Bench mark: Pengelly memorialized at the State Fair
The enthusiasms of the late Scott Pengelly were nearly as numerous as his friends.
Pengelly, who died Dec. 29, received a sitting ovation Aug. 23, when a wrought-iron "Tree of Life" bench was dedicated in his honor at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Friends, family and former colleagues at the Department of Natural Resources gathered to celebrate the man described on the bench inscription as "dedicated DNR spokesman, outdoorsman, conservationist, State Fair enthusiast and friend."
"He was passionate about the state of Minnesota," his wife Kathleen Pengelly told the audience. "He was passionate about our natural resources, about how fragile they are and how they deserve our attention and our care."
Pengelly was also a stickler for proper grammar and punctuation, a fixation he honed during his years as editor of the Hastings Star Gazette and later as spokesman in the office of communications and outreach at the DNR.
Family and colleagues recalled that he would swoop down on an errant comma or misspelled word like a bald eagle who had just sighted dinner running across a field. Steve Carroll, who worked under Pengelly at the DNR, said he never paid much attention to spelling and grammar when he was a sports reporter and anchor for KARE-11. It was a different story when he began writing press releases under Pengelly. Carroll said he barely recognized his work after his boss was through correcting them with his ruthless red pen.
"My copy became bloody," Carroll said.
Pengelly maintained this vigilance up to his last day on earth, Kathleen Pengelly said.
In December, the couple were en route to Lutsen's Moose Mountain for some skiing. Kathleen noticed that her husband had become agitated and was taking his eyes off the road.
"I said, 'Scott, hold onto the steering wheel!' He said, 'Yeah, I know, but look at that billboard over there. They have got a comma in the wrong place and somebody was paid to put it there. That is just wrong.'"
He died later that day of a heart attack at the top of the mountain.
"He sent me a text that (said) 'I love you Kath. I'm just going to go down the mountain two more times.' And 17 minutes later my son Evan sent me a text saying that he was gone. Tell the people you love that you love them ... life is fragile," she said. "Tell the people you care about that you care about them. If you've got somebody you need to say 'I'm sorry' to, do it today."
She concluded with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: "'It is not the years in your life that are important. It is the life in your years.' My husband lived his life every single minute."
A former Marine, Pengelly served as the editor of the Hastings Star Gazette from 1981-1989 and then for 25 years at the DNR. He used his journalism experience to coach staff members who were going to be interviewed by the media or make presentations in public. Even after his retirement he would come back to the State Fair to help.
His boss was communications director Colleen Coyne. One year, she told the audience, Pengelly insisted on doing the heavy lifting at the DNR's State Fair exhibit even though he'd torn a bicep putting in a dock the week before.
Former DNR colleague Tom Conroy wasn't sure about Pengelly when they first met.
"I thought, 'Who is this guy?'" Conroy said. "Who's this preppy, natty, good looking guy? He's not an outdoor guy.'"
He was happy to be proved wrong.
"We turned out to be the best of friends," Conroy said. "He was someone you could talk to about anything, from conservation to best beers on the market. You could disagree with him but you couldn't stay mad at him for long."
The bench was paid for with donations from friends and colleagues. It will be at the new children's play area at the DNR pond for the duration of the State Fair.