Making his way through the buffet line following a recent Institutional
Advancement town hall meeting in the Miller-Ward Alumni House, Bob
Pennington stopped to grab a couple cheese cubes.
After choosing his snack, he fumbled the tongs and they fell to
the floor. Quickly, and without having to adjust the plate in his
other hand, he picked up the tongs, brushed them off and placed
them back on the platter.
“Hey, it’s my house,” he said, jokingly, after
The laughter from the man behind Pennington told him that his little
buffet line faux pas was OK. After all, the “five second rule”
wasn’t broken and half the people plucking cheese cubes don’t
use the tongs anyway.
In a way, Miller-Ward really is Pennington’s house.
As vice president for alumni affairs and special development programs,
his office is there. He also is an alumnus of Emory four times over.
He holds degrees from Oxford (1974), Emory College (1976), the School
of Law (1981) and Goizueta Business School (1981). Therefore, since
Miller-Ward is Emory’s gift to the students who graduated
from here, Pennington can feel pretty good about unwinding inside.
Pennington is perhaps the perfect person to hold his job, through
which he oversees the Alumni Office, the Parent Program, the Annual
Fund, the Career Network Service and Planned Giving. He is engaging,
humorous, down-to-earth—all excellent qualities in a person
whose task it is to represent the University to its former students.
“I’m in the relationship business,” said Pennington,
whose family, all told, has 14 Emory degrees, the latest being his
nephew, Scott, a 2000 graduate of the School of Medicine. “That’s
the bottom line—the common denominator of what I do.”
Before coming to work at Emory, Pennington was a corporate attorney
for the Atlanta firm of King & Spalding. He had been a partner
since 1989. He kept strong ties to his alma mater, though. Pennington
was chairman of the Annual Fund from 1995–97. He has been
a member of the Oxford College Board of Counselors, the Emory College
Council of Advisors, the Executive Committee of the Emory Law Alumni
Association, the Barristers’ Committee of the Emory Law School
Campaign and the Board of Visitors. He served four terms on the
AEA Board of Governors and has participated and chaired a variety
“I wasn’t looking to leave the law or my firm,”
said Pennington, whose position was created for him, giving him
a great deal of leeway in defining his responsibilities. “It
seemed that as though what little discretionary time I had I spent
here as a volunteer. And I think the opportunity that [President]
Bill Chace and [Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement]
Bill Fox created for me was incredibly attractive. Therefore, the
decision was easy.”
That Pennington has returned to the place where he spent a good
deal of his formative years was a natural progression. He credited
his two years at Oxford as a time when he learned how to apply himself
as a student. A native of Dekalb County, Pennington graduated from
a large school, Columbia High, and benefited from Oxford’s
low student-to-teacher ratio, he said.
He majored in psychology at Emory and also played on the men’s
soccer team. While an undergraduate, Pennington struck up a friendship
with Jay Knopf, then-chair of psychology. Knopf served as Pennington’s
senior honors advisor, and their relationship continues to this
day. They work together on programming with the Emeritus College.
After spending a year working in Oxford’s admissions office—Pennington’s
first foray into the hand-shaking world of student recruitment and
relations—he returned to the Emory campus to earn his JD/MBA.
“I knew I was headed into a corporate law practice,”
Pennington said. In the late 1970s, when the dual degree program
was young, it was nowhere near as streamlined as it is now. For
instance, the business school was on the quarter system and the
law school on semesters.
“I thought I had an appreciation of what a business background
could do at a law firm, and I found my MBA to be very helpful,”
Pennington said. After graduation, he began his law career, which
was based in commercial real estate law, encompassing the representation
of corporate, institutional lender and higher net worth clients
in the acquisition, financing, development, leasing, operation and
sale of commercial properties, hotels and resorts, and related businesses.
AEA is the entity through which Emory maintains its relationship
with its 95,000 alumni worldwide. Pennington is the point person
for the association, which is the main tool alumni use to participate
in University affairs, programs, events and services. Pennington
also is instrumental in raising money through a variety of alumni
avenues: planned giving through estates, annual giving from individuals,
and the like.
“I’m out there calling on alumni and donors in the solicitation
of gifts for the University, which I absolutely love doing,”
Pennington said. “What is fun about it is having a remarkable
understanding of and belief in the product. When you believe in
something that strongly, it’s really easy to sell. And what
Emory is doing at about every level is extraordinary. That makes
seeking financial support of its many academic and extracurricular
activities fun and easy to do.”
Pennington is doing a pretty good job passing the hat, too. Since
coming to Emory full time in January 2001, he estimates about $15–$20
million has been raised by his office.
AEA is in the middle of an effort to reorganize its leadership to
provide more autonomy for its various local organizations. More
than a third of Emory’s alumni live in the Atlanta area, but
AEA has a presence in most major U.S. cities. Giving the local organizations
more control, Pennington said, should pay off for everyone.
“We think that it definitely has benefits for us from a staff
capital and a financial capital point of view,” he said. “We
think that vesting our local alumni with the responsibility to run
their programs is in their best interests as well. It fosters a
much more proprietary interest in what they do.”
Much of Pennington’s job requires him to be on the road. Not
that that’s bad. Over the summer, he was part of an alumni
trip to Sicily. This week he will be in Washington for a program
at the Thai embassy that 250 Emory alumni (and President Chace)
will be attending. Then Pennington goes to New York to call some
donors and meet with alumni.
“This job is more fun than I could ever imagine a career to
be,” he said. “As wonderful as the law was, the notion
of coming to work every day, having fun, then realizing I am being
paid for what I do is absolutely wonderful.”
And Pennington probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
He has two sons, 6-year-old Joe and 5-year-old John, and Pennington
said, “They’re destined for Emory.” Once they
graduate, that will give their household six degrees of Pennington—and
a couple more alums for Bob to take to lunch.