For Kathy and Jim Pender, community and family are paramount.
And at 7:30 p.m. July 13 in the Amphitheater, Kathy and Jim Pender and the Michael Pender Memorial Fund of the Cleveland Foundation will be sponsoring the Family Entertainment Series performance of the new American vaudeville movement, Cirque-tacular Entertainment.
For more than a decade, the Penders have been sponsoring family entertainment at Chautauqua Institution and in the Cleveland area to honor the memory of their son, Michael, who passed away in 1991 at the age of 19, following an unsuccessful lung transplant.
He had lived a hard and determined life in pursuit of normalcy. It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school, Kathy said, that Michael truly began to blossom. She said more than half of his class wrote their college essays on Michael.
“I told him, ‘Someday, they’re going to realize who you are,’ ” she said. “ ‘They won’t see you as you are physically. They’ll know who you are.’ And that was true at about 10th grade. It was really quite remarkable. It was really amazing.”
Kathy said Michael had been someone who loved everything about Chautauqua, particularly helping children and experiencing its theater and entertainment.
“This was his love,” Kathy said. “We just felt that we wanted to open it up to the community, open it up to children and families, so that everyone was offered this experience.”
Since 1962, the Penders have come to Chautauqua, now extending to three generations. But that family also includes friends.
“It’s the ‘Miller Park gang.’ For family entertainment night, we all go there as the Miller Park gang, and sit together. We have kids, you know, from here to here,” said Jim, gesturing as best he could with his hands. “The point of sponsoring these events is for families. Family was a very important thing for [Michael] and entertainment was an important thing to him, so we’re here to remember that.”
The fellowship of family is a mission for the Penders, seeing Chautauqua as the ideal accomplice. Anything cultivating an environment for family and children, Jim said, ranging from education to the arts to medical needs, is their focus.
“Chautauqua’s a very welcoming community, and it’s important for people to feel welcome here,” Jim said. “And if you get it down to our family unit, just the idea that you’re together, generationally, and accept one another for what your interests are and what your age might be, and the way you might do things at that particular time. You make people feel at home. And that sounds to me [like] what family’s about.”
Jim said during the family entertainment nights, it’s not unusual for young children to approach them and ask about Michael.
“What they’re really asking, is what’s the value of life and how can you lose it,” he said. “They’re intrigued by that. It’s the innocent question: What happened to him? But if you want to address it, you address it in an atmosphere like that, with the families.”
The Penders described Michael, with his light brownish, beautiful wavy hair, as a fun, active, athletic little boy with a great imagination, a love for people and a good sense of humor. He’d memorize lines from films such as Stripes to entertain himself and others. He also had a mischievous side.
“He was very honest with me,” Kathy said. “He’d tell me things that he’d done that he shouldn’t have done. He was driving — he probably shouldn’t have been, but he was — and he’d say, ‘Mom, I got a speeding ticket today. But don’t tell Dad.’ And I’d go, “Well, did you handle it?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and I went, ‘OK.’ It was stuff like that.”
It was difficult for Michael to apply to schools. But Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, Ohio, the school that did take Michael in, Jim said, has a mission very much in line with that of Chautauqua.
“Their education is for the heart and the mind,” Jim said. “I’m a firm believer that if you only educate your heart, you’re in real trouble. And if you only educate your mind, you’re in for bigger trouble. But you’ve got to educate both. To me, that’s important. What I see here with the four pillars, every one of those is important. And that’s the strength of this institution, keeping all four of those strong. And in Michael’s life, that was a really important factor to be in an environment where education for the heart and the mind were cornerstones of the Institution.”