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News Obituaries

Helga L. Pennewell, educator and activist

Helga "Lollo" Lieselotte Pennewell, who escaped Soviet-occupied East Germany with her family for Maryland's Eastern Shore, where she spent 52 years as an educator and nationally acclaimed activist, died last week. She was 84.

Ms. Pennewell was born to Alfred and Elsa Dallmann in Muhlhausen, Thuringia, Germany, on April 1, 1929.

As a teenager, she qualified for Germany's Olympic swim team but never competed because the 1944 Games were canceled because of World War II.

Ms. Pennewell attended Staatliche Oberschuk, a college in her hometown, where she earned the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in design and dressmaking. She then attended Mode Academy in Kassel, where she got her master's in tailoring and design.

She was shot in the leg during her first attempt to flee Soviet-occupied East Germany before getting out with her family in 1948. She married her husband, Noah Ames Pennewell, in 1951, and 10 years later moved to Snow Hill in Worcester County. In 1965, she received her U.S. citizenship, and the following year voted for the first time.

Growing up in Adolf Hitler's Germany gave Ms. Pennewell an appreciation of civil liberties. When she moved to Maryland, she was a constant advocate, writing letters and encouraging others to vote and be politically active, her daughters said.

People would ask, "Why do you write so many letters? Why do you speak so much?" her daughter Brigitte Pennewell said.

"Because I can," she would reply. "You just don't know what a privilege it is."

Her passion for pressing for change was only matched by her competitive spirit, which she didn't leave in the pool.

"She was fearless, absolutely fearless," Brigitte Pennewell, of Snow Hill, said. "She would take on anybody, anything, if there was a cause she believed in."

When Gov. William Donald Schaefer compared the Eastern Shore to an outhouse in a remark to a fellow lawmaker in 1991, Pennewell led a march on the State House, dubbed the "Outhouse Convoy." It garnered her statewide recognition, especially when she tried to hand-deliver a bag of manure to Schaefer, before police "politely told her to stay on the other side of the street," according to an article in The Baltimore Sun.

On Ms. Pennewell's 50th birthday, she got her first computer, which she learned to use as a tool to research online to aid her advocacy.

She received official recognition several times for her activism. In 1983, she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Presidential Commission for the German-American Tricentennial, marking 300 years of German-American immigration. She gave speeches and taught civics classes about life "behind the Iron Curtain" and appreciating U.S. civil rights. And she was the first Marylander to receive the Daughters of the American Revolution's national Americanism Award, honoring distinguished naturalized citizens for their patriotic leadership.

But, amid all the activism, she was an exemplary parent, both Brigitte and Ms. Pennewell's other daughter, Sabine Pennewell, said.

Ms. Pennewell and her husband, who died in 1992, took their children on trips back to Germany to see relatives, including a particularly special trip around Thanksgiving in 1989, when they helped knock down the Berlin Wall with a sledgehammer. She was an avid photographer, and before professional school photographs became the norm, she would take her camera to photograph her children's classes. She would also often organize other parents and put her tailoring talents toward making designer-quality clothes for the children.

She brought the Red Cross to Snow Hill, and she taught swim lessons and coached a swim team in an area where, at the time, many children and adults didn't know how to swim. Ms. Pennewell's children and grandchildren became skilled swimmers, her daughters said.

"We were well-rounded," said Sabine Pennewell, who lives in Hebron. "She always found time for us, even though she had so many other things going on."

Sabine and Brigitte remembered how, only months after visiting the Berlin Wall in November 1989, their mother returned to Germany to spend New Year's Eve with her relatives and watch the fireworks over the Brandenburg Gate.

Her daughters laughed as they recalled smuggling popular contraband, such as coffee, chocolate and Levi's jeans for relatives, into East Germany with her. After sneaking Hershey's bars past Russian guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles, Ms. Pennewell embraced the freedoms she found in the U.S.

"She knew what it was like to live without them," Brigitte Pennewell said.

A funeral service will be held today at Burbage Funeral Home, 208 W. Federal St., in Snow Hill, with visitation starting at 10 a.m. and the service starting at 11 a.m.

In addition to her daughters, Ms. Pennewell is survived by her son, Milton Pennewell, of Snow Hill; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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