|Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton|
Community Advocate Henry F. Pannell Is a Proud Third Generation Princetonian
Henry Pannell looks for ways to make things better. Whether it is in providing a learning center for neighborhood kids, preserving the history of a people, mentoring young boys, or strengthening bonds within a neighborhood, he has been in the forefront of the action. His vision, determination, and dedication have set things in motion.
Much of his commitment to helping those in the community, especially young people, stems from his own experience and early years in Princeton.
"The thing about Princeton when I was growing up in the 1940s and early ¹50s was that it was a real community," he recalls. "You really looked up to all your elders. There was a strong sense of connection and a bond in the neighborhood. People like Bernard Griggs, who owned Griggs Restaurant, and others paid attention to what you were doing, and they'd never hesitate to correct you or let you know when you were doing something wrong. Sunday school and church were also important."
Born in Princeton Hospital in 1939, Henry was the oldest child of Peter and Frances Pannell. Siblings included brothers Linwood and Roderick, and sister Rosemarie.
"My father was from Princeton and my mother originally from Maryland," says Mr. Pannell. "My grandparents, Peter and Carrie Pannell, spent most of their lives here, and just the other day, I found an article from the 1909 black newspaper, The Citizen, about my grandmother. She had attended a ball in Washington, D.C.
"I grew up on Jackson Street, now Paul Robeson Place, and there are so many happy memories. We didn't have much, but we enjoyed ourselves. We made our own scooters from spare parts, and bikes too. We'd go camping overnight, even in the winter. This was before the area got so built up."
As a boy, Henry (known as Hank to family and friends), also enjoyed hunting and fishing, often sharing these activities with his father or other adults.
"My father took me fishing and hunting," he remembers. "We hunted for rabbits all over the area, and I fished Lake Carnegie and Stony Brook. Mr. Griggs took me salt water fishing, which I still love today."
Work was a part of life too, and from a young age, Hank had many after-school jobs. "I worked with a chef at a restaurant in town, and also went to the Golden Chain camp in Blairstown to work with a chef. I loved to cook, and I still do.
"I also worked after school with the plumber, Earl McQueen. I helped him, and learned a lot that would help me in my career later."
Attending Witherspoon Elementary School on Quarry Street, which at that time had an all-black enrollment, Henry was strongly influenced by his teachers, and enjoyed studying.
"I really liked history in school, both American and world," he says. "I had wonderful teachers, who greatly influenced me. I admired them so much."
In 1949, he transferred to the newly integrated Nassau Street School, and he was disappointed in the atmosphere. "I was in the fifth grade when I went to Nassau Street School, but it was an uncomfortable situation. Not really welcoming. I thank God I got the education I did until then.
"Also, in high school, I basically felt the same way, and really just looked forward to getting out of school."
After graduation from Princeton High in 1957, he started on a path which would lead him into a variety of career opportunities, with possibilities for advancement and diversity, as well as the chance to meet a broad spectrum of people throughout the community. The first job was guaranteed to intrigue a young man just starting out in the early days of the jet age. "When I got out of high school, I had the opportunity to begin a job as a technician at the Forrestal Research Center in the jet propulsion lab. I really liked that, and I learned a lot.
"Next, I had another opportunity when I went to work at the Institute for Advanced Study. John Harris, who I'd known all my life, helped me get a job in the print shop, and I worked there for several years.
"I have met so many interesting people in my work," he continues. "At the Institute, I knew Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer and their son Peter. I learned photography and worked in Peter's dark room. I also knew Helen Dukais, Einstein's secretary. I met her when she was working on Einstein's papers, just across from the print shop."
While he was at the Institute, he had one of his most memorable experiences. "They were upgrading the printing press at the Institute, and John Harris gave us the used press," he recalls. "My brother, Rod, Louise Shaw, Joseph P. Moore, Joan Hill, Romus Broadway, and I started a newspaper, 'The Black Word'. This was in the '60s. My brother and I did the printing, and we distributed it to everyone in the black community. It had news of what was going on and would be of interest to them. It lasted for three years and was one of my proudest achievements."
In 1963, Mr. Pannell married, and later had three children: sons Dean and Clyde, and daughter Rheny. The family moved to Clay Street in the John-Witherspoon area of town.
In the early 1970s, he accepted a position with Palmer Square as a maintenance mechanic. "I was involved in the heating and plumbing of all the Palmer Square buildings and the Nassau Inn," he explains.
His next job, in 1974, and where he remained for 28 years, was with the Housing Authority of Princeton Borough.
"This provided low and moderate income housing in Princeton," he points out. "It consisted of 50 units of housing on Clay Street, 10 on Maple Terrace, 10 on Franklin, and 50 on Spruce Circle. Later, 100 units were added at Redding Circle and 16 at Karin Court.
"I was involved in overall maintenance, and I liked the challenge of keeping everything in good working order. Later I became chief of maintenance, and I had an excellent staff. All the guys were local and very experienced and responsible.
"I have to say it would have been hard for me to have done my job with the Housing Authority without the help of the engineering department, clerk's office, and public works department of both the Borough and the Township, and especially Wayne Carr, head of public works at the Borough.
Former Housing Authority director Marcy Crimmins remembers Mr. Pannell's hard work and dedication. "He devoted 28 years to the Housing Authority and to the people of the community, especially the children, and to seeing they had the best they could have.
"Hank set up a summer work program to hire kids for the Housing Authority. For many of these kids, it was their first real job, and Hank was strict. They had to show up on time and learn responsibility. What it did for these kids was to help them get a start. This was so important."
It was during this time that Mr. Pannell and Ms. Crimmins put together the idea for the Clay Street Learning Center, which Mr. Pannell and his staff actually built.
"Marcy Crimmins and I had a vision of a place, a learning center, for young people to go where they could study," he explains. "We wanted kids of all ages, from five through teens, to have computer classes, tutoring, homework help, and a chance to study. We also offered senior programs, including computer classes, for older people. Everyone kids or adults who finish the computer course receives a complimentary computer.
"The center has been in operation about 10 years, and we have had a very good response. It's really become a part of the community. My staff and I got local people to come in. It's all volunteer, and it's a year-round operation. Programs, such as Princeton Young Achievers and English-as-a-second language, are held there, and Community House runs a summer learning camp there."
Community House, a program of Princeton University, has been instrumental in reaching out to the community, notes Mr. Pannell, who serves on its advisory board. University students tutor at the learning center, and are very important to the center's ongoing operation.
Marjorie Young, director of Community House, has known and worked with Mr. Pannell for many years. She has witnessed not only his commitment, but his ability to get things done.
"Henry Pannell is unique. He is really committed to making sure that every child gets an opportunity to excel and to do his or her very best. He will do this by purchasing computers on his own, making phone calls to people who can help, whatever it takes. He uses his resources wisely. He is just very unselfish and community-focused."
Mr. Pannell's many years of hard work and dedication were honored last month when the Learning Center was renamed the Henry F. Pannell Learning Center.
Ms. Crimmins, whose name was included on a plaque with his, has commented that "There is no one I would rather have my name on a plaque with!
"Hank taught me so much," she adds. "We could disagree about a lot, but we would always work through it. We respected each other so much."
Leighton Newlin, chairman of the Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners, said at the dedication ceremony, "Years ago, Hank saw and responded to the need of young African-American youth to have a place in their own community, where they could be nurtured to learn and develop a solid foundation for their future. With every brick, people here in the community witnessed not only the raising of a building, but also, more importantly, the raising of a community."
Mr. Pannell's efforts to "raise" the community have been evidenced in many other ways. He is co-founder of Save Our Kids and the Neighborhood Alliance, programs to further community identification and especially to provide mentoring, recreation, and learning opportunities for young males in the John-Witherspoon area.
Save Our Kids
"Save Our Kids consists of a group of men in the community trying to help young boys, especially black and Hispanic, from ages 10 to 16," says Mr. Pannell. "We take them camping in Blairstown and also have one-on-one activities. It's important for young people to have an adult non-family member take an interest in them and encourage them. We have had this for five years, and I hope it can be continued."
The Neighborhood Alliance was started by Mr. Pannell and Maria Hernandez and was in operation for three years. "We thought it was a good idea to bring people, primarily African-Americans and Hispanics, of the John-Witherspoon community together," he explains.
"It really worked well. People supported the idea. We had a Christmas party, and people got together to decorate for it at the Learning Center, and we had a potluck supper. We also had a health fair, providing information and screenings. It was aimed mainly at adults, but kids were a big part of it, too."
The cohesiveness of the community is very important to Mr. Pannell, and the loosening of the bonds community-wide disappoints and worries him.
"The community has changed so much, especially with the increase in housing prices. It's so hard for older people on fixed incomes to stay here. The cost of living and the taxes are all problems. One of the changes in Princeton is that there is no room for the average person anymore. It's just the wealthy, and this is a shame. Those that have serviced the community are forced to leave because of expense."
Some years ago, Mr. Pannell and others attempted to address this problem with the Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation. "We tried to help people in the community get loans, mortgages, and make down payments," he explains. "We would assist them with funds, and we helped people get 23 houses. But then the prices shot up so fast, we couldn't keep up."
Lives and Stories
In addition, he points to a lessening of family ties in the community. "The younger generations are leaving. Also, when I was a kid, one or another of our neighbors was always keeping an eye on the kids. There was a real connection, a bond. But now, with the high prices and the gentrification of the area, it has changed."
One way Mr. Pannell has tried to deal with this situation is by preserving the history of the African-American community through means of oral history and videoptape. He has videotaped more than 50 members of the community, recording remembrances of their lives and stories.
"I've been working with Penny Edwards-Carter, Shirley Satterfield, and Clyde Thomas, and also with Kittsi Watterson, a professor at Princeton University to provide oral histories of the black community. We're doing a book and a video, 'I Hear My People Singing'.
"Kittsi's students at the University got very interested in the project, and did a lot of the interviews. We're now in the process of the final editing, and all the original tapes will go to the Historical Society of Princeton and the public library.
"Gail Stern, director of the Historical Society, is a wonderful, wonderful person," he continues. "She has done so much to broaden the society to include the whole community. She has been very helpful to us and to the University students with her patience and her time."
Penny Edwards-Carter, former Clerk of Princeton Borough, who has worked on the oral history project with Mr. Pannell for several years, is impressed with his willingness to help the community in so many ways.
"I've known Hank it seems like forever! I consider him like a brother. Anything I've ever asked him, he has never hesitated to do. He really doesn't want to be the center of attention, he is almost shy, but his contributions to Princeton, especially for children, have been significant.
"He was also very instrumental in hiring kids to work in different jobs with the Housing Authority to get work experience over the summer. Marjorie Young, now director of Community House, was one of Hank's kids, and also Peter Young, who is now a Princeton Township police officer. I could just go on and on about Hank. He is such a great guy."
Shirley Satterfield, a fourth generation Princetonian, who taught school for many years and also served as guidance counselor at Hightstown High School and Princeton High School, agrees. "Since his childhood days on Jackson Street and mine on 'Old Clay Street', I have known Henry Pannell and his family.
"We went to elementary school at the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, Nassau Elementary School when they integrated the Princeton Borough public schools, Witherspoon School when it became a junior high school, and Princeton High School.
"Henry has always had an interest in the welfare of the Witherspoon-Jackson community, and he continues to preserve its history. He is a gentle and caring family man, who enjoys relaxing on a boat while waiting to reel in the prize fish!"
Since his retirement from the Housing Authority last year, Mr. Pannell has remained very busy. He continues to be involved in the Learning Center, and hopes to reinstate the Neighborhood Alliance and Save Our Kids. He also works with a Princeton University graduate and former Community House volunteer, Jamal Lake, to send computers to schools in Africa.
Mr. Pannell is an active member of the board of the Historical Center, and he also believes it is important to interact with the youngest residents of the community. He is on the board of Princeton Nursery School, having previously served as its president.
Mr. Pannell remarried in 1986, and he and his wife Eileen are the parents of Henry, Jr., a student at Princeton High School.
Good Humor He enjoys spending time with his family, and sharing the cooking and gardening with his wife. "I especially like to barbecue," he reports, with a smile. "I do whole pigs, as well as brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs. I also love to garden. My wife handles the flowers, and I'm in charge of the whole range of vegetables tomatoes, squash, beans, lettuce, etc.
"I also have to say I thank God for Eileen's patience and good humor in letting me do all the things I do in the community."
He enjoys reading, especially non-fiction and biographies, and just finished books on Albert Einstein and Richard Wright. His passion, however, is fishing. A devoted angler, he heads to the water to try his luck at least once a week.
"I often go to Point Pleasant, and catch blue fish, sea bass, and fluke" he reports. "Fishing is the only time I completely relax and have no other thoughts about anything else. When you are fishing, you are away from the world and its troubles."
But Henry Pannell is never really far away from the issues that concern him in his community. He is aware of the struggles of many people, and he admires those who seek to help them and search for solutions.
"One of the people I look up to most is the Rev. Jerry Foreman of Morning Star Church of God & Christ on Birch Avenue. On his own, with his own funds, he bought a truck a big van and he goes to different area grocery stores, and gets day-old produce, meat, bread, etc. On his own, he delivers this to the Senior Resource Center, to Elm Court, to families, and to Trenton, to places where people need it. He is a true hero. This is what this man does with his time. He affects so many lives."
The same can be said of Henry Pannell. He is a continuing presence in his home town, striving to make it better, so all residents can enjoy Princeton's benefits and in doing so, enrich the community.
And he is here to stay. As he says, "I
love this town. I have loved working in the town, and I love
preserving our history. I have hopes that Princeton is starting
to care, and that there is an awareness that we need a cross-section
in the community. People who have lived here all their lives should
not have to leave, and young people should be able to look forward
to a future here. This is what I hope for."