Pennie Martin Cooke '62

Designing Destiny

By Brittany Fornof '11

Pennie Martin Cooke. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Pennie Martin Cooke ’62 came to Rollins in order to obtain a degree from one of the best fine arts departments in the country. But a meeting with then President Hugh McKean ’30 ’72H set her on a different path.

“He sat me down and said, ‘Sweetie, you got a nice little talent, but this ain’t it,” Cooke said with a laugh.

Without a major and hundreds of miles from home, Cooke found herself searching for her niche. She needed a degree that would pair well with her spirited personality and soon found herself at the doorsteps of the Annie Russell Theatre.

Due to the efforts of Arthur Wagner, director of the Annie Russell Theatre and theater arts program, and Robert Chase, assistant director of the Annie Russell Theatre, Cooke completed a major in set design and lighting—among the first women to obtain such an undergraduate degree in the nation.

“I absolutely adored it,” Cooke said. “Lighting is a rush because you are able to work in conjunction with the director to establish the right pace, mood, and emotion to enhance the actors’ performances.”

Cooke worked with Wagner and Chase, the makers of her theater destiny, in producing Elves and the Shoemaker for her senior directing project. After graduating, Cooke worked for several years in the Minneapolis area before returning to Florida as the artistic director of the Tallahassee Children's Theatre.

\While her husband and fellow Rollins graduate, Bill Cooke ’58, pursued his career ambitions, Cooke devoted the next few years to raising their four kids: Randy, Blake, Marla, and Christopher, but her natural aptitude for volunteerism kept her busy.

While raising her children, she served as a member of the team that administered the Federal Pilot Program Grant to establish the “Volunteers in the Schools” program, became a certified master gardener, and sat on the Governor’s Horticulture Advisory Board through four administrations. In 1973, Cooke published her first cookbook, A Child's Garden of Herbs—the first copy of which was bought by President McKean at the Golden Cricket in Winter Park.

A few years later, Cooke found herself back in the theater world—a world equipped with knights, jousting, and chalices—when she was asked to be the technical director for a new entertainment company in town called Medieval Times. Never one to back away from an adventure, Cooke signed the contract and spent the next year as the only female on the set, transforming a grassy patch of the I-4 Corridor into a sandy medieval kingdom.

“Let me tell you about hanging from a cherry picker, over nothing but sand, installing cannons,” Cooke said. “The stuntmen below were taking bets on how long it would take me to fall.”

These days, Cooke is as busy as ever. She divides her time between working on a new herb-based cookbook, entertaining guests at dinner parties, and engaging alumni as an executive board member of the Rollins Club of Central Florida.

Cooke likes connecting with other alumni because for her, Rollins wasn’t just about the education. It was about the ability to create her own destiny.

“I often wonder what my life would be—how different it would be—if I had never come here,” Cooke said. “Were it not for the contacts and skills that I gained at Rollins, I never would have been able to do all this. More than anything else, I think Rollins teaches you to be open and to think for yourself.”