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Capt. Robert C. Peniston, Former Director of W&L's Lee Chapel, Dies at 91

Capt. Robert C. Peniston, the retired Navy officer who served as director of Lee Chapel from 1976 until his retirement in 1998, died on Saturday, Aug. 2, in Lexington. He was 91.

“To everyone on campus who knew him, as well as to those who were just visiting the chapel for a day, he was always the consummate gentleman,” said W&L President Ken Ruscio. “Throughout his distinguished career, he personified our finest virtues of civility and duty to others.”

Peniston was born on Oct. 25, 1922, in Chillicothe, Missouri. He attended the University of Wichita before joining the Navy in 1943. He graduated with a B.S. from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946, as a member of the Class of 1947, and earned an M.A. from Stanford University in 1958. He also attended the CIC Officer School and the Naval War College.

During his Navy service, Peniston served as executive officer of the USS Nicholas (DDE-449) and as commanding officer of the USS Savage, USS Tattnall, USS New Jersey and USS Albany. He also served aboard the USS Putnam, USS Cone, USS Nicholas, USS Willis A. Lee and USS Williamsburg, the presidential yacht. He also held several administrative positions in the Navy, retiring from the military in 1976.

Peniston helped decommission the USS New Jersey in December 1969 with these words: “Rest well, yet sleep lightly; and hear the call, if again sounded, to provide firepower for freedom.”

During his 22-year directorship of Lee Chapel, he oversaw the redesign of the museum as well as the renovation of the chapel, which marked W&L’s 250th anniversary.

After his retirement from Lee Chapel — which he called his final tour of duty — Peniston nonetheless reported for yet another duty, volunteering in Special Collections in W&L’s Leyburn Library. Over six years, he transcribed more than 3,000 letters to and from Robert E. Lee, his wife and children.

Peniston contributed to several publications op-eds, letters to the editor and articles, including “Firepower for Freedom,” about the decommissioning of the USS New Jersey, for Sea Classics magazine.

His military decorations included the Legion of Merit and three Navy Meritorious Medals. Among his civilian awards were the George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge and the Cross of Military Service from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and W&L made him an honorary alumnus.

His wife of 53 years, Frances McKelvy Peniston, and his son, Robert C. Peniston ’75, predeceased him. He is survived by his daughter, Lisa Sieg, and her husband, Patrick Sieg ’76; by his grandchildren, Robert, Erica and Stephan Sieg; and by his siblings, Dr. Francis Peniston, John Peniston, Dan Peniston, Shirley Read and Lila Hole.

A graveside service will be held on Saturday, Aug. 16, at 11:00 a.m. at the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, Lexington, Virginia.

For those wishing to make a gift in his memory to W&L’s Special Collections, contributions may be sent to Washington and Lee University, Development Office, 204 W. Washington St., Lexington VA 24450-2116.