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HANS H. PENNER BURLINGTON - Hans H. Penner, a leading scholar of comparative religion, died on Saturday in Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington. Penner was a member of Dartmouth's Religion Department for 36 years and served from 1980-84 as Dean of Dartmouth's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He was 78 years of age. The cause of death was cancer. Penner received his PhD in 1965 from the University of Chicago, where he studied with Mircea Eliade, a major theorist of comparative religion. Throughout Penner's career, his work showed his debt to Eliade, as well as his willingness to question his mentor's views. After three years at the University of Vermont, Penner joined the Dartmouth Faculty in 1965. In the period from 1970 to 1997, he served four terms, a total of 11 years, as Chair of the Religion Department, playing a major role in shaping its faculty and orienting the department to the comparative study of religion. An introductory religion course pioneered by Penner serves as the model for many others across the country. A version of the course is still being taught at Dartmouth. In 1980, following service on many of the College's most important committees, Penner was named as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In this role, he cemented the D-Plan and year-round education as it pertained to the faculty, and introduced many innovations to bolster faculty teaching and research, including enhanced research support for faculty. As a scholar, Penner is renowned for his contributions to the History of Religions (myth and ritual studies) and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of many articles and four books in the study of religion. The most recent of these, "Rediscovering the Buddha: The Legends and Their Interpretations," was published by Oxford University Press in 2009. Taking a new look at the classic stories of the life of the Buddha, Penner argued that focusing only on the monk and omitting the householder or layman misrepresents the Buddhist tradition. Rediscovering the Buddha has been described as a boldly revisionist and deeply learned work. It represents Penner's final consideration of methodological and theoretical questions in the academic study of religion, as applied to India, his data base of greatest interest. In 2004, in recognition of his lifetime achievements, Penner became one of the nation's first recipients of a Mellon Emeritus Fellowship. In 2001, Penner was awarded The Robert A. Fish Memorial 1918 Prize in recognition of his having made "an outstanding contribution to undergraduate teaching at Dartmouth." Penner's students, colleagues, and friends remember him as an intensely intellectual and engaged teacher/scholar, a good friend, and a person of great integrity who could always be counted on to defend both scholarly tough-mindedness and social justice. As Dean he played a major role in the diversification of the Dartmouth Faculty. Penner is survived by Anna Penner of Shelburne, his wife of 54 years; sister, Maria (Mitzi) Kelly of California; nephew, Ret. Col. James Signaigo of San Antonio, Texas; and by other nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be held at the Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne at a future date to be announced. Arrangements in care of Stephen C. Gregory & Son Funeral and Cremation Service, Shelburne.

Published in The Burlington Free Press on Mar. 2, 2012
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