July 14, 2010 | Myrna AndersonAmy Surbatovich

Penning, professor of political science and specialist on the intersection of faith and policy, was "the best colleague you could hope for."

This morning, Calvin political science professor Corwin Smidt was sitting at his desk reading aloud some of the e-mails he had received since hearing about the death of his colleague of more than 30 years, political science professor James Penning. “He was a very good political scientist and one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” one read.

"It is just a testimony—not just among his colleagues in the political science department, but also among his colleagues around the country,” Smidt said.

Penning, 60, died of undetermined causes at his home on Tuesday, July 13, 2010. He is survived by his wife Marge, a speech pathologist.

"It’s a huge hole, a huge loss,” political science chair Amy Patterson said of the impact, both professionally and personally, on the department.

Where religion and politics meet

An avid investigator at the intersection of politics and religion, Penning was the author of five books and numerous articles on subjects such as the Christian Right, evangelicalism and the Christian’s responsibility to the public sphere. His most recent co-authored volume is The Disappearing God Gap: Religion in the 2008 Presidential Election.

"He had this sense of public office as being for the better good,” said Smidt, who collaborated on much of Penning’s work, including a number of political surveys. “We shared interests, so our names tended to appear together,” Smidt said. 

Penning focused his teaching on urban politics and public policy. He served four different stints as the political science department chair and organized two conferences on Christianity and politics. He is a past president of the Michigan Conference of Political Scientists and has served on the Grand Rapids Planning Commission, the Kentwood City Commission and the Baxter Community Center board. Penning had served as the director of Calvin’s Center for Social Research since 2008. "He has been a great team player and a surrogate grandpa to me and the students,” said Neil Carlson, the center’s assistant director.

Early in his career at Calvin, where he met Marge, Penning studied education and planned on being a high school teacher. “He was a bright spot in the classroom,” said political science professor emeritus Bob De Vries. “He was a supportive person even as a student.” Penning made the switch to political science and earned his MA and PhD from the University of Kentucky, graduating in 1975. (His dissertation was on "Neighborhood Associations and Urban Planning.”) He joined the Calvin faculty the same year.

At Calvin, Penning was an avid mentor of the students he placed in political internships, including Mark Lemoine, who worked in 1992 for Michigan Senate Majority Leader Dick Posthumus. “He celebrated each step my career path has taken,” said Lemoine, now the director of government affairs for Spectrum Health Systems. “His constant encouragement was appreciated and will, indeed, be missed.”

Beloved colleague

He was also a caring co-worker, said Patterson: “He was always concerned about you. I remember when I first came to Calvin, and he would drop by and say, ‘Is everything going okay?” she said. “He was just the kind of person you want to be around.”

Penning is also remembered as a devoted fan of Tigers baseball and Kentucky basketball and as a supremely funny man.

"You couldn’t have a serious conversation without him turning it into a joke. He was quick with a quip,” said De Vries.

Smidt agreed: “It took me years to discern when Jim was kidding … . (He) liked to pun, liked to pull your leg a little bit, but he could say it in such a fashion that you could never really tell, at least initially, whether he was kidding or serious.” 

Doug Koopman, another of Penning’s co-authors, summed it up: “Just the best colleague you could hope for.”

The funeral service for Jim Penning will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday, July 19 at La Grave Christian Reformed Church. There will be a visitation from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. on Sunday, July 18 at Zaagman Memorial Chapel.

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