Penny Oswalt retires after 29 years at PWSSC

Prince William Sound Science Center President and CEO Katrina Hoffman honors Penny Oswalt for her retirement from PWSSC, after 29 years, before the Copper River Nouveau on Saturday, June 9, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Prince William Sound Science Center honored retiring finance director Penny Oswalt on June 9 for her selflessness and willingness in her work for the past 29 years.

The salute to Oswalt came on a warm, sunny evening on the PWSSC’s dock where a crowd had gathered before the evening events celebrating the center’s 19th annual benefit gala, the Copper River Nouveau.

After hors d’oeuvres of ceviche, smoked salmon, hummus and more, people gathered around a podium where PWSSC President and CEO Katrina Hoffman stood.

Hoffman talked about Oswalt’s selflessness and willingness to provide a source of good for the center and community.

“The science center has been my work-home for 29 years,” Oswalt said. “It has been a privilege to help mold and watch it grow over the years. We have had a creative and extremely knowledgeable staff join PWSSC from the beginning to guide us in our path.”

Oswalt first came to Cordova to work in the canneries. She left her job at the post office and joined PWSSC 29 years ago.

She has fond memories of riding in a helicopter to Hawkins Island to help band and measure baby eagles and attending many Copper River Nouveaus. She recalled sunny days on the center’s dock.

“I have learned so much during my time there and made wonderful lifelong friends, not just co-workers,” Oswalt said.

The beginning

“I was on vacation when the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill happened,” she said. “I came home a week later to a community in chaos.”

Oswalt grew restless and uneasy not being able to help.

“I was a single mother of an eight-year-old working a federal job, but I felt I needed to be a part of something that would count, something that would help my community deal with this terrible trauma,” she said.

Unable to leave her daughter to join in the cleanup, she reached out to Rick Steiner, a now retired marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska, who, along with others, had been meeting to try and start a science center in Cordova.

Fittingly, on Earth Day, April 22, 1989, R.J. Kopchak, Mimi Oliver and Oswalt signed and filed the legal papers for the creation of PWSSC, just 30 days after the oil spill.

By May 1, Oswalt and Oliver moved into their current building and thus began her journey with PWSSC.

“We didn’t have money to pay anyone,” she said. “It was a leap of faith for myself and my daughter, Tamara, to leave a government job and help start PWSSC. It’s a decision I have never regretted.”

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.