Campbell W. Pennington

1918 - 2015

Campbell Pennington, a distinguished geographer who spent his career studying the material cultures and languages of indigenous peoples of northern Mexico, passed away on June 13, 2015, aged 97.

Campbell White Pennington was born on February 2, 1918 in Campbell’s Corner (now Farragut), Tennessee, moving to Austin, Texas, in the early 1920s with his parents, six brothers and a great aunt.

Education and culture were integral parts of Pennington’s upbringing, due in large part to the influence of four women. Foremost among these was his mother, a graduate of Wofford College, who insisted that her children read and “behave in a proper way.” In the home of two spinster sisters who lived across the road he was exposed to art, oriental rugs, pressed linens, classical music, porcelain and crystal, sterling cutlery, fine food, and language, while another lady neighbor gave him piano lessons.

Pennington often recalled the time his father gave him 25 cents, put him on a streetcar, pointed toward the University of Texas (UT), and said “Scat!” At UT, he completed a BA in history (1947) and an MA in sociology (1949). He also met Donald D. Brand, a prominent Latin Americanist geographer, who would not entertain thoughts of him pursuing a PhD at Johns Hopkins or Syracuse, insisting instead that he go to the University of California at Berkeley.

The notion of studying in the Bay Area was met with enthusiasm, as Pennington had enjoyed the culture of San Francisco while on leave from his Army duties at a POW camp for captured German soldiers.

Pennington’s days at Berkeley produced some of his fondest memories, especially of people, including William M. Denevan, Yi-Fu Tuan and James J. Parsons. But it was the great Carl Sauer who was his intellectual hero. When Pennington expressed an interest in the native people of the Sierra Madre of northern México, it was Sauer who endorsed him without reservation.

Pennington set out in the early 1950s to conduct field research in what would become his “beloved Chihuahua.” In no small way, his interest in northern México was sparked by his great uncle, Gordon Campbell White, who was director of the Mexican division of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the early 20th century.

Completed in 1959, Pennington’s dissertation was published with the title “The Tarahumar of Mexico: Their Environment and Material Culture” (1963, 1996). Subsequent research resulted in books on The Tepehuan of Chihuahua: Their Material Culture (1969) and The Pima Bajo of Central Sonora, Mexico (1980). He never finished The Mountain Pima of Maicoba, Sonora: Their Material Culture but chapter drafts and notes are archived in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Library at The University of Texas at Austin. Plants he collected while conducting field work in México were identified by B.L. Turner and are curated in UT’s herbarium.

In the course of conducting field research in places accessible only by mule or on foot, he also did archival research. Records maintained by 17th and 18th century Jesuit missionaries were of particular fascination, in part because of what they said about material culture, but also because of what they contained in regard to indigenous languages. Pennington compiled dictionaries of three Sonoran languages, two of which are now extinct, Ópata and Eudeve. The former was never published but exists in manuscript form in the Benson Library while dictionaries of Pima and Eudeve in 1979 and 1981 respectively.

All of his writing was done on a typewriter, much of it on an IBM Selectric. Close friends remember well his quest for a type ball with foreign letters and accents! Pennington was the consummate letter writer. Although he never relinquished his typewriter–using it later for notes and envelopes–he was an early adopter of computers. He purchased his first when he was 80 years old, and quickly began using email and was adroit with the internet.

A teacher as well as a scholar, Pennington held three academic positions. The first was at the University of Utah (1957-1964), an institution with a strong reputation in the publishing of research on native peoples of the Americas. Next, he went to Southern Illinois University (1964-1974) where he worked closely with anthropologists, J. Charles Kelley and Carroll L. Riley, producing a book entitled Man Across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts (1971) that was translated and republished in Japanese. He also collaborated with geographer John F. Rooney on a project that resulted in the publication of This Remarkable Continent: An Atlas of United States and Canadian Society and Cultures (1982).

Pennington was enticed back to Texas, accepting the position as Head of the Department of Geography at Texas A&M University (1974-1984). With geography being alongside the departments of oceanography, meteorology and geology within the College of Geosciences, he insisted that his faculty become good teachers. He contributed to his own mandate by teaching a course on the geography of Texas that became popular almost immediately. His efforts paid off handsomely, and to this day the department teaches more students than the other three departments combined.

He was also a visionary who made some important hiring decisions that broadened the scope of the department’s previous narrow cultural focus. Notable in this regard was his hiring of geomorphologist Kenneth L. White, historical geographer Peter Hugill, and urban and quantitative geographer Robert Bednarz. He was also instrumental in establishing the career of Daniel D. Arreola, an acclaimed geographer of the Texas-México borderlands.

Pennington was an inspiration to scholars working in northern México, particularly Robert Bye, Gary Paul Nabhan, and William E. Doolittle. He instantly became a supporter and friend of anyone and everyone interested in the region, typically addressing them as “Young sir.” He held no sense of propriety, sharing freely information, experiences, insights, and wisdom. He was also a great supporter of undergraduate students, employing many as landscapers and home improvement carpenters.

Pennington underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery shortly after he retired. In order to be closer to family, he moved to San Marcos in the early 1990s, and later to Austin. He never expected to live as long as he did. After a cancer diagnosis, he had to have his bladder removed and recovered from the operation much to his own surprise. He moved back to San Marcos and considered himself fortunate to have the financial means to live comfortably for many years. The last several years of his life were enhanced by Frances Pedraza, who looked after his every need, patiently and respectfully.

Pennington enjoyed classical music and recalled fondly many of the concerts he attended, including two performances by Sergei Rachmaninoff. He had a large art collection that included paintings by Texas landscape artists Dawson Dawson-Watson and Julian Onderdonk. Food was also important to him. He had quite diverse tastes and was an excellent cook himself. His elegant dinner parties were very special occasions; a few graduate students found them overwhelming.

Although not reserved, Campbell Pennington was a beacon of tolerance and humility. He would doubtless say this memorial statement is: “apropos of absolutely nothing.” To those who knew him well, he was truly a larger-than-life character. As per his instructions, his ashes will be scattered in Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Occidental in the southwestern part of Chihuahua state of northwestern Mexico.

Contributed by William E. Doolittle, The University of Texas at Austin