Trading the Military for Math
After serving the United States Air Force for 28 years and 16 moves with the military, Colonel Michael Pennefather, wife Mary Jane, and seven children happily settled into private life in Manassas in 1988 and embraced the Seton community. In 1994 Seton School was blessed to have “Colonel P” (as he was referred to) as a math and grammar teacher and the assistant girls basketball coach.
A Washington Post article about Colonel P quotes his youngest daughter Therese, “ ‘He was a man with an incredible amount of talent and intelligence who could have done so many things with his life. And instead of going off and making a million dollars, he chose to help people.’ And he considered himself far richer for it.
He explained his choice the same way he did when talking about his daughter Shelley’s decision to turn down a lucrative professional basketball career to be a cloistered nun — ‘Money is a lousy altar to worship at.’ ”(1) “ ‘He had majored in physics and had a MBA. He was a very brilliant man, yet he was teaching junior high math when he died. He didn’t care whether he was at the cutting edge of math or technology. He just wanted to teach kids,’ ” Dick Pennefather is quoted in a Washington Post December 27, 1998 article.(2) It is said the Seton years were Colonel P’s happiest.
Coach and his “Family”
Brad Parks reported in the June 14, 1998 article that Colonel P “liked to say that he had his priorities in order — faith first, family second, basketball third. Then he’d wink from underneath a bushy eyebrow, flash the broad grin that always preceded one of his jokes and say, ‘I just don’t tell my family how close a third basketball is.’
They already knew, of course. Colonel P coached all seven of his children at one point or another, including his two youngest daughters at Seton. Basketball became as much their love as it was his.
But the lines between basketball and family sometimes blurred because the countless girls he coached over the years — many of whom attended his funeral — became like his family. He treated them that way; they reacted in kind.
Officially, he was the assistant girls basketball coach at Seton — not exactly a high-profile position. But his impact on girls basketball in the Prince William area and the state went far beyond that.
He coached four Amateur Athletic Union teams to state championships. And there hadn’t been a girl from Prince William who went on to play basketball at a Division I college before 1998 who hadn’t worked with Colonel P.
‘He basically sculpted all of our shots,’ said 1997 Gar-Field graduate Emily Faught, who played at North Carolina-Charlotte. ‘Anytime our shots were off, we would go right to him. All we had to do was ask, and he’d say, ‘Sure, come on over to the Seton gym and we’ll work it out.’
But Colonel P was more than the county’s shot doctor. He dispensed wisdom. He dispensed love. A devout Catholic, he taught the girls moral lessons but did it with the humility and humor that were his hallmarks.”(1) He believed sports instilled virtue and gave students goals for which to strive.
“ ‘He turned my life around,’ said Nikki Olds, a 1997 Hylton graduate who credits Colonel P with getting her into New York’s Wagner College. ‘He’s kind of like my angel. He came at a point in my life when I really needed someone. I know I wouldn’t be in college today without him.’ the Washington Post indicates. (1) ” ‘He taught me to apply myself — to my basketball, my studies and my life.’ ”(2) Olds stated in the December Washington Post article.
The June Washington Post article speaks too of how Colonel P, the coach, was entertaining, saying he “was famous for his one liners, such as ‘Why are you giving the ball away? This isn’t Catholic charities!’ or ‘Shoot the ball! No one is guarding you but fresh air!’ He could talk endlessly about basketball and remember names and games that were decades old. The girls listened to Colonel P. He was always entertaining. He seldom told the same story twice. And they knew he would do anything for them.”(1)
“Equally touching to his wife were the notes from girls who struggled mightily on the court, not wanting to disappoint her husband. One youngster who never rose above junior varsity recalled Colonel P spending hours on the court with her, as if Michael Jordan had shown up wanting to play.”(2)
“People knew he really cared about them because he was willing to spend the time,” said Pennefather’s son Bob, the Seton Junior Varsity boys coach.
Colonel P as Seton Teacher
Colonel P used his talents as a Seton teacher and coach not only to teach math, grammar, and a love of basketball, but also to teach students lessons that they would be able to use for a lifetime. “He saw good in every single person,” said Seton student Maura Flannery (‘99) in the December Washington Post article. In the same article Liz Schiavone, whose twin daughters attended Seton, said “Pennefather was a rare role model for adolescent girls, encouraging them to do their best and working to get them recognition, such as college aid, when they did. ‘That was his gift, and he used it,’ she said.”(2)
His care for his students is described by the Washington Post: “Mary Jane Pennefather said her husband would often give up his lunch periods to tutor and ‘loved bringing out of children something they didn’t know was there.’(2) Former Seton students recalled Colonel P’s commanding classroom presence — ‘Yo, thug,’ he would buttonhole a misbehaving scholar. Then he’d turn around and melt at the sight of his disabled young grandson, sweeping him up tenderly in his large arms. The week before Colonel P died, Seton students were still coming by his home for lessons. He marked up their final papers in an illegible scribble, showing them that despite his weak condition he still cared.”2)
Teaching by Example
Even at the end of his life, Colonel P never stopped teaching and coaching. In March 1998 at the age of 60, he was diagnosed with skin cancer and it was spreading. Doctors told him he only had several months to live.
Telling of his final months, the June Washington Post says Colonel P “had spent his life as a good example of how to live –chose to spend his final months as a good example of how to die. He used his cancer as an example of accepting God’s will with faith and dignity. He never fought his illness, choosing to live his final months not in a hospital but with his immediate and extended ‘family.’ Colonel P reached out to hundreds of people he had known and coached over the final months of his life, talking to them about dying — and, of course, basketball — when they came to visit.”(1) Though very weak and sick, he nevertheless came regularly to Seton during this time to address the students. He told them to stay close to the Holy Eucharist, told of his peace and acceptance of God’s will, and demonstrated faith and dignity. “He totally surrendered himself to God’s will,” said his wife, Mary Jane. “He saw himself as a man being called by God, and even at that point of his life — when he had so much to live for — he accepted it without question.”
The Washington Post speaks of how Colonel P “found comfort and guidance in the spiritual book ‘Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence,’ which says that ‘even amid the greatest sufferings,’ he who accepts death with perfect resignation ‘will die happily and joyfully.’ “(2) He gave many visitors a copy of the book before they left his bedside.
Colonel Michael Pennefather died at home in June 1998, in the front parlor, surrounded by his family. The last word his wife heard him say was ” Amen.”(2) “Nearly 1,000 people attended his funeral lining the aisles and flowing out the doors of the church” reported the Post in the June article. It was evident that the Seton community had lost a beloved individual who had affected the lives of many. Continuing, the Post indicated “They came to say goodbye to the coach, father, husband and friend they loved, crying and laughing much of the time.”(1) He was buried at Quantico National Cemetery in a simple pine box made by Seton teacher Pete Sheetz.
The wake was held in Seton’s John Paul II Center, where Colonel P spent so many hours working with kids. His casket was placed at center court.
Colonel P left behind a huge legacy of faith. His wife Mary Jane and the seven children carry on the faith he fostered through teaching, raising Catholic families, and serving the Church in religious life.
With great fondness, love, and laughter we remember Colonel P. God’s faithful servant left us recalling the words of St. Teresa of Avila:
“Let nothing disturb thee. Let nothing affright thee. All things are passing. Patience obtains all things. He who has God has everything. God alone suffices.”
(1) Parks, Brad. “A Beloved Coach Passes On Community Mourns Mike Pennefather.” Washington Post 14 June 1998, Prince William Extra, p. V1.
(2) Tousignant, Marylou. “From ‘Colonel P,’ Gifts for a Lifetime.” Washington Post 27 December 1998, Metro, p. B1.