About UIS Alum Nick Penning
By Shannon O’Brien
Nick Penning credits Sangamon State University with changing the course of his life.
Prior to returning to school, he was a dissatisfied school teacher in Springfield. “I figured out teaching wasn’t for me,” he said, “but I didn’t know what to do next.” He knew he was interested in two subjects: communications and public policy. He discovered his love for writing when he was working on his undergraduate degree and taking the required writing courses. “No matter what the topic was, I loved to write,” he recalled. He liked the idea of writing about things that could make a difference to the community, and was drawn to public policy for this reason.
He started classes at SSU. He knew he wanted to combine writing with public policy, but he wasn’t sure how, so he decided to work under the umbrella of Individual Option, an option at SSU where the student creates his or her own program. While he was perusing the university catalog in search of classes, he found a pubic affairs reporting course taught by Springfield politician Paul Simon. Simon founded the Public Affairs Reporting program at SSU. “My dad, who was a doctor, had a lot of respect for Paul Simon,” Penning said. When he tried to enroll for the writing course, he was told he would have to be interviewed before he could join the class. Chris Vlahoplus, the Director of University Relations at SSU, and Burnell Heinecke, the Springfield Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, interviewed him; they convinced him to enroll in the Public Affairs Reporting program.
The program satisfied Penning’s interests. “It was more than I could have ever possibly imagined. I’d never done newspaper work; had no idea about journalism,” he said. “When I found out you could write for a living I thought this is amazing.”
After he finished the program, though there weren’t any openings for reporters in Springfield, he eventually had the opportunity to interview with the Illinois State Register. The interviewer asked him what he saw himself doing in the future and Penning said he imagined himself working for someone in Congress. When he wasn’t offered that job, a friend advised him to not be so honest. Later, when he learned the reporter that covered the legislature for the Illinois State Register had left to take another job, Penning contacted the managing editor and made his case for why he should be hired to cover the legislature. The managing editor agreed and gave Penning the position.
He was there for nine months before the Illinois State Register, an afternoon paper, merged with the State Journal, the city’s morning paper. He left the newly merged paper rather than be relocated to Chicago, and the next opportunity he found was as a reporter for Channel 20. He worked there from 1974-1977 before leaving for Washington D.C., where he went to work for Paul Simon during Simon’s second term. Penning and his family have stayed in Washington D.C and since 1985, Penning has worked for the American Association of School Administrators where he writes for the public policy department.
About SSU, Penning says he’s “grateful that SSU came into being. It’s because of SSU that I was introduced into a new profession. If it weren’t for SSU and Paul Simon, I would not be where I am today. I never dreamed I’d be a writer for a living. I had stories in the Washington Post three times. I was Arlington’s only weekly newspaper columnist for 19 years. That was fun.”
Penning still writes a column that can be found at his website: www.penningthoughts.com.