by Dennis Dalman
For 32 years, Steve Penick’s mostly-undone “Do List” has been growing steadily, and now he hopes to start working on that Do List to fulfill some of his long-time dreams, including writing a book.
Penick, the archivist at the Stearns (County) History Museum, recently resigned after more than three decades of work for the museum. He intends to pursue new ventures, other Do-List items.
On Valentine’s Day, the museum’s staff hosted a send-off party for Penick.
“This museum has been a big part of my life,” he said. “There were good years and some challenging years. But it’s all been a good thing.”
Penick said he will miss the staff members, the volunteers, the patrons and the visitors who visit the museum to view exhibits to do historical research and/or to participate in special programs and presentations.
As an archivist, Penick worked mainly in the museum’s library, with long-time museum colleague John Decker and other staff and volunteers. Penick did historical research, organized information, helped put together museum artifacts and documents, collated materials for collections, prepared theme exhibits for public viewing, led tours of the museum by area school students and planned educational outreach programs. He also did a lot of detailed office work, wrote articles for the museum’s newsletters and for its periodical entitled “Crossings,” which is now a 28-page booklet published periodically throughout each year. That particular publication features vivid, interesting local historical articles written by up to 20 contributing writers, including Penick. He said the work of those contributing writers was outstanding and that he will miss the collaborative connections.
“Connections” happens to be one of Penick’s favorite words. In fact, facilitating connections for people was his favorite, most rewarding part of his job. People would visit the museum seeking information, trying to fill in the blanks of their personal family roots and history. Using the museum’s vast data files, Penick would help them navigate a path to just what they were seeking. It was, he said, always gratifying to connect them with what they were seeking.
For example, a couple of years ago, a man from St. Cloud visited the museum, trying to find out something or any bits of information about his father, whom he never knew much about. He did know that his father had died suddenly, years ago. Penick was able to find the man’s obituary with some basic information about his life. The seeking son was moved to tears, so happy that he gave Penick a big spontaneous hug.
Others too, including those who were orphans, have visited the museum, trying to find out about those missing parts of their lives. Penick almost always could help them find those all-important connections – the who, what, when, where and sometimes why.
Yen for history
Penick always had a strong yen for history. Born in Minneapolis, he would often ride in his father’s car as a boy. His father would often stop to view roadside historical plaques or sites and even go out of his way to find them, and young Steve would share in that excitement of discovering those shards of the past.
Clarence (his father) was an accountant; Penick’s mother, Mary Ann, now age 92, worked in a metro-area school as an office/clerical employee.
Later, the family (one daughter, three sons – Steve the youngest) moved to Milaca, where Steve graduated from that city’s high school. Still later, he lived in St. Cloud for 10 years. Penick graduated from St. Cloud State University with a bachelor’s degree in American studies and then earned a master’s degree in history. At about that time, he volunteered at the Stearns History Museum and also did an internship there, then he worked as a part-time employee for six months before being hired full-time.
Looking back on the vast history of Stearns County, Penick still marvels at the “super-humble” people of the area, at how people (especially agricultural workers) made plans and adjusted to each Minnesota season (including harsh winters) and how those down-to-earth people (farmers and business people) put preparations in place to accommodate the next generation.
That generational continuity was one reason why Penick loved to research and to help honor “Century Farms” in the county – those farms that have been owned by one family and its descendants for 100 years or more.
Penick is eager to have time to do more writing.
“I’m dreaming big, and it would be fun to write a book,” he said. “I’ll now have time for some of those side projects. My to-do list has been growing for 32 years.”
He also intends to do more “roots” research about his father. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Penick found quite a bit of spare time to fill in gaps about his maternal ancestry, and now he will have time to explore the paternal side.
Penick and his wife Carmen (she is employed as an analyst by LexisNexis) live in Cold Spring and have two grown children – a daughter and a son.
After being a museum employee and archivist for 32 years, Penick has discovered and rediscovered the value of what he calls “Lifelong Learning.” He intends to expand that value into each and every one of his new endeavors.
The Stearns History Museum, built in 1982, is located at 235 33rd Ave. S. in St. Cloud. In 2021, there were 12,023 visitors to the museum, which has 751 current members who pay a membership fee to join. The museum’s mission is “to connect people through the power of history and culture.”
It has a full-time staff of eight people and a governing board of 18 members.
The museum is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and from noon-4 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. To see which exhibits and special presentations are now being hosted at the museum or to become a member, visit its website at stearnshistorymuseum.org.