Saturday, October 20, 2018
Penny Chenery Eulogy 20 Oct 2018
A Eulogy for Penny Chenery, 20 October 2018, 1:30 p.m.
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
When Helen Bates “Penny” Chenery stepped onto the national stage it was a time which needed some light. Leaving the tumultuous Sixties, the turbulence of the opening years of the Seventies were not looking better. Penny Chenery came forward with her marvelous horses Riva Ridge and Secretariat giving people hope, and something to believe in. Across society people held their collective breath to see if dreams could come true. The beauty of the moment brought grown men to tears, and even champions like Jack Nicklaus admitted that they wept for joy during the Belmont Stakes of 1973. And more than one commented, that a horse restored people’s faith in humanity. Penny’s, and so many others’, hard work gave hope to a nation that needed some good news.
In these minutes today, there is no way to summarize a life about which books have been written. But in my crash course on this remarkable woman a few things stand out. I was alive when all this transpired, but by the time I had heard of Secretariat his race was history to me, not events I could remember.
I used to be the chaplain to the State Fair, and in my daily wanderings I would pause and linger like so many do at Secretariat’s stall. Later, during my teaching days, I would always organize the State Fair trip and would take my gaggle of followers by to see where Secretariat lived. Even then, it was two or three generations removed and there was Rev. Rock going on about something again. But even in their derision, I was always fascinated by the legacy of this remarkable horse. I remember taking my daughters to the Byrd Theatre down in Richmond for them to see Disney’s Secretariat, and during the re-enacted races they were tiny enough to have to stand on the floor and bounce up and down in their excitement. They were so young they did not assume that the horse whose name was the title was going to win. Throughout my life, even steps removed, this Virginia boy always smiled at mention of the name Secretariat.
The smile and privilege comes now, though, in learning of the horse’s remarkable owner. Penny was the third child of Christopher Chenery who paid for half of this church in which we celebrate today. Longtime Vestryman and Warden, the Chenery legacy as already mentioned is great here at St. James the Less.
In going through all the details, I find that Penny was STRONG. She forged a path for woman in what was still a man’s world. When asked if she was intimidated by being in a field owned exclusively by powerful men, many CEOs and financial moguls, she quipped, “Screw the men! I had the horse.” She fought the fights she needed to and did what needed to be done. She did not like to gamble, but life is neither safe nor easy and she made many high-staked but calculated risks. She made the hard choices, put in the work, and lived with the consequences.
Also she was SMART. She had horse-sense in more ways than one. She asked questions and learned when needed. She knew who to ask, who to trust and who to remove. She led. She was witty. She won the hearts of the nation in the non-stop interviews in her time in the spotlight. Gracious and endearing, she knew enough however to know that this could all disappear in a moment.
Lastly, she was LUCKY. I am not speaking to being a person of privilege, which she was. And I am not definitely not speaking of how fortunate she was to be in the moment she found herself in. We make our own luck, I believe. On the outside it may look like divine fortune or being blessed, but Penny teaches us, if nothing else. Put in the work, look for the opportunity in the moment, and know when to risk, even to risk it all. None of those are accidental; none of those are easy.
Penny Chenery was a complex woman who helped transition our nation by being who she was. She paused to appreciate the things she loved. And that love was contagious and inspired our country. Being a priest, I am not into horse racing. But likewise I admit I always watch the Kentucky Derby. We all want to see the best. In watching what Penny Chenery and her whole team at the Meadow enabled, it allowed all of us to see, experience, and celebrate that Best That Ever Was. Rewatching the Triple Crown races with my family last night reminded me of how inspiring, how amazing, how wonderful this wild ride was. Penny summarized by saying that her time with Secretariat was “a wonderful dream I was privileged to live.”
Watching movies of how people approached her, delighted and in awe, she was so gracious. No matter the race or class or whatever difference there was, together they loved horses. And in that common love, their differences ceased. Love has a way of building bridges over uncrossable divides.
Thinking on that, in this house of worship her family helped build, I cannot but stop and thank God for the life of Penny Chenery. On this day when we commit her remains to this good earth, we also continue to entrust her soul in God’s loving hands. Amen