fb-pixel Skip to main content

Sherry H. Penney and James D. Livingston were an academic power couple

Dr. Livingston, a retired MIT lecturer, and Dr. Penney, the former chancellor at UMass Boston, had been married for 34 years.Barbara D. Livingston

Sherry H. Penney and James D. Livingston — both high-powered academics in Greater Boston — conceded that more than scholarly intrigue prompted them to cowrite a book about Martha Wright, an 1800s leader in abolitionist and women’s rights efforts.

“In the interest of full disclosure, we should note that we have a personal interest in Martha — she is Jim’s great-great-grandmother,” they wrote in “A Very Dangerous Woman,” their 2004 book. Nevertheless, they added, “any bias we have toward our subject is more likely to arise from the fact that, like Martha, we are feminists and political and religious liberals.”

Dr. Penney and Dr. Livingston, who died last week in their Sarasota, Fla., home of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, together left a professional legacy that stretched from Boston to Albany, from academia to private industry, from classrooms to boardrooms.


When they died, she was 81, he was 88. They married 34 years ago and were well-matched intellectually, if not in height (she was 4-foot-10, he was 6-feet tall).

The first woman appointed permanently to serve as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Dr. Penny also formerly was interim president of the UMass system and acting president of the State University of New York Plattsburgh — the first woman to fill the role in both instances. In addition, she was the first woman to serve as vice chancellor for academic programs for the State University of New York system.

“When someone reaches the age of 81 and your first thought is that they were taken far too soon, that is a life well-lived,” Lisa DeAngelis, director of the Center for Collaborative Leadership at UMass Boston, said in a statement. Dr. Penny was the center’s founding director.

Dr. Livingston, meanwhile, was a senior lecturer emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had turned to teaching after a career as a General Electric research physicist. He also had written books about magnets — a professional area of expertise — and historical figures with whom he had family connections.


Along with co-writing “A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women’s Rights,” he wrote 2010’s “Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York.” That book was about the 1896 murder trial of his distant cousin Mary Alice Livingston, who was accused of killing her mother with poison-laced chowder.

A New York Times review said Dr. Livingston “meticulously recreates the world of Wall Street, emerging technology, development, racy journalism, celebrity, political ambition — sound familiar? — and raises some doubts, reasonable or not, about her guilt.”

He and Dr. Penney had known each other as neighbors in East Glenville, N.Y., during their previous marriages, each of which ended in divorce. After marrying in 1985, they found themselves commuting to see each other when Dr. Penney was named chancellor of UMass Boston, while Dr. Livingston initially remained at General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., as a research physicist.

When Dr. Penney left her job in New York, the SUNY system had 64 campuses and 370,000 students. She had previously been associate provost at Yale University.

“I’m thrilled to be here,” she told the Globe in May 1988, when the UMass trustees announced her appointment as chancellor. “This should be an interesting and exciting time for myself, as well as for the institution. I can’t wait till September.”


At Yale, her mentors had included the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, who left the university’s presidency to become commissioner of Major League Baseball.

“They taught me the value of openness and the importance of trying to educate the various constituencies on the campus,” Dr. Penney told the Globe in 1989, after beginning her chancellor job.

At UMass Boston, her achievements included increasing faculty diversity and hiring more women to teach. She was the university’s longest-serving chancellor — from 1988 to 1995, and from 1996 to 2000, bookending her time as interim president of the system. After retiring, she was the Center for Collaborative Leadership’s founding director until retiring in 2012.

Dr. Penney had served on or chaired numerous boards, including for NSTAR and TERI — The Education Resources Institute.

She also was among several women college presidents who went to then-Governor William Weld in 1991 to argue against a proposal to cut welfare benefits of recipients who attend four-year colleges. “We’re producing lawyers, physicists, and teachers out of welfare mothers,” Dr. Penney said then.

She also had a role in the development of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, near the UMass campus. In a statement, Victoria Reggie Kennedy praised Dr. Penney’s contributions. “Like Teddy, Sherry sought to inspire more young people to learn about the workings of our government so they could play a meaningful role in our country’s future. Her invaluable insight and advice in the earliest of days helped to make the Kennedy Institute the vibrant laboratory of participatory democracy that it is today.”


Preferring to lead rather than boast, Dr. Penney avoided calling attention to her string of historic firsts.

“Sherry would rather tell you that she was a professional historian and researcher on women’s leadership, who loved to teach and cherished her honorific title of professor emerita,” Linda de Mello, president of Florida’s Suncoast Chapter of the International Women’s Forum, wrote in a message to the organization after Dr. Penney died.

Dr. Penney spoke to the organization last Tuesday night — the final time she and her husband were seen alive. A house cleaner found them Friday morning and called authorities, according to the couple’s children, who added that they believe their parents’ Toyota Avalon, with a keyless ignition, was inadvertently left running in the garage.

They said the car was out of gas, and its battery dead, when authorities found the home filled with carbon monoxide Friday.

Sherry Hood, the only child of Terry Hood and Jean Statenberg, was born in 1937 and grew up in various Michigan communities while her father moved among teaching and school principal jobs. Dr. Penny’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, “so education had been in her genes from the beginning,” said her son Michael Penney.

“She pointed out that because she moved so much, she had to learn to connect with people really quickly, because every two years she would go to a new school,” Michael added.


During her first marriage, Dr. Penny had two sons — Michael, of Nokomis, Fla., and Jeff Penney of Albany.

Dr. Penney graduated from Albion College in Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in American history, from the University of Michigan with a master’s in US history, and from SUNY Albany with a doctorate in American history.

While she was a graduate student, UMass noted in a tribute, an adviser told her she wouldn’t be hired as a faculty member because she was a woman. The experience, she later recalled, made her resolve “to become a university president so this would never happen to anybody else.”

“She was always standing up for the underdog,” said Michael, who added that his mother “was beautiful and fierce, and she loved people.”

Also an only child, James Duane Livingston III was born in 1930 and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y.

His father, James II, was the president of a printing and direct mail business. His mother, Florence Boullee, was an executive secretary at a Manhattan insurance firm.

Dr. Livingston graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics and received a doctorate from Harvard University in applied physics.

In 1953, he married Nancy Lee Clark, and they had three daughters — Joan Livingston of Boston, Susan Livingston of Marblehead, and Barbara Livingston of Malta, N.Y. That marriage ended in divorce.

From 1956 to 1989, he was a research physicist for General Electric in areas including magnetic, superconducting, and mechanical properties. After moving to Braintree with Dr. Penney when she became chancellor of UMass Boston, he was a senior lecturer at MIT from 1989 to 2008.

Dr. Livingston published more than 130 scholarly articles, and his honors included being elected to the National Academy of Engineering and as fellow of the American Physical Society.

He also wrote scientific books and an undergraduate textbook and acted in community theater productions, along with GE’s Christmas musicals — writing song lyrics for many shows. At 88, he would still mark holidays and birthdays by leaving singing phone messages — “on pitch, and in a lively cadence,” his daughter Barbara said.

“When you were in a room with him, he was engaging — he was charming,” she added. “He was the brilliant light in the room with Sherry right next to him, equally bright. The two of them dazzled.”

In addition to their children, Dr. Penney and Dr. Livingston leave three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 25 in First Baptist Church in Hingham. The service will be led by Rev. Kenneth Read-Brown, minister of First Parish, Hingham, known as Old Ship Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation to which the couple belonged for many years, and which was unavailable due to repair work. A memorial service in Sarasota will be announced.

For decades, Dr. Penney and Dr. Livingston were antiwar activists, committed Democrats, and advocates for women’s rights.

In their 80s, neither had planned to slow down.

In a self-penned obit, Dr. Livingston predicted tongue-in-cheek that he would die at 130 — “immediately following his surprise victory in a local tennis tournament.”

Dr. Penney, meanwhile, “was so energetic, such a positive person. She was always looking for ways to improve things,” said George Russell, a retired State Street Bank executive vice president and former head of the State Street Foundation who worked with her to create an emerging leaders program to “train the next cadre of leaders” in Boston.

Indeed, the couple remained so active that Barbara was taken aback by news accounts that described her mother and Dr. Livingston as “elderly.”

“I do get that it’s accurate in terms of their age,” she said, “but they were far more vivacious and outgoing than I am.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com