"I miss the guy, I still can't believe it."
Those are the words of Rob Martens, five days after learning the shocking news of his dear friend's death. Martens is the Lead Pastor of Mitchell Gospel Church and on Saturday his friend, Dick Penner, a pillar of their community died unexpectedly at the age of 68.
Martens says he received a phone call Saturday from a neighbour asking him to quickly run over to the Penner residence because Dick had fallen. Not assuming the worst, Martens headed over, arriving after the paramedics had left the scene. He was met by Cliff Froese who broke the news.
"Dick has been taken to hospital," Froese told Martens. "They haven't pronounced him, but he's gone, Rob."
Martens says he was shocked by the news and it wasn't until Sunday evening before that initial shock began to subside. Martens says Penner was a healthy, vibrant man and you just assumed he would live forever.
Since the news broke, tributes have been pouring in for a man that didn't know how to say 'no' when asked for help.
One of his many involvements was as a member of the Local Urban District committee of Mitchell. Hanover Councillor Bernie Stahn from Mitchell works closely with that committee. He says Penner had served in that capacity for nearly 12 years. He loved to see projects completed and always wanted to discuss what should be next, even if it was still two or three years away.
"Dick's hands are on all projects within Mitchell," says Stahn. "The one that stands out for me was the construction of the tennis courts. Dick felt that there needed to be more for youth and adults to do in Mitchell beside hockey and baseball. He pushed hard to get this project supported by others and was able to see the project come to a completion."
According to Stahn, Penner was committed to his community and willing to help with anything. He gave countless hours to serve as supervisor or just to offer a hand, where needed.
"Without Dick's presence and hard work, the community of Mitchell would definitely not have the recreation facilities and infrastructure we have today," suggests Stahn.
In 2015, the RM of Hanover established a volunteer award for each of its communities. Dick Penner won the inaugural award for Mitchell.
"At that time there was no question who should be our first recipient and our most deserving winner," recalls Stahn. "Dick also believed that if a project was good for the community, it didn't matter whose idea it was, or if it was recreation or LUD or school, or whatever, he supported it."
An avid sports fan, Penner loved watching his grandkids. But he was also often at the rink watching children from his bus run or those he knew from around the community.
Cliff Froese served with Penner for about 25 years on Mitchell's recreation committee. He says Mitchell has baseball diamonds, soccer pitches and tennis courts today because of Dick Penner.
"That man had passion for Mitchell," says Froese. "He saw a need and recognized the need."
Froese says each individual person was somebody special to Penner. He remembers that friendly wave while Penner drove school bus and the listening ear if you ever had something to get off your chest.
"His caring, his passion, his dedication, all those positive, positive things, a friend," says Froese. "He's a phenomenal man."
People who knew him, say Penner was involved with countless committees, made sure to take time for family and if that wasn't enough, he still had a regular job. The owner of Dickies Convenience, Penner controlled the convenience store, while Clearview Co-op owned the gas bar. It was a partnership spanning 15 years.
"Dick was a man of integrity and he loved to be involved in the community," says Henry Nickel, General Manager of Clearview Co-op.
Nickel says Penner represented the Co-op very well and did what was best for the company, putting his own interests aside. Nickel says Penner had high expectations for his staff and had a way of building a great team of employees that mutually respected each other. Nickel says about two weeks ago Penner told him he looked forward to managing the Mitchell gas bar for another few years.
"He loved what he did and just loved the fact that he could be involved in the community and meet people," shares Nickel. "He will be missed."
According to Rob Martens, Mitchell is a tight-knit community. He says residents will first love and then ask questions. This was exemplified Saturday in the moments following the passing of Penner. Martens says when he showed up at the Penner residence, numerous neighbours and friends were already there. Every face revealed shock, dismay and heartache. There were glazed looks, plenty of hugs, tears and people praying.
"The first day or so it was just complete shock and bewilderment and then all of a sudden Mitchell did what it always does," recalls Martens. "It didn't take long, the community began to rally around Doreen, her children and grandchildren and it was really a beautiful thing to see."
Rallying together is one thing Penner was known for. Martens credits him with being instrumental in facilitating a merger involving their Church.
"Dick has this ability with people, you just want to do whatever he is suggesting," shares Martens. "He's a get it done, kind of guy."
Martens says he is still in awe how Penner could lead the expansion project at their Church, while serving on numerous boards within the community, work with the senior centre, make every effort to be with family and still have time to run a business. And he says there were so many things Penner did behind the scenes. For example, when Birchwood Funeral Chapel contacted the Church this week to inquire about the cemetery plot for Penner's burial, it was a conversation that Martens was not used to. Martens discovered that this was just one more thing that Penner normally took care of.
"Stuff got done with that guy, there was never a question," says Martens. "If he looked at it and said this will get taken care of, you knew you could trust it was taken care of."
But it wasn't all about getting stuff done as quickly as possible, Penner also took time to listen. Martens says he was blessed many times by the way Penner pulled him aside to ask him about his day or to offer a word of encouragement when the going got tough. He would take time to ask his customers about their children, referring to them by their names.
"A relational guy, just a man of integrity," says Martens.
The loss of his dear friend is settling in but Martens says that doesn't make it any easier. He adds you can't fill those shoes. Just like the rest of Mitchell, he misses his friend and says all he wants to do is give him a call.