GETTING TO KNOW – Lawrence “Lon” Penna is an engineer by trade, but a Rotarian at heart.
He first joined the Niskayuna Rotary Club in 1988 after a friend took him to a meeting. He was intrigued by the club’s code, specifically the four-way test for what Rotarians say and do. They ask themselves if something is true, if it’s fair, will it bring goodwill and will it benefit everyone involved. Since retiring almost 10 years ago, he has devoted even more energy to the club.
Penna describes himself as “an Eagle Scout kind of guy.” He once even switched jobs after being asked to do something unethical.
After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Penna sought a job locally so he could continue seeing a woman he was dating at the time.
“Now we’ve been married 50 years, so that was a success,” he said.
He began a job at General Electric as a turbine design engineer. He later worked as a power plant test engineer at Power Technologies Inc. and then performed the same role at Mechanical Dynamics and Analysis.
Recently, The Gazette sat down with Penna to learn more about his experiences helping others.
Q: What is the most impactful project you worked on?
A: A woman once called me to say that suggestions our club made changed the educational system of the entire country. It was a simple comment, we just suggested Khan Academy (Khan Academy is a free online tool where students can learn about a variety of subjects and advance to new levels after taking quizzes that demonstrate their knowledge). If you’re from a country where teachers earn $100 dollars a year or have a third-grade education and all of a sudden you introduce Khan Academy, now you’ve got really excellent lectures to bring to your classroom. That was just something I mentioned to a woman in Gambia.
Q: What are some projects you’ve done locally?
A: I can remember calling Schenectady High and saying I heard there’s a 50% dropout rate, that’s hard to believe. They said “believe it,” so we volunteered in the schools. We started out in a longstanding Rotary program of bringing dictionaries to the kids. So, dictionaries in the third grade and thesauruses in the fifth grade. So that’s what opened the door.
One day I asked the teacher, “Is there anything else you need?” She said, ”Well, with my kids, there are a wide range of abilities. If I could have some more computers, I could put half the class on computers while I worked with the other half.” So, we went over to GE, they were 10 bucks a piece and we bought them refurbished laptops. (GE provides warehouse facilities to Elfun Society volunteers who provide computers to churches, libraries, schools or any 501c3 for only the $10 cost of Microsoft’s operating system.)
Q: Who have you worked with that has inspired you?
A: First and foremost, my wife. She belongs to the Scotia Rotary, I’m in the Niskayuna one. But, that doubles our ability to do things. She just wrote a grant for $40,000. They’re going to be bringing MoonCatchers to Uganda. Oh, I just [thought] a few, Ellie von Wellsheim, designer and founder of The MoonCatcher Project, Dr. Brian Lisse, a medical doctor who founded BridgesToMalawi, a non-profit providing resources to one of the poorest countries in the world. and Alice Marcus, a member of our club born into extreme poverty. I met her just as COVID was starting and told her about Rotary projects and she got really excited. She spent her life savings on MoonCatchers. She just loves helping the people in the villages where she grew up.
Q: How do you practice Rotarian principles in your personal life?
A: Well, right now, I’m here in Florida supporting my parents. My brother and I decided we aren’t going to put them in a nursing home. That transition can be hard, especially when losing your memory. So, my brother and I switch off every other month coming down here.
Also, it’s funny, I spent my career in fossil fuels. I didn’t realize, now I’m like, ‘Oh, my god.’ We’re exhausting this country’s resources rapidly. So, I drive an electric car, have an electric lawn mower, and try to cut back on meat.
Q: What goals do you have for the future?
A: Well, we’ve got to solve this climate problem. Most of the world is on board, and taking some huge strides. But, right now, humanity needs to work on the climate crisis and extreme poverty. Right now, we’ve got a billion people in extreme poverty. Some are going to be displaced. It’s a horrible storm coming our way. It’s almost unstoppable, but it’s not unstoppable yet. I want to continue to work toward [ending] extreme poverty. The three main things there are MoonCatchers, education and microloans, so if you don’t find a job you can make a job.
“Getting To Know …” is a weekly feature spotlighting people making a difference in the lives of others. If there’s someone you think we should feature, let us know by emailing us at [email protected].