Love, Laughter and Song: Remembering KQED’s Penny Nelson

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In 1980, Penny Nelson studied chimpanzees like Charlie here, as she pursued a a career in primatology. The KQED host and reporter died on March 18, 2021.
In 1980, Penny Nelson studied chimpanzees like Charlie here, as she pursued a a career in primatology. The KQED host and reporter died on March 18, 2021. (Courtesy of the Nelson family)

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beloved member of our KQED family died yesterday. Penny Nelson was 57. The number is stark and startling, as is the cause of her death: brain cancer. But it would be a mistake to measure Penny's life solely or primarily by its brevity.

Penny was a frequent guest host for the station, a book agent, a mom, a daughter, a nature lover, a light traveler, a martial arts devotee and great company, in a multitude of settings.

She put a lot of love out into the world, and a lot of love came back to her. The richness of her relationships, and the breadth of her personal and professional curiosity demonstrate what it is to make the most of our measured time here.

"As a teenager she wrote to Jane Goodall, asking how to follow in her footsteps and Jane wrote back, encouraging Penny to work with chimps, which she did at the Portland Zoo," Holly Kernan, KQED’s chief content officer wrote in an an email to the company on Thursday announcing her death.

This love for animals launched Penny's all-too-brief adventure, crossing the country and the globe. She studied bats and rodents, too, but primates were her favorite, including the human variety.

Referring to Charlie, the chimp pictured above, Penny wrote on Facebook in recent weeks, "I was a teenager then and these were some of the best afternoons of my life — berry picking with the chimps — behind the zoo in the woods. Set the trajectory for my whole life (so I don’t know how I got sidelined into the radio business!)."

Penny Nelson at Victoria Falls in Zambia on March 17, 2015. She studied chimps in Uganda, and maintained a lifelong love of Africa: it’s people, as well as its wildlife.
Penny Nelson at Victoria Falls in Zambia on March 17, 2015. She studied chimps in Uganda, and maintained a lifelong love of Africa: its people, as well as its wildlife. (Courtesy of the Nelson family)

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n retrospect, of course, it's easy to make the connection. Penny was a social animal. She met many people over the course of her life, and folded them into her community, just like any self-respecting chimpanzee would. Nobody in Penny's orbit stayed a stranger.

Public radio hooked Penny at WHYY in Philadelphia, and when she moved to the Bay Area, she got involved with KQED as a guest host for Forum, and later, the California Report. Insiders know public radio is a competitive and capricious business, but Penny quickly became a go-to choice for KQED producers, and she stayed one for a quarter century.

Stories From KQED's Penny Nelson

Her manner was confident and affable, on and off the mic. Other media organizations, like the Commonwealth Club of California, tapped Penny to conduct interviews on stage. Here again, she proved a natural scientist, deftly drawing out the strange and curious stories her subjects had to tell. If you have the time and inclination, listen to this exploration of vampires in literature, a lesser known obsession of the late NPR correspondent Margot Adler.

Penny reported as well, tackling subjects as varied as wild horses in Modoc County, what causes potholes and why so many people are living in RVs on the streets of Palo Alto during weekdays.

"No matter where you were, she met you there," says Polly Stryker, who was Penny's editor on the California Report for a number of years. "She had such empathy and grace, and she felt for everybody she spoke with."

Penny Nelson demonstrates proper form at her dojo, Aikido West.
Penny Nelson demonstrates proper form at her dojo, Aikido West. (Courtesy of Ursula Doran)

That was true as well for the people she worked with behind the scenes. During his time as a KQED radio producer, Guy Marzorati has seen numerous on-air talents warm up. Penny, he says, took it to a new level.

"Most hosts, maybe they count to 10. Maybe they say what they had for breakfast that day," he says. "Penny would sit down in front of the mic and just start singing. She brought so much love and energy into the studio."

As KQED reporter and editor Dan Brekke put it, "She was someone I was always delighted to see; and part of her gift was that she reflected that right back at you — she always seemed delighted to see me, too."

Guest hosting at a public radio station, however, does not cover a person's rent in the Bay Area. For about a decade, Penny was also a literary agent who successfully ushered dozens of books to print. Aware that many new authors approach this business with delusions of grandeur, Penny would have new clients email her a list of pledges:

  • I will not be interviewed by Oprah
  • I will not make the New York Times bestseller list
  • I will not make a million dollars
  • I will not be able to quit my job

She later acknowledged it was an ineffective method. There really is no way to inoculate writers from the inevitable conclusion they will have, she explained, that they would have enjoyed wild success, were it not for the failings of their publishing company.

Penny Nelson with her sons James (L) and Misha (r).
Penny Nelson with her sons James (L) and Misha (R). (Courtesy of the Nelson family)

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enny did have two favorites on this earth: her boys, James and Misha. She raised them in Palo Alto, where she established enduring friendships with other mothers, like Cami Wisowaty, who met Penny in 2009. Over the years, the two lingered over many glasses of wine, typically while dressed in their PJs.

"We really did raise our boys together," Cami says. "Oh, did she love her boys."

"Penny and I met in a mommy-and-me group right after James and my son Yuri were born," says Denise Krol, who traveled with Penny and joined her dojo, Aikido West.

Penny was a black belt, and converted a number of her Peninsula friends to the Japanese martial art, in large part, because she folded friends into multiple parts of her life.

"She was as much fun on the mat as off," Krol says. "She was always in for a new adventure or experience, and with her busy life, still found time to bake bread, grow tomatoes and collect a hundred succulent plants."

Holly Kernan's email offers a more frank assessment of Penny's domestic proclivities. "She was a terrible cook and a terrific gardener, whose house was always a cluttered mess of books and music and half full bottles of red wine, cheap jewelry, candles and items from her travels all over the world, with a story of a new friend she’d made to accompany each one of them."

Penny Nelson poses for a photo at KQED with her mother, Paula Nelson, and her longtime engineer, Danny Bringer.
Penny Nelson poses for a photo at KQED with her mother, Paula Nelson, and her longtime sound engineer, Danny Bringer. (Courtesy of Danny Bringer)

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bout six and a half years ago, doctors informed Penny that she had glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. It was inoperable. They estimated she had somewhere between six months to five years left.

Penny's mom, Paula, moved in, as Penny embarked on a grueling series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments that gradually diminished her ability to work, drive, walk and ultimately see. But she was determined to see her boys graduate from high school, and after they hit that milestone, she fought to see them graduate from college.

Penny approached cancer the same way she approached life. She continued to attend training at her dojo, even if she had to watch from the sidelines. She continued to invite friends over to her backyard on Friday nights when it was warm, to drink wine and make each other laugh. A trip to take her to a medical appointment often involved singing at full blast in the car on the way over, followed by a dinner stop somewhere on the way back. She flirted with her doctors.

Penny died yesterday in Portland, Oregon, where she grew up, with Paula, James, Misha, and her brother Drew by her side.

The animal in attendance must also be acknowledged: her chihuahua, Flower. The dog's tender, tribal ministrations kept Penny literally bathed in affection in those last, difficult days. Lucy, her first chihuahua, traveled over the rainbow bridge ahead of Penny sometime back — no doubt, eagerly awaiting her arrival.

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