Arts supporter Penny Petrone dies

By Chen Chekki - The Chronicle-Journal
August 24, 2005

Penny Petrone, the Thunder Bay woman best known for helping give Magnus Theatre its current centre in Thunder Bay, died in hospital Monday at 81.

Petrone was a great supporter of the arts in general in Thunder Bay, Mario Crudo, artistic director of Magnus Theatre, said Tuesday.

(Petrone) seemed ageless to me, I must tell you, he said. Magnus has operated from The Dr. S. Penny Petrone Centre for the Performing Arts since it opened at its new location in 2001. Named after the woman who spent much of her life teaching and writing, the centre became a reality with help from a donation from Petrone of more than $100,000. The exact figure, by Petrone¹s request, has never been made public.

The theatre had a $5-million-plus fundraising campaign, and now her name appears on both sides of the building at 10 Algoma St. S.

As 20 white doves flew over an attending crowd at its opening ceremony, Petrone said, Let the muses reign supreme; let joy be unconfined.

Witnessing the arts centre open was a proud moment for her, a dream come true. Petrone, who Crudo described as a very outgoing, remarkable person, was one of the largest donors for the new centre and had served on the theatre¹s board for a long time up until last year.

Her intention was to come back shortly, said Crudo, a personal friend. She was scheduled to run a workshop at The Sleeping Giant Writers Festival this weekend in Thunder Bay. Petrone¹s unexpected death occurred during a visit with relatives in B.C.

Just as she was about to leave the province and return to Thunder Bay, she experienced chest pains and required a triple bypass surgery a week later, relatives and in-laws said. The surgery was successful, but complications later arose and another surgery was required, ultimately ending up in her death at Vancouver General Hospital.

Her 80-year-old surviving brother, Alfred, said his sister was an incredible person who just finished having one of the best holidays of her lifetime. (Penny) enjoyed every moment of it, he said.

She had just finished writing the manuscript for the book It¹s All in the Teaching, which would have followed about eight or nine other books she has published.

An appreciation for learning started for Petrone at a young age, when she attended Port Arthur Collegiate Institute. She won the first Canadian Federation of University Women scholarship that was designed to be awarded to an outstanding Grade 13 female student in the Lakehead. Teaching became her profession, and Petrone was eventually offered a teaching job at the newly opened Lakehead Teacher¹s College in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, she went to teach at a
Teachers College in Uganda, East Africa.

She later earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta and continued teaching at Lakehead University.

Petrone was made an honorary Indian Chief by the Gull Bay Ojibwa for helping to pioneer studies of aboriginal literature in Canada.

Among her published works, Native Literature in Canada was the first book-length history believed to be published of the literature of Canada¹s First Nations.

She retired from Lakehead University in the late 1980s, and by 1995 had formed I Literati, a local reading group focusing on Italy¹s cultural heritage.

A memoir she published in 2001 called Breaking the Mould ? about Petrone¹s early years growing up with Italian heritage in Thunder Bay ? was translated into Italian and launched at the University of Rome LaSapienza in July. [Also...Embracing Serafina, also by Guernica.]

Teaching and writing has earned her numerous awards, with honours including the Order of Ontario, Canada 124 Medal, and exceptional achievement awards from the City of Thunder Bay. She is survived by her brother and a sister, and was predeceased by a brother and a sister. Petrone, who was single and had no children, is also survived by a larger extended family including dozens of nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews.