Stalwart humbled, thrilled with accolade
GROWING up in Eaglehawk, Paul Penno said he gained a “pretty good understanding of what was fair, and what was just”, but it was his return from the Vietnam War that ultimately set off an enduring and diverse devotion to his community.
“Vietnam had an impact on me in terms of not being passive when you think something’s wrong,” he said.
“I stopped thinking ‘you can’t make a difference’. And I thought, ‘get stuck in and have a go at things that you believe you can have an impact on’.”
Now, as part of the Queen’s Birthday honours list, Mr Penno has been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia.
He’s held various leadership roles within the Bendigo and Eaglehawk RSL sub-branches for many years, and was a key figure behind the $5.1 million Soldiers Memorial Institute military museum revitalisation project in Pall Mall.
He is particularly passionate about supporting the new generation of returning war veterans, who are “making the transition back to civilian life.”
“It’s absolutely vital that there is broad-based community support for those veterans,” he said. “And it’s up to the RSL and veterans support services to lead that move to ensure that there is public awareness of what these people have been through.”
Asked about the other major themes in his life, Penno nominated health, education, welfare and sport, “pretty much in that order”.
“I was a registered psychiatric nurse for over 30 years, which really put me in touch with just how disempowered people with disabilities become,” he said.
“I guess that was something that really was a driving force within me. I’ve really been focused very much on public education, public health.”
In terms of what kind of advice he’d give the next crop of budding community leaders, Penno quite simply said, “You can make a difference.”
“I think there’s a real sense of ‘why would you spend your time volunteering, when there’s no reward?’ The reality is, there is a reward,” he said.
“And I guess that sums up pretty much how I’ve been motivated over the last 45 years, being involved in public life. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from making a commitment to helping others. Absolutely.”