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Penelope Wells "Penny" Butler

Butler, Penelope "Penny" Wells
Penny Butler, 82, of Phoenix, Arizona, died on Saturday, January 26, 2013, after a brief battle with melanoma. She was born Penelope Franklin Wells on November 14, 1930 in New York City, New York, to a family of religious leaders, artists, and social activists. Her mother Sophie and father Franklin resided at Union Theological Seminary where her maternal grandfather, the Rev. Dr. Gaylord S. White, was dean of students. He had previously been the founder and "headworker" of Union Settlement, an East Harlem community center which was part of the progressive "settlement" movement of that time. Penny and her three sisters--Sophia, Lydia, and Gay--were initially raised at the Settlement and then the Seminary, where their mother kept her own house and that of her father; but the death of Dr. White in 1931 and Depression-era circumstances led the Wells family to move to a home owned by Penny's fraternal grandmother in Bloomfield, New Jersey. In 1948, Penny graduated from nearby Montclair High School and made her way to Vassar College. She majored in sociology and there met Jeremy Edward "Jerry" Butler while he attended Yale University. After securing their degrees, they married in the fall of 1952. Penny considered a career with the CIA, but instead accompanied Jerry to Columbia University and Yale University while he earned advanced degrees in history and law, respectively. They soon began a family: Jeremy Gaylord arriving in 1954 and Reid William in 1956. Penny and Jerry were lured west in 1959, to the bustling boomtown of Phoenix, Arizona, by the prospect of Jerry starting his law career as a clerk for the Arizona Supreme Court. Penny was initially wary of the desert and appalled by the summer heat, but she soon grew to love Arizona's flora and fauna and the ability to play tennis year-round. While occasionally triumphing in tennis tournaments, she and Jerry enlarged their family further with the addition of Lydia Gwenyth Katharine in 1962 and Starin Wells in 1966. In 1972, faced with the prospect of an empty nest as her eldest went to college and her youngest went to first grade, Penny approached the sports editor of the Arizona Republic about increasing its tennis coverage. He agreed and Penny was soon covering local tournaments and Phoenix's World Team Tennis team, the Racquets--as well as reporting on local players as they competed at the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the French Open. Her duties at the Republic expanded in 1976 when she was given a weekly column titled, "Women in Sports," in which she chronicled the activities of Arizona women in all manner of sports competitions. By the early 1980s, women athletes began to be integrated into the main body of the sports section and the column was discontinued, although Penny continued to report on tennis news well into the decade. In the early 1990s, Penny embarked on a new project involving her friend and art teacher, John Henry Waddell, perhaps Arizona's best-known artist. The year after four girls were killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Waddell created a commemorative sculpture titled, "That Which Might Have Been, Birmingham 1963." The four figures--representing the adult women these girls were not allowed to become--was installed at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, but in 1993 the minister of the 16th Street Church hoped to have a new casting installed on the actual site of the bombing. Penny threw herself into this effort and struggled with individuals in Birmingham who were opposed to the project. Failing to find an acceptable location there, the sculpture was eventually installed at the relatively new Carver Museum, an African-American cultural center where Phoenix's own segregated past is detailed in the building that was once the Phoenix Colored High School. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, artist, activist, newspaper reporter... On January 26th, the world became a bit colder as the warm, kind spirit of Penelope Wells Butler left this realm. She was loved by many and will be missed by all who knew her. Penny is survived by sisters Sophia and Gay (David), brothers-in-law Roger (Bonnie) and Bruce (Marilyn), sons Jeremy (Marysia) and Reid (Shawna), daughters Lydia (John) and Starin, eight grandchildren (Sarah, Josh, Chad, Alex, Kylie, Sam, Luc, Ian), grandson-in-law Matthew, three great-grandchildren (Emma, Jesse, Liam), and many loving nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be held on Thursday, March 28th, time and location to be announced. In lieu of flowers, please consider a gift in Penny's name to or the Phoenix Art Museum.



Published in The Arizona Republic on Feb. 10, 2013
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