placed it in the top of the state's industrial development sites.
Charles Pennington Jr., 89, passed away at his home on Thursday, Jan. 16 after a brief illness. His family was by his side.
Pennington had a storied life that included 26 years in law enforcement and 24 more working with the London Laurel County Industrial Development Authority. He was instrumental in bringing jobs to the area and was a key player in the development of six of the county's current seven industrial parks. The business park located off West KY 80 was named the Charles Pennington Industrial Park IV in his honor in 2016.
Laurel County Judge-Executive David Westerfield said Pennington's death was a loss for the community.
“There’s so much good to say about Charlie I’m not sure you can write it all,” Westerfield said. “He’s one of the finest men I’ve ever known. He was always willing to help others first, and putting himself last.”
"I’ve been working with him for 20 years but knew him personally before then," he added. "He was a great advocate for Laurel County. He was an integral part in the foundation and the success of our industrial recruitment efforts.”
Although he is most recently recognized for his work in bringing jobs to the area, Pennington also had a huge impact in the law enforcement arena.
While attending high school, he worked at Kern's Bakery, now known as Bimbo Bakery.
He became a Kentucky State Trooper at age 22 and worked at the London, Hazard and Henderson posts for two years.
It was then that the Korean War called and Pennington served in the U.S. Army from 1955 until 1959. He was stationed at Ft. Carson-Ft. Knox, Kentucky, before being shipped to Seoul, Korea.
His return home in 1959 required a career change as continued service with the Kentucky State Police would involve relocating. Instead, he became the third employee of the Laurel County Sheriff's Department, being a deputy alongside George Gaines and under Sheriff Chester Scoville.
A year later, Pennington was encouraged to apply as a U.S. Marshal by Circuit Judge Ray Lewis and Congressman John Sherman Cooper. He did so and was sworn in as a Deputy Marshal in 1960. He escorted the first black student into integrated schools - an experience that featured him in a Norman Rockwell painting of that historic event in U.S. history. He served for the Federal Witness Protection program, arrested paroled bank robbers from Alcatraz and rode on trains passing through picket lines during the coal strikes in Harlan County.
In 1981, Pennington was personally nominated by President Ronald Reagan and appointed as the Eastern District U.S. Marshal headquartered in Lexington to supervise the U.S. Marshal staff in 67 Kentucky counties.
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Siler Jr. recalled working with Pennington.
"I was the U.S. Attorney and he was a Deputy Marshal in the 1970s," Siler said. "That was a high honor to be a Deputy Marshal because there were only two in the state and he was the only one from eastern Kentucky. He was an honorable person and a good friend."
Siler said Pennington's passing was "a great loss we've experienced."
"It was a great pleasure to know him and work with him," he added. "He was never heavy-handed as a law enforcement officer - he did what he had to do, but he did it with dignity."
After retiring from law enforcement, Pennington became active in the community. He served on the board of directors of the Laurel County Fire Department and London Planning and Zoning Commission. He also began working with the London Laurel County Industrial Authority, serving as interim director and executive director for many years until health issues required him to step down. He passed along his knowledge to his daughter, Paula Thompson, who worked with him for 11 years before succeeding him as executive director.
Hershel Blanton also recalled Pennington's contributions to the community as well as his personal attributes.
"I served on the board of directors on the fire department with Charlie, where he was instrumental in the financial stability of the department," he said. "We became real close friends. He did a lot for the county that people will never know. He worked hard to bring companies in here that offered good jobs with good salaries and opportunities. He was a very intelligent man - a gentleman and a scholar."
U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers also commented on Pennington's contributions to the area in a statement:
“Charlie Pennington was an economic development engine for Laurel County and a true American patriot of this great Nation. I was honored to recommend his promotion to U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Kentucky in 1981 after serving more than 20 years as Deputy U.S. Marshal. Later, during what could have been long restful years of retirement, Charlie invested his time and energy to recruiting businesses and creating new jobs in Laurel County – and he wasn’t just good at it, he was great. Charlie helped transform Laurel County into an industrial hub for our region, which will continue impacting the I-75 corridor for generations. My wife, Cynthia, and I extend our heartfelt condolences to Charlie’s entire family and his countless friends across the state.”
Pennington is survived by his wife of 47 years, Phyllis Fields Pennington; and three children , son Robbie and wife Tammy, and their two daughters, Paula Thompson and husband Terry and Marsha Herzog and husband Paul; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are visitation at Bowling Funeral Home on Wednesday, Jan. 22 after 6 p.m., with the funeral on Thursday, Jan. 23 at 1 p.m. at the funeral home.