One of this newspaper’s great assets lives not in our building.
She works some six blocks away.
Over the past three decades, our editors have suggested we should credit Liisa Penner with being a virtual member of our staff. The title would be “Staff Historian.”
Our typical encounters with Penner have begun when we called her with a question about an event in the distant past or a phenomenon such as the great Scandinavian emigration to Clatsop County early in the 20th century.
My own experience, and that of my managing editors, Laura Sellers and Patrick Webb, has been identical. Over the telephone, Penner would say a few things and we would end our call. Ten minutes later, a long email would arrive, answering our question and much more. And in another 20 minutes, there would be a follow-up email with even more information.
“She is pretty amazing anytime we need her,” Sellers said.
“She is the best kind of newspaper source: she never guesses or shoots from the hip,” Webb added. “Her replies are always rich in detail, trustworthy in authenticity and timely to meet deadlines.”
Being one of the oldest places west of the Rockies, Astoria is like an archaeological dig. The layers of history proliferate, and Penner is our chief archaeologist.
Penner has been associated with the Clatsop County Historical Society since 1985, first as a volunteer and later on its staff. She earned an Oregon Heritage Excellence Award in 2012.
Erick Bengel, an Astoria journalist now furthering his education at Columbia University in New York, said Penner helped him on such diverse topics as the Astoria Bicentennial, the infamous Mary Louise Flavel saga and even a story about a new ladder truck for the Astoria Fire Department. “When I needed her, she was indispensable,” he said.
Her generosity to curious journalists is born of her fervent fascination with history and her quiet joy in telling its stories.
In an interview conducted by Glenn Gillespie for the Chinook Observer, Penner said: “I loved the language the early news reporters used in these stories, and it really takes you back to the old days on the river. Even as a child — I was about 10 when we moved here — I wondered who the people were who had lived here before me.”
The historical quarterly that Penner edits — Cumtux — would make any number of state historical societies proud. A typical issue contains the documented memories of a longtime county resident. Some years ago, Penner delivered a special set of issues devoted to the Finnish Socialists of Clatsop County.
She introduced it by saying that it was time to end the silence about this story. And why didn’t some people want this story told? Because grandma was a communist.
In that collection of articles, Penner explained the roots of Finnish migration to Astoria and the competing political values those immigrants brought.
We are not the only beneficiaries of Penner’s historical largesse. The archive she manages within the heritage museum draws quite a number of the curious. Penner is enormously helpful to all of them.
One such beneficiary is Joanne Rideout at Coast Community Radio. Some years back, she was researching historic buildings. “I remember sitting in the photo room with her, with a pair of white gloves on, sorting through these marvelous old pictures,” Rideout recalled. “She was always hugely helpful and knowledgeable.”
Author Jim Aalberg, who has written books about Clatsop County history, credits Penner with inspiring him with her knowledge and devotion to preserving history.
“I know as a stoic and modest Finn you’re not one to easily accept praise and accolades, but for today, be proud and take pride in your accomplishments in maintaining, educating and sharing the history of our community to so many for decades,” he said.
Here at The Astorian, we could not have said it better.