Select Page
Home » Campus News Latest » Obituaries » Barbara (Penny) O’Brien ’48

Barbara Penningroth O’Brien, affectionately known as Penny, of Silver Spring, MD died on January 18, 2023 a few days short of her 95th birthday. Penny was an artist, writer, educator, social justice activist, loving mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, jokester, and friend to many. She died peacefully and spent her last days surrounded by the love of her children and grandchildren.

Born Mary Barbara Penningroth to Paul and Persis Penningroth, two Americans teaching in Adana, Turkey at the time. Penny spent most of her childhood in St. Petersburg, Florida. Despite being raised among segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, Penny was raised to believe in social justice. In 1946, Penny left Florida to go to Antioch College in Ohio where she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

A year after starting at Antioch, Penny transferred to the University of Iowa, where she met James (Jim) O’Brien. Following German class together and many long walks, Penny and Jim married in 1950. They had five children, Michael, Paul, Kathleen, Richard, and Roger (deceased). Penny spent many memorable summers at her parents’ property in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. That house remains in the family and even in August 2022, Penny was found spending time in that house with Kathi, Mike, Paul, granddaughter, Persis, and great-grandchildren Lennon and Soraya.

Penny joined the Unitarian Universalist church in 1962 which was hugely important to her for the rest of her life-volunteering countless hours to committees, drafting hundreds of newsletters, and becoming an accredited Director of Religious Education.

Penny’s passion for social justice followed her her entire life. In the 1960’s, she traveled throughout the Susquehanna River Basin with the League of Women Voters to educate people about the need to protect the river. She worked locally with the League to register recent immigrants to vote. Not only did she protest the US involvement in Vietnam, and fought for every woman to have the right to an abortion if she chose, she joined with others to transport local college students to these protests. This was in addition to volunteering in schools, organizing clean-ups, and marching in Gay Pride parades. Following the death of Jim, Penny joined the Peace Corps in 1991 and spent two formative years in Dominica where she fell in love with the turtles, the ocean, the people, and her fellow Peace Corps volunteers.

Penny had a quick wit and a big smile for everyone she encountered. She is survived by her sister, Emily Penningroth Wagstaff, children: Michael O’Brien, Paul O’Brien, Kathleen Yu and husband Fenwick Yu, and Richard O’Brien, grandchildren: Persis Yu and husband Ista Zahn, and Brian Yu and wife Jessica Hannah, great-grandchildren: Lennon Zahn and Soraya Zahn, and many nieces and nephews.