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Tony Penna

For most of us in the history department today, Tony will be remembered most as the delightful colleague who talked us through the latest chapter of his last book A History of Energy Flows: From Human Labor to Renewable Power. Doing yoga behind closed doors, recounting his latest volunteer shift at Habitat for Humanities, or gleefully describing the work put into translating insights from the environmental and natural sciences for historians and the wider public, he was an unfailingly kind and generous presence in our hallways and offices.  Although retired at that point and already looking forward to continuing his education, his love for the practice of history was clear and a refreshing reminder for those of us who worked towards tenure, promotion, or other external goals. 

Tony was, it’s clear, a community builder. Arriving first as a Provost at Northeastern, he helped make decisions about academic organization and prioritized rigorous scholarship, helping build the Northeastern that we recognize today. Within our department and throughout the region, Tony worked tirelessly to build the then-nascent field of environmental history. At Northeastern, this meant creating popular new classes, interdisciplinary programs, and writing several influential books that ran the gamut from edited collections on Boston’s past to ambitious global projects such as his influential The Human Footprint: A Global Environmental History (2014). Locally, Tony launched the Environmental History seminar series at the Massachusetts Historical Society and shepherded it as it became an important resource for both academics and the wider public, including those working in government and landscape work. He brought similar energy to regional environmental history initiatives and, again, showed a talent for and commitment to making the environmental history of New England and the northeast the thriving field that it is today. 

As a newly hired environmental historian in 2013, I will remember Tony as a supportive and conscientious colleague and mentor who, perhaps more than anybody else, helped ease my transition into a new life and job in Boston. With an endless willingness to talk through questions of research and interpretation and an equally endless number of stories about the Boston of his youth, it was a privilege to work with Tony. We in the history department are all richer for stepping into and working in the communities that Tony helped create.

Chris Parsons
Associate Professor of History
April 2024

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