Tribute to Mr. B. J. Penn: The Greatest Story Never Told

by VADM Bruce Grooms '80, USN

Good evening distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs. Penn. It is truly an honor to be here tonight to participate in the Naval Academy's celebration of Black History month. This return to the Naval Academy is a wonderful homecoming for my family and me. As we toured the Yard this afternoon Emily and I could not help but reflect on the many warm memories of my time here as a Midshipman, a company officer and ultimately as the Commandant of Midshipmen. The Naval Academy has been an integral part of our lives for so many years. It is truly amazing how time has flown from my arrival as a member of the Class of 1980 to the soon graduation of our son, Geoff, who is a member of the Class of “1980 + 34” (2014). We are so proud to be associated with this wonderful institution and we will continue our support in every way we can.

I am especially honored to be able to share in this special recognition of the Honorable Mr. B.J. Penn. It is somewhat ironic that we took time to recognize the life and accomplishments of Mr. Nelson Mandela, whose personal story certainly qualifies as one of the "Greatest Stories Ever Told". This is in direct contrast to Mr. Penn's personal story, which qualifies as one of the "Greatest Stories Never Told".

As you view this video of Mr. Penn's story, I think you will quickly find the importance and historical significance of his impact on the U.S. Navy and on those who were fortunate enough to have their lives intersect with his.

In my prepared remarks, I have chosen to purposefully not relay any personal stories about Mr. Penn because of the unique relationship we have shared for more than 30 years; he has been a mentor, a friend, a father figure and ultimately my father-in-law. My objectivity might be suspect if I shared only personal stories. Therefore, the anecdotes I will share are those as seen through the eyes of some of the people he has touched in special ways.

I believe when God decides to put special people on this earth, he often selects two types of special people. In one case, there are those who have a public persona of prominence, everyone knows them and they often have a visible, historic impact on world events.  Certainly Nelson Mandela falls into this category. The second case is an equally special person who chooses to live his life in service to others, who does not carry himself in a manner that requires public acclaim.  He is one who impacts countless lives in a more personal and private way, in many cases; the recipient of significant good fortune is totally oblivious that a personal intervention was the sole reason for the recipient’s success. Mr. Penn is this type of special person.  

A dear friend once shared with me the impact Mr. Penn had on his life.  In this particular case, Mr. Penn was forced to make a difficult decision about the direction the career path of this young man would take. Over the years they developed a very deep friendship which still continues to this day, but what was most instructive was a comment made by this friend when he stated, "I don't love Mr. Penn because of what he did to me, I love him because of what he did for me".  

Often it is difficult to know what is the best approach to take on personnel matters such that a positive outcome can result. Mr. Penn has always had an innate ability to make personnel decisions that had the most positive impact on our Navy and always served the best interests of his people as well.

In a similar testimonial I once heard a person describe how he believed his promotion resulted directly from the fitness reports and special letter Mr. Penn wrote on his behalf. He knew his service record was good but he also knew his record did not stack up to some of those with whom he competed. Fortunately for him, he had Mr. Penn's seal of approval. On countless occasions, if Mr. Penn supported you his opinion was never questioned.

I could continue for hours on stories of how Mr. Penn has been so influential in the lives of countless naval officers, enlisted sailors and civilians, he has impacted the lives of persons of every race, nationality and heritage, all for the good of our naval service. Mr. Penn is owed a debt of gratitude by a generation of African American Flag Officers.  Had he not looked out for each of them as they tried to climb the uncertain and challenging ladder of leadership in the navy, their careers would never have been so successful.  It was during his tenure in senior navy leadership that we boasted the highest number of African American Flag Officers in the history of the U.S. Navy. 

It is good for you young Midshipmen to meet special leaders like Mr. Penn and to hear about the challenges he endured and how his perseverance paved the way for so many. As the first African American Battalion Officer at the Naval Academy, he made it possible for many to follow. There would never have been an African American Commandant of Midshipmen had Mr. Penn not paved the way and set the example that showed there are highly qualified and capable people of all races, they just need an opportunity to shine. It is important for you Midshipmen to know you are not alone in your quest to be the best officer you can be. 

It is also so important for us to pay tribute to those like Mr. Penn who selflessly sacrificed opportunities so that others could benefit; he hurdled challenges that were intended to hinder his success, yet he succeeded to the absolute highest levels in the military and government.  I know of few, if any others, who always did everything in their power to help others, sometimes to their own detriment.

As he taught me so many years ago, it is each of our duty to get involved in the lives of others, to mentor, to find ways to cultivate the talents of those with whom we work because one never knows how a small intervention can cause great waves of progress and have a lifelong positive impact on the recipient.

Mr. Penn, it is truly an honor to know you, to be able to call you more than just a dear friend. I am eternally grateful for all you have done for my family and me. This video is a wonderful tribute to you but it only scratches the surface of what you have done for so many.

Your story is truly one of the Greatest Stories Never Told and I hope this evening goes a long way in bringing you the honor and recognition you truly deserve.

Thank you.


Read more about VADM Bruce Grooms '80, USN


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