Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Telephones, Vietnam and JFK

Penny Schell reflects on a tumultuous six decades

By Matt Schell

Wood River High School Freshman


Editor’s note: Matt Schell’s winning entry in the Idaho Mountain Express Generational Conversations Contest, printed below, has been edited from its original version by the Express staff. A previous version appeared in the D section of the Dec. 5, 2012, edition of the Idaho Mountain Express.


Penny Sue Schell was born Penny Sue Thomas in Boise on Nov. 14, 1948. Though her great-great-grandparents hailed from Germany and Ireland, Schell was raised in Rupert, the second-born child of five. 

Schell said her family was poor growing up, and she began working when she was 12 to buy her own clothing and shoes. She said she has never stopped working; currently, she’s manager of the Minidoka County Senior Center in Rupert and also volunteers to help with the community’s elderly residents.

Schell was a freshman in high school in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. She said she still remembers that she was between her third- and fourth-period classes when the shocking news was announced.

“I was sad,” she said. “[Kennedy] was so young, and an astounding president who was doing great things for our nation.”

Schell added that the loss of Kennedy was a great loss to the United States.

Schell graduated from Minidoka County High School, informally known as Minico, in 1967. Her first car was a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air with tall fins on the back, and she said she had planned to go to beauty school to be a hair stylist. But her plans changed when she attended beauty school; she spent four months there, but dropped out because she realized she didn’t like it.

Schell said that if she could go back and change this part of her life, she would—but she would not go back to beauty school.

“I would study harder and get my accounting degree,” she said.

Schell married Butch Schell of Rupert at age 19, and had her first child at 20. She now has four children and 11 grandchildren, and said most of them live within 200 miles of her home.

Schell was a young mother when the Vietnam War began. Her husband had left the military just as the war was about to begin, but seven of her high school classmates who were drafted into the service shortly after the war began were killed in action. 

Schell’s older brother, George Eugene Thomas, served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Schell’s father had also served in the Navy. Thomas was on a destroyer that was bombed, and Schell said the family had to wait for days for news. 

“All we knew was that his ship had been bombed and men had died,” she said. “We didn’t know what happened until several days later. It’s not like today, where the families know right away. It was days before we knew if Eugene had been hurt or killed.”

Schell said the news stations couldn’t get out information very quickly and sometimes didn’t relay what was going on at all. She said that when she found out that her brother’s ship had been bombed, she felt “really sick to my stomach and scared.” 

Three men from the destroyer had died, but not Thomas. 

Schell said the country was in turmoil, times were difficult and riots were happening all over the place. She said that when the veterans would return home from the war, they were considered by some to be a disgrace to America and were shown little respect for having served their country. 

Schell has traveled to Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia as well as most of the 50 United States. She said her most enjoyable experience was traveling to Hawaii with her mother and brothers and sisters about 15 years ago.

When asked what one of the biggest changes she has witnessed in her life was, she said “the telephone.” When Schell was growing up, she used a party-line telephone, on which five families shared the same line and the operator placed all calls; now, there are cell phones that work off towers and fit in a pocket. 

Schell said the hardest thing she has had to endure in her life was her fight against cancer. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1994, and is one of a very few who have lived to say they beat the disease.

Schell said she has a short bucket list: to travel to Russia, to return to Hawaii, to go on a cruise, to take a train through the Canadian wilderness and to learn to swim.

She said she has been afraid of the water for her entire life, partly because she never learned how to swim. 

“I would like to be one of those little old ladies in the pool, wrinkles and all, in my purple suit and red hat, just swimming,” she said with a laugh.

Schell said her advice to younger generations was simple: live life to the fullest.

“Don’t just exist, but really live every day,” she said. “You never know how much time you might have left.”

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