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AASA’s Message Delivery

Man Has Sent His Last 



On Dec. 1, Nick Penning, a longtime fixture on the advocacy team at AASA, retired as the association’s senior legislative analyst. In his 26 years with the association, Nick played many roles relating to advocacy, but the one he relished the most was serving as the principal communicator with AASA members and Capitol Hill.

Nick Penning
Nick Penning

He honed his skills as a writer as a statehouse reporter and television reporter in Springfield, Ill. He has a passion for social justice and equality of opportunity for public education. His deep-seated belief that education was the bedrock of democracy lit up his writing.

Nick came to AASA in 1985 from the United Negro College Fund, preceded by several years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to the late Paul Simon, a Democratic House member and later a U.S. senator from Illinois. Nick’s gentle and friendly manner gave him a huge reservoir of friends on the Hill, which served him and AASA well for years.

As the driving force behind the AASA Legislative Corps, Nick spent countless hours organizing this active group of grassroots superintendents — not a simple task in the days before modern technology reached AASA headquarters. In his earlier years when letters delivered through the U.S. mail were the norm of communication, Nick patiently would stuff dozens of envelopes, working into the wee hours to get the message-of-the-week out to the field. With the advent of fax machines, Nick spent hours on end punching in the individual phone numbers of every Legislative Corps member. Thank goodness when we upgraded to a machine that allowed Nick to transfer multiple faxes at a time.

The Pace Quickens
Keeping up to speed with office technology, Nick quickly embraced the Internet and e-mail as he continued to be the man behind the message, daily when warranted by breaking developments. His regular Friday afternoon routine in the last couple of years involved rehearsing out loud his script for a podcast to ensure he was satisfied with its delivery before he shipped it off to appreciative members. Being able to communicate with more members about timely issues important to educators stands as the hallmark of Nick’s work.

Owing no doubt to his early roots in journalism, Nick always could be counted on to retain countless pieces of paper in his office or cubicle. He seemed to keep records on just about everything relating to AASA’s interactions with Congress, making him the go-to member of the advocacy team.

In the late 1990s, undiagnosed Lyme disease robbed Nick of his physical strength, yet the passion for public education remained strong, so he poured his efforts into communicating with AASA members through his weekly advocacy messages and his research into the background of policy issues. Nick’s on-the-scene tenacity for policy issues — which once kept him on Capitol Hill at all hours — was replaced by a strong desire to share information to maximize participation by AASA members in federal policy decisions.

Lampooning Talent
Former AASA staff outnumbered the current staff at Nick’s retirement party. This served as a tribute to the lasting goodwill Nick built with colleagues through his gentle manner, honesty and burning passion for equal opportunity and social justice. He was the best teammate the AASA advocacy team will ever have.

Nick carried a great smile and laugh and a marvelous, Johnny-on-the-spot sense of humor. We already miss his wicked lampooning of political buffoonery in Washington, which made me laugh out loud when observing the latest exhibition of such behavior. The thought of his funny lines continues to fuel many of us who worked with him on federal policy.

I hope AASA members will take the time to reflect on Nick’s enormous contribution to federal education policy and AASA’s role in shaping that policy. You can drop him a line at to say thank you.

Bruce Hunter is associate executive director for advocacy, policy and communication at AASA. E-mail:


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