NORTHBOROUGH – Charlotte Goldenberg Penn has done much in her 100 years.
She’s been the director of a regional interfaith council, led Holocaust remembrances and volunteered for numerous organizations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
She’s even danced with Buddy Cianci.
On Oct. 11, Penn celebrated her 100th birthday with a surprise party at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton.
The following day at Coleman House Assisted Living, where she’s been a resident for the past three years, Penn told her story. She wore a 100th birthday tiara and showed decades of memories.
Charlotte Goldenberg Penn celebrates 100th birthday
Penn was born in Lawrence. Her mother came from Providence. Her father came from a family of 19 who had fled the Russian Revolution. He owned a store that sold sewing supplies for Lawrence’s factory workers.
During the Great Depression, her family moved to Long Island where two of her paternal uncles had opened a fruit stand. After a year, her family moved to Providence and lived with a grandparent.
“I was the youngest by 18 years,” said Penn. “My father saw to it [that] we got to know all our uncles, aunts and cousins.”
Penn recalled the Hurricane of 1938.
“I was leaving the doctor’s office after an appointment. The bus drove past Brown University – a tree fell over on Brooks Street. We got out and started walking. The water was all over the cars,” she said
They lived in an apartment off Broad Street in Providence. Penn remembered the kitchen was the “only warm place in the house.” She also remembered her father bringing home a big radio and attending Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue.
“I graduated religious school, and I was confirmed at the age of 16,” she said.
Penn also attended public schools, graduating from Hope High School in 1940. She married Harold Goldenberg in 1941.
She worked in several jobs.
“I was a receptionist for a greeting card company, and I was activity director for the city’s first tenpin bowling lane,” she said.
She and Goldenberg had three children – Larry, Cori and Jonas – and she was also Harold’s caretaker when he fell ill.
“He was confined to a wheelchair for five years,” she said.
Looking back on her career
Once her children had grown up, Penn began attending college.
Along the way, she trained Black and white students to learn to be more positive in their relationships. From 1972 to 1993, Penn was the executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Rhode Island and Southeast New England region.
In 1978, the NCCJ called upon non-Jewish Rhode Islanders to respond to a series of anti-Semitic activities from neo-Nazi groups in the state.
“White supremacists were leaving bad pictures in mailboxes of Jewish families in Providence,” said Penn.
The response included a march to the State House rotunda, where Penn lit seven candles – one for each Nazi death camp – in a Holocaust remembrance ceremony.
Penn also helped to run the “Panel of Americans” at the Barbara Jordan housing complex in south Providence that trained residents to engage in open dialogue about discrimination and diversity.
Penn stepped down from the board of directors in 1993.
“Although I hated to retire,” she said.
In 2012, Penn was honored with the Community and Justice Award by the Rhode Island Foundation.
Penn has traveled extensively. She’s also enjoyed being a grandmother and great-grandmother.
“We have a great-grandchild named Charlotte,” she said. “That way, when I’m gone, we’ll still have a Charlotte.”
With good things in life have come the bad – the loss of her daughter, Cori, in December 2009; and the loss of her son, Larry, just a few months ago.
“December’s a bad month for me,” said Penn, noting her mother’s death was in that month in 1989.
As for Penn herself, she hopes to remain around a bit longer.
“My secret to a long life? Give me a couple of more years and I’ll tell you,” she said.