Weston Mourns Death of Paul Penfield, Rail Trail and Natural Space Titan

Paul Penfield, 2018, Photo credit: Weston Historical Society

When a tree falls in the forest, can you hear the sound? Yes, if that tree is one of the titans of Weston. Among those residents who have preserved, protected, and enhanced our town’s open spaces and access to them, Paul Penfield stood among the tallest. Yesterday night, Paul Penfield passed away at the age of 88, leaving his many friends and neighbors shocked and saddened.

From the First Parish Church announcement, Paul passed away after a short illness that struck Sunday night. As the town reels from the news, many are commenting how recently they saw him and in such good health. Of the many Weston Forest & Trail Association walks held over the decades, it was rare to have one without Paul’s attendance.

Professor Penfield was born May 28, 1933 in Detroit, Michigan. He received the B.A. degree in physics from Amherst College in 1955, and a Sc.D. degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1960. He joined the MIT faculty in 1960 and worked there until his retirement in June, 2005. He was married twice, losing both wives before him (1988 and 2016), and was the proud grandfather of many. You can read more of his career and family information here.

Paul, center, relentlessly wearing the orange Rail Trail Advisory Committee shirt, October 2017. Photo credit

Many a story is coming in about all he did for the town, including grappling hooks to clear culverts, pollinator plants on the rail trail, and perhaps his greatest gift to Weston–his tireless championing of the rail trail. He was a long-time active member of the First Parish Church of Weston. Recently he was one of the founding members of the MetroWest Climate Solutions Group. It is fair to say that not much stopped Paul Penfield, and definitely never his age.

From a note to Weston Forest & Trail Association trustees and friends, Joel Angiolillo commented: “I met with him last Saturday at the Rail Trail. He was in the process of make pollinator garden signs and the signage for the new murals under Concord Road. He came prepared with samples of laminated signs for plant identification, backed by working URLs on a website he set up. We talked about how we might be able to use the same system for plant identification on our trail system.  We were discussing the best type of stands on which to mount the signs. He was also creating QR codes for each of the 21 panels on the Concord Road rail trail murals. He was on his knees figuring out how to best to attach the signs under the mural panels. Paul tried his best to educate me on QR codes, how to make them and how they work. From my limited experience, retired MIT professors never stop learning and teaching.”

On a personal note from the Owl, Paul was one of a kind. His gentlemanly ways, his relentless good humor, his ability to bring together those who thought differently on a topic–well, I know of no one who did not like and admire him. I can picture him in his bright Friends of the Rail Trail shirt, gathering supporters two years ago–or more recently, in a little box on zoom where he would patiently wait his turn, and then make his statement which was never short, but always important. While I shall miss him deeply here in Weston, I can almost see him up there up at the pearly gates, planning how to make things better, and always summarizing his meeting notes for all who follow.

Rest in peace, Paul. Weston is a better place because of you.

Edited July 2, 2021 to include memorial and official obituary information here.

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5 comments

  • Phyllis Halpern

    Thank you so much for writing these beautiful words. Paul was wise, thoughtful, inspiring, hard-working, always prepared, and so very smart. He was an excellent friend to many. He will be sorely missed.

  • Paul was indefatigable. I often saw him striding purposefully up and down North Avenue as if he had someplace very important to be — but he was already there, outdoors, enjoying New England whatever the weather. Once I saw him in a howling snowstorm, and stopped to offer him a ride to wherever he was struggling to get to. Of course, he wasn’t struggling to get anywhere — he had bundled up in his weather-appropriate gear and walked out into the blizzard to enjoy his afternoon constitutional. Godspeed, Paul. You are already missed.

  • Ellenfr@comcast.net

    Beautiful tribute, Weston Owl. A titan, indeed. I’m glad I had the opportunity to know such a person. I thought that Paul, though a man of science, was such a force of nature that he would be here forever. As you point out, he is.

  • Marie Daly, Waltham Historical Commission

    Paul was not only a great advocate of the MCRR trail in Weston, but also in Waltham. He alerted the Waltham Historical Commission to the many historical artifacts on the Waltham portion, and walked the trail with us to identify them. Just a day before he passed away, he was helping the Waltham Land Trust clean up the trail. He will also be sorely missed in Waltham.

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