A funeral service will be held Friday, May 26, for the Rev. Charles F. Penniman Jr., 88, an Episcopal priest and science educator who died Saturday, April 22, of a blood disorder at his home at Atria Senior Living in Center City.
Mr. Penniman spent 21 years on the staff of the Franklin Institute where he cared for and gave presentations on the famous Henri Maillardet automaton, a figure of a three-foot-tall boy with moving parts. The figure, which Mr. Penniman called “priceless,” was intended to serve as a toy or gift for the rich grownups of the early 1800s.
“Charles’ dedication to one particular artifact—the Maillardet Automaton—will never be forgotten,"said Karen Elinich, the institute's director of science content & learning technologies. "Conserving the centuries-old Automaton became his passion as he worked diligently to maintain its movements and thereby amaze audiences for generations to come.”
His efforts helped spawn a book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, and “Hugo,” the 2011 Martin Scorsese movie based on the book.
Although Mr. Penniman pursued multi-decade careers as an Episcopal priest and with the Franklin Institute, he also was a professional photographer, painter, musician, and tinkerer, said his nephew Charles P. Wohlforth said.
“To me, he was a quiet person, but very humble. He was extraordinarily capable, but shared his gifts with others – spiritual, ethical or artistic,” his nephew said.
Born in Meridian, Miss., he was the son of the Rev. Charles and Lucile Penniman. His father was an Episcopal priest and noted theologian.
Mr. Penniman received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in 1950, intending to pursue engineering, but changed his mind. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he returned stateside and in 1957 received a master of divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. The following year he was ordained an Episcopal priest.
His early service as a cleric took him to Endicott, N.Y., where he met his wife, Annette Eckert. They were married in 1960 and had one son.
In 1962, Mr. Penniman became rector of Trinity Memorial Church in Center City, but his love for science and education drew him back to the Franklin Institute, where he had long volunteered. He was a staff member there from 1972 to 1993, when he retired.
The Pennimans bought a gutted row house on South Street near 24th Street and renovated it. They lived there as much-loved fixtures of the neighborhood for 40 years before moving to the Atria in 2013.
The couple helped start and lead the Church Without Walls, an Episcopal congregation that met in private homes. Mr. Penniman served as assistant chaplain at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Skippack Township, as photographer for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania based in Philadelphia, and as a member of the Guatemala Companion Diocese Committee.
Mr. Penniman pursued his love of photography in a professional darkroom in his basement. He made and played instruments, painted in watercolors, and carved statues from wood.
His woodworking skill came in handy when restoration efforts began on the Franklin Institute’s Maillardet automaton, which was the figure of a kneeling boy wearing satin breeches and a blouse with frilly collar. The figure, donated to the institute in 1928, had been damaged by fire. Mr. Penniman carved new feet for the figure out of poplar wood.
The toy was capable of writing three poems and drawing four pictures with the power of wound-up springs, while its eyes seem to follow the work of its hand. An institute mechanic had rebuilt the machine; when the toy was turned on in 1934, it revealed the name of its creator.
''It's a mystery to think about how time has been frozen by this machine. The things that it is writing and drawing are out of a mind-set which no longer exists,” Mr. Penniman told the Inquirer in the Nov. 9, 1989 article.
In addition to his nephew and wife of 56 years, he is survived by a son, Nathaniel B. Penniman; stepdaughter Lynda Kinnier; two step-grandchildren; two step-great-grandchildren; and a second nephew, Eric E. Wohlforth Jr. A sister died earlier.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, May 26, at the Church of Saint Luke & The Epiphany, 330 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. Burial will be private.
Memorial donations may be made to Episcopal Community Services, 225 S. 3rd St., Philadelphia, Pa.