Most people agree that the stereotypical “only child” is often characterized as spoiled, pampered, a “brat,” often lacking social skills, but Penny Campbell is as far away from that description as you could possibly get. When you ask the 76-year-old Boone Hospital Center retiree what makes her tick, she quickly admits, “I love life and I like people.” Those who know her best call her a people magnet.
“She really takes an interest in all the people who walk through the doors of the hospital,” her son, Chris Campbell says. “When it’s your mom, you take for granted all the wonderful aspects about her.” There have been too many times to count that someone has come up to him “swelled with happiness” because she remembered his or her name or the details of a son’s or daughter’s sports team. “It’s a natural thing… it’s not fake!”
Growing up as an only child to parents who were both only children, one might imagine that young Penny Campbell’s world was a small, lonely place. But she admits, “I was a very happy child and was always busy going places and doing things. My mom was a single mom, but there were relatives and a support system.”
One of her favorite childhood memories is of the years she spent with her mom in Hawaii. “We went to visit my aunt after the war (WWII) and liked it and decided to go back to stay,” she explains. In fact, Penny attended second, third and fourth grade at the University of Hawaii Lab School where there were still a few leftover signs of war, like black curtains covering windows, drills, and lights being turned off when the sirens sounded. Still, she loved the adventure of living on an island where there was outdoor living and every class at school had its own lanai (porch) and an outdoor garden. “What you grew you got to take home: green beans, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and onions,” Campbell remembers. “One time I took some green beans home and my mother over-salted them. “I’m so sorry,” her mom apologized. “I ruined your green beans!”
It was, perhaps, during those early years in Hawaii that her passion for people was cultivated. “Although I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew that I wanted to work with people, and that goes back to that only child thing,” she explains. She has four adult children but remembers how, as a child, she envied people who had large families with siblings, aunts and uncles. At school, she played and studied alongside a potpourri of children from all over the world including “Asians, Japanese and military kids,” but what she most remembers about that experience is everyone being readily accepted by the Hawaiian kids.
As a little girl, she often overheard people talking about how outgoing she was and how comfortable she was around people. “As a child, I was never shy and it never bothered me to meet new people,” she says. Some even described her as gregarious, precocious. Her tenure in Hawaii was a training ground for her decades-long career helping people at Boone Hospital.
“Penny is outgoing and knows everybody,” says Liz Eikel, admissions manager and Campbell’s boss at Boone Hospital. Campbell’s was the first face most people saw as they walked through the front door. “Even though she’s gone, we still have people coming in asking, ‘Where’s Penny?’” Eikel said. In fact, people still call the desk where she sat for all those years “Penny’s Desk.”
Eikel remembers that Penny Campbell was always focused and took great pride in readily providing whatever assistance was needed. She could not only tell patients and family members where to go and who to meet, she would also pull out just about anything someone might need in an emergency. “She’d always have a couple of umbrellas stashed away to share on rainy days, an environmental hazard sign in case there was a spill and notepads…lots of notepads. She could have kept just one, but kept 10 or 12 in her desk drawer because she wanted to make sure she was fully supplied!” says Eikel. “What others would call ‘going above and beyond’ was always Penny Campbell’s normal.’”
“When people have been in a few times, they get to know you and begin to look for someone they recognize…a trust relationship is built,” Campbell explains. In retirement, she still finds herself asking, “How is so and so doing? I miss that.” People often arrived at her desk nervous and stressed, wanting someone familiar with whom to talk instead of seeking out staff from social services or the chaplain’s office. It was not unusual for a total stranger to walk up to her desk and say, “I was told that you’ll know who I need to talk to and who I need to see,” she said.
Campbell was everyone’s point person and every now and then her people-passion would merge with the other ruling passion of her life — sports. “They’d give me a hard time about that up at the front desk,” she giggles. “I’d always make everybody wear black and gold before a football game.” And several times, she even played the role of “secret recruiter” for the Mizzou Tigers. Whenever a young man who was the right age with the right physique walked past her desk, she’d size up his potential for the team. “One time when a really tall guy came by, I stopped and asked him, ‘Hey, do you have any eligibility left?’” The seven-foot-tall, athletic-looking guy responded, “No… besides my knees are shot.” Another time, a young man responded, “No, my eligibility is all up. I played for Georgia.”
And her passion for sports goes way beyond simply wearing the team colors and showing up for all the home games. Campbell knows the game! “As a seven year old, I remember watching the World Champion Kansas City Chiefs and my mother knowing every single penalty foul the referee called,” her son Chris Campbell, boasts. “She can break down a 1-3-1 defense on the basketball court and can explain the reason for a referee’s flag on the football field.” He attributes his lifelong passion for sports to his mother’s knowledge of the “inner workings” of the game.
As she settles into retirement, Campbell will do anything but fade into the background. “I’m 76 now so I call this my ‘gravy train.’ Both my mother and grandmother died at 72, so I love getting older. Whenever I have another birthday, I say, “Yes!” In retirement, she plans to fill her time with travel to visit her out-of-town children and the seven kids who call her by her very favorite name, “Grammie.” She proudly admits, “I’m totally in love with my grandchildren!” There will be lots of Mizzou games, out-of-town shopping trips with friends, movie nights and, of course, attending Tiger Talk every week. She admits, “I don’t like just sitting at home.” She also wants to have a few computer lessons and admits to never having ordered anything online. “And, I don’t have a Facebook page. That’s on my ‘to do’ list,” she confides.
Her former boss, Eikel is convinced that Campbell will never stop being the Penny that so many sought out when they came through the doors of Boone Hospital Center. “She’s a dedicated community member to all of Columbia and anybody who encounters her for 30 seconds will realize that!”