A Penny for Your Thoughts

Photo by Luke George Photography

Sitting across from Penny Stell in her art deco themed living room, she humbly insists we can’t need more than a quarter page to tell her story. After nearly an hour-long interview, I beg to differ. By the end of the interview she is joking that catastrophes seem to follow her. So buckle in.

Penny’s story begins in Glendale, Los Angeles, where she grew up musically, playing flute, guitar, and clarinet in middle school and singing a cappella at Glendale High. She has always been a big Disney fan – Disneyland opened two weeks after her birth and she had already made her first visit by 1 month old.

After graduation, Penny went to UCLA.

In order to afford college, she got a job at Disneyland. Minimum wage at the time was $1.65/hr. But, thanks to her talent as a singer, she landed a part-time character position as Mary Poppins for $2.05/hr. She would commute 35 miles from Glendale to Anaheim in her white ‘66 Mustang for her weekend shifts at the Magic Kingdom, “But it really just fit in with my love of Disney,” she says.

Penny majored in early childhood education and psychology and minored in music at UCLA. She worked as a teacher for a short time after graduation, but found that she couldn’t make enough money doing that. So, she pivoted into the corporate world and began working in retail. She would eventually meet her husband Bob during this period of her life. Their first date? You guessed it: Disneyland. 

Penny was working for the May Company in 1992 when the LA riots broke out.

She recalls having to hide in her car for eight hours one day during the riots as a store she was working with was looted. This was the first time she would lose her wedding ring.

Bob had custody of his children who lived on the east coast, so the couple moved to be with them. Penny began searching for a job and answered a blind ad in the Washington Post that requested someone with retail experience. “All they told me when they called for an interview was that it was on a Marine base, but it was a retail store. I walked into an interview with nine uniformed men who asked me a bunch of questions.” The job had always been a military position, but they were trying to transition it to civilian. “They handed me a P&L statement and said, ‘We’re going to leave the room for 10 minutes and you need to come up with five things we can improve.’ When they came back in I said, ‘I don’t know who you have running this, but they have no idea what they’re doing.’ Every single expense line, income line was way off the mark.”

So, Penny became the director of morale, welfare and recreation, and moved to DC; Bob would soon follow. In this position, Penny oversaw the self-funded department store that resides on every military base – the proceeds of which go to things like after school programs, recreation facilities improvement, computers for schools, etc. Penny drew great satisfaction from this role as it was directly benefiting the service members and their families. “Best job I’ve ever had,” says Penny, “It really laid the foundation for me for serving the underserved and giving back.”

She also worked on a Congressional project involving the Army, Airforce, and Navy.

She traveled around the world, visiting military bases for six months, including a weeklong stint on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, to study quality of life for soldiers. “It was life changing for me. We went to the DMZ and young soldiers said, ‘We want two tubes of toothpaste a month. We get one in our rations and then we have to buy the second tube on the black market for $60-$70.’ They wanted simple things.” Penny also successfully secured a million dollar deal with New Balance to get women’s size shoes in the women’s boot camp ditty bag. Until then, they had only been outfitted with ill-fitting men’s shoes. “Everything you did meant something,” says Penny of her work with the Marines, in juxtaposition with her corporate experience.

She drives home the fact that was the first civilian and the first woman to hold this position with the Marine Corps for a very long time. Penny’s 12 year tenure had been the 12 most profitable years for the MWR. Not to say that it was an easy place for a civilian woman. Penny recalls learning to navigate the macho “boys’ club” world of the military, developing a thick skin and relying on her intellect to get ahead.

As the director of MWR, Penny was at times called on to act as a tactical field exchange officer, traveling to set up supplies in areas of conflict. She was sent to Bosnia during the Bosnian conflict and to Guantanamo Bay to pack it up before it was handed over to the Navy. “I’m not a gun person,” says Penny, though she had to learn to shoot a gun for these occasions. “I wasn’t allowed to carry the gun or pick it up, but I needed to be able to defend if I needed to defend.”

Then, 9/11 happened.

“That morning, we were getting ready to testify to Congress about not using sweatshops, but we never got to testify.” Penny had been in a conference room in the Pentagon when the plane struck the building. A fortunately timed phone call drew Penny far enough away from the strike zone to survive. “You could only have intranet, not internet, and no cellphones in the Pentagon. So, I had no idea it was a terrorist attack until later in the day, I had no idea the Twin Towers had been hit.” Reporting as a tactical field exchange officer, she began distributing aid in the form of supplies like water bottles, socks for the rescue workers, etc. This was the second time she lost her wedding ring.

Though alive, Penny did not get away unscathed. It is believed that the oral cancer she developed a few years later was linked to asbestos exposure from the attack. This was a battle that required surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and a stint with barometric oxygen (3 hours/day). “The scariest part, to me, was the surgery and learning to speak again. But I lived and so many people did not,” she says. This ordeal would also cost her the ability to sing.

After 9/11, the director of MWR job returned to a military post, so Penny and Bob moved back to California, choosing to settle in Benicia. She explains that she fell in love with the town when she stayed overnight during the Christmas Tree Lighting event. “There were carolers on the street and people walking around with hot cocoa,” she recalls, “It was like something out of a movie! And I thought, ‘that’s just what I need.’”

Since moving to Benicia, Penny has been involved in much of the goings on here.

She first got involved with Benicia Yacht Club, developing new friendships there and serving on the board, as its entertainment chair, and as vice commodore. Then, she met Christina Strawbridge, who brought her onto the newly formed tourism committee, where she met Mario Giuliani, who eventually invited her onto the Economic Development Board for the City. She still felt like she wasn’t doing enough to support the quality of life that Benicia strived to provide, so she got involved with Soroptimist International of Benicia. She then joined the board of the Library Foundation. From there, she got involved with Benicia Historical Museum and joined its board, for which she now serves as president. “At the heart of it, it’s about quality of life,” Penny says of her service to these institutions, “It’s expensive to live in Benicia, but there’s so much [offered] and we have to protect all the avenues of it.”

As someone who has survived so much and thrived in spite of it, we are lucky to have Penny among our ranks. Her dedication to looking out for the underserved and helping to ensure our quality of life is something to be admired. Her Benicia home has a room dedicated to Disney and she has been back to Disneyland for her birthday every year except two years during the pandemic. “There’s something about it – when I walk through the gates and I read the epitaph that Walt put up there, I just forget everything. Everything is just as magical as it was.”