This Week in Amherst History: A Drowning at Amherst--September 3, 1973
Penny had only been a first-year at the College for a few days before he died, but he had already made an impression on his fellow James Hall residents who remembered him for his openness. “Penny was known for … saying ‘Hi’ to everyone he knew,” reported The Amherst Student. “He was known to be a serious student, thrilled to be at Amherst from the beginning. … Many best remembered him for his line of greeting, ‘Hi, I’m Penny, but you can call me nickle, dime or quarter, I respond to any denomination.'”
The swimming test consisted of a four-lap, 100-yard exercise and was required of all Amherst College students before they could receive a degree. Many students had already completed the swimming test by the time Penny had taken it. His classmates recalled that “he had put off taking his swimming test because he ‘didn’t like to swim,'” according to The Student.
The Student later reported Penny’s best friend stated that Penny could not swim at all. His former classmates at the St. Augustine High School in New Orleans described him as “determined” and “hardworking” and agreed that “Penny would have felt compelled to try to complete the test if it were an academic requirement of the school.”
This marked the first and only time in College history that anyone has ever drowned in Pratt Pool. Ben McCabe, the director of athletics at the time, said that “anyone who has anything to do with pools lives in constant fear of this thing happening. This has hit me harder than anything I have encountered since I’ve been in athletics.”
A year later, the Amherst College Afro-American Society voted to name its new campus facility the Gerald Penny Black Culture Center. This building still stands today although it is more commonly known now as the Octagon.