Sixteen years ago, Penny Cliff arrived in Thomaston, not knowing anyone but hoping to find a place she could call home. Since then, the Chief Archivist at the Thomaston-Upson Archives is one of the most well-known people around the town and county, has gotten married and is raising a daughter, and now calls Thomaston home.
Penny will continue to call Thomaston home, but her life is taking a brand new direction. On Wednesday, Penny resigned from the Archives, and on Thursday she became a full time professor at Gordon State College in Barnesville.
Penny, who has been an adjunct professor at Gordon since 2012, was surprised to receive a call from the school.
“It was really kind of neat,” she said. “They had asked me to come in and speak to them about an opportunity that they had. I was thinking maybe they had some more classes for me to teach. So I go in and they said they would like to have me fulltime. So I said ‘Yes,’ because I love teaching.
“I’ve been teaching Archives classes and Western Civilization 1 and Western Civilization 2. This semester I’ll be teaching Western Civ. 1 and Western Civ. 2. They really literally needed professors right away.
“I’m leaving the Archives, but I’m leaving it in the capable hands of Bonnie Smith and Jessie Shinkle,” Penny added. “Plus, there are a lot of volunteers. Everything will be fine, and the board will get together and form a search committee. And maybe somebody wonderful will come in, somebody that’s just the perfect fit for the Archives. They’ll find somebody good.”
While everyone who knows Penny is glad she’s happy about her career change, it still came as a shock to many, such as Thomaston Mayor Hays Arnold.
“I was just devastated at the news,” he said. “I understand the situation, that she’s got a wonderful opportunity. This is something I think that she will really enjoy doing, but there are certain people that you have in your community that, when you lose them, it is just very difficult to replace those folks. I would say in her case in particular, we may have another individual who will come in, but I don’t think we’ll be looking at a replacement for Penny. It will just be a person to work into the position and hopefully develop into a Penny, but Penny’s are just rare. They are rare gifts.”
Upson County Commission Chairman Rusty Blackston praised Penny and her contributions to Upson County.
“All I can say is we lost one of the greatest employees that Upson County ever had,” Blackston said. “Penny was very dedicated and put her heart and soul into the Archives. Whoever gets that position has some mighty big boots to fill.”
A Lucille Ball moment
Penny was born in England and retains her English accent, but has spent much of her adult life moving from town to town in the United States. She has a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in communication from Mercer University, and a Master of Arts in history with a concentration in Archives from Georgia College and State University. She was the first graduate of the archival program to get a job. Penny was in Bonaire in 1999 when she was hired to be Chief Archivist at the Archives. She recalled with a laugh the first time she walked through the doors.
“It seems like it was yesterday that I first walked through those doors,” she said. “When I first came to the Archives, my experience was a Lucille Ball type moment – everything went wrong. Then I went downstairs and met maybe 9-10 people sitting at a table to interview me. But I said I was just going to be myself, and despite that, they still decided to hire me.
“There have been a lot of changes over 16 years,” she added. “Those shelves are full. We were trained in graduate school to go out and get collections. I haven’t had to do that here. People always brought the collections in to me. In the 16 years I have been there, people have always brought in collections. So I actually never had to do that. I think in this community, people love their history, and once they knew about us through our publicity, thanks to the newspaper and presentations, once they knew the Archives was there and was a place to take historical documents, they brought them in.
“Also, I never had to go out and ask for volunteers. I’d get a telephone call from someone wanting to volunteer. I think that speaks highly of the community, too. And the school system has sent some incredible young people, I mean the cream of the crop, to the Archives to work. So that’s been nice, too.”
Since Penny arrived, she and the Archives have won numerous state historical awards, and the Thomaston-Upson Archives has become the model, not just for other archives in Georgia, but for archives across the nation. On a weekly basis, people from all over the United States and other countries will come to the Archives to trace their family histories.
“With the Archives, it’s promoting, protecting, and making available history,” Penny said. “I always tell people, you can have all the book knowledge that you want, you can know exactly how things are supposed to be done, but you don’t have people skills, it’s not going to work. So it is a combination of knowledge, people skills, and team work. You have to have a good team around you and we have been a good team, all of the people that have worked there know their stuff. You have their institutional knowledge when people have worked there a long time, like Bonnie has. She knows people, she knows the collections and processes the collections, so the people are in good hands when they come in there.
“Out of all the things that I’ve done, you know, you always pick the favorite thing that comes to your mind first, it’s working with young people,” Penny added. “I’ll be given an age group, and sometimes it is challenging trying to figure out what they would like to hear in that particular age group that would make them excited, where history wouldn’t be boring. That’s a challenge to me; to take our local history and make it fun for young people. Many times I’ve taken them out to the Archives fountain, and given them pennies and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to show you the historic way to make a wish, that has been happening for thousands of years.’ They love that, and a lot of times they’ll say, ‘Will my wish come true?’ And I’ll say, ‘You never know.’ So that’s my favorite thing, which kind of fits with what I’m going in to. With so many things I enjoy doing, that’s what popped into my head first, not thinking about teaching and making history fun. It’s another profession, but the fun will be the same.”
‘One day that will be me’
Penny didn’t just find a job in Thomaston, she also found a home.
“When I first came here, I was going to Ingles, and I’d just been here maybe a week. I saw this group of women talking. I had no friends here. I had people I spoke to, but I just didn’t know. But it was such a lovely feeling to see them talking and chatting, and I said to myself, ‘One day that will be me in this community. I’m going to get to know people and I’m going to be the one talking to people.’ Well, nowadays, I can’t go anywhere without knowing somebody. But I always think back on my first experience here of being lonely and loving what I did, but at the same time being alone. And then over the years, developing friendships. In Thomaston, there is always somebody that you know. This is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place; I always moved around a lot.”
With two older sons and an older daughter from a previous marriage, Penny wasn’t looking for a husband when she came to Thomaston, but she found one, marrying Thomaston native Bill Cliff. She said shortly after she arrived, Bill came into the Archives, researching his family history, and they became friends. That friendship developed into something more and eventually Bill added to his family history by marrying Penny. They also added to the family tree with the birth of their daughter, Nikki, now 12 years old.
“I always said one of the best things about getting this job here, the best is meeting my husband and having Nikki,” Penny said. “Everything else that I enjoy about my job pales in comparison to that.”
While Penny will be teaching in Barnesville, there are no plans for her, Bill and Nikki to move closer to Gordon. Thomaston is their home. And while Penny is ecstatic about her new job, she is sad that she won’t be seeing her friends around here as often as she has been. Penny could often be found walking from the Archives to the post office, popping into stores along to way to say ‘Hi’ to her friends.
“We’re still going to live here, but with this new job, I’ll be not as involved physically here, because I’ll be working there during the day and have some night classes,” she said. “I recognize the fact that it has been really nice getting to know people here, popping into a store to say hi. That won’t be happening as much on a regular basis as it has.”
The Thomaston Times joins with the community in wishing Penny Cliff the best in her new teaching career.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.