O.C. Pennington loved going to the beach with his family, but it was not uncommon for him to arrive at the shore, only to head back to Raleigh before even taking his bag out of the car. As a funeral director for nearly 50 years, Pennington was essentially on call at all times. For many Raleigh families, he was an integral part of the grieving process, a rock on the toughest days in their lives.
It was a calling, loved ones say, and he never once shirked the responsibilities his profession asked of him. Pennington spent the majority of his career as vice president of Brown-Wynne Funeral Home, described as the state’s oldest funeral home.
“So often we would plan to do something on the weekend, and the phone would ring, and in a minute your whole weekend would totally change. But he always said, ‘A family needs me’,” recalled Susan Pennington, his wife of 55 years.
Pennington, 85, died last month. Though he’d been retired for 10 years, the legacy of his service to area families carried on. His own funeral service was very well attended.
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“He just was a source of strength for people at the worst time, for a long time,” said Mark Blake, location manager and funeral director for Brown-Wynne’s St. Mary’s Street location. “It was just in his blood.”
Mixing light and dark
Born and raised in Raleigh, Pennington was a third-generation funeral director. He joined his father at Pennington-Smith Funeral Home after college. The first time he asked his wife on a date, he was driving a hearse through the drive-through window where she worked as a bank teller.
In the early years of their marriage it was common for funeral homes also to operate local emergency medical services. He worked every other night, often accompanying the ambulance driver on calls and performing basic medical assessments.
When the Brown-Wynne and Pennington-Smith funeral homes merged in 1972, he became vice president of the company and ran the St. Mary’s Street location in Raleigh. The merger meant Pennington worked beside his former competitor, Bob Wynne III. Their years as competitors did not stand in the way of their developing a strong friendship. Friends say Pennington bucked any stereotype of the grim, morose funeral director. He could tell, and appreciated, a good joke.
“O.C. is what I call a funeral director’s funeral director,” Wynne said. “That was just a gift he had.”
‘You can’t say no’
Pennington received the first call many families made upon the death of a loved one.
“Most families, when there was a death, they would call him at home,” Blake said.
Pennington mentored many area funeral directors, teaching them the goal of making goodbyes as easy as possible.
“It’s the worst day of their life and they need you – you can’t say no to that,” Pennington often told Blake.
In one instance, Pennington was called to handle the death of a family dog. The two elderly sisters who asked for his help had always depended on Pennington’s services in times of loss, and they simply did not know what else to do to handle a death, whether that of a man, or of man’s best friend.
Friends and family say Pennington was usually successful at leaving the grief and sadness of his job at work. Though he encouraged families to consider a funeral a time to celebrate the life of their beloved, it was still heavy work.
“It’s not easy. It does take a toll, but he never let that show,” Blake said.
One of the highlights of his career took place in 1983, when he and Wynne played small parts in “Brainstorm,” a science fiction film shot in the Triangle and starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, and Cliff Robertson. When a main character of the film dies, Pennington and Wynne play a part they knew well, bringing the casket in and out and seating family members at a funeral.
Upon his retirement in 2004, Pennington enjoyed a few years of travel with his wife before ill health forced him to slow down.
He also purchased a new car for himself – a red Jaguar.
“He said, ‘I’ll never drive a black car again’,” Blake said.