Penny’s mother died when she was 17, and her father wanted her to work instead of going to college. She convinced him to let her go, arguing that it wouldn’t cost anything—at the time, FIT was free—and she commuted from Flatlands, Brooklyn. After school, she assembled Christmas cards in a greeting-card factory, and as part of her curriculum, she worked at a wedding-gown factory, sewing horsehair into the linings of dresses to stiffen the hems.
Eventually, she became a children’s wear and lingerie merchandise manager for Barker’s Department Stores (similar to Kmart), traveling to stores throughout Louisiana, Texas, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Haiti. She also visited manufacturers in East Asia. “I traveled a great deal when women were not traveling,” she recalls. “In Tokyo, when I had to use the facilities, they sent a security guard to watch the door, because there were no bathrooms for women.”
After Barker’s went out of business, Penny was offered a job managing an office building in New York City, and more than 30 years later, she still works there, five days a week. “I’m not retiring unless I have to,” she says.