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November 4, 2002

Four degrees of Pennington

By Eric Rangus

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 a pause.

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 of committees.

“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.