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Melinda Penkava-Smith, 1959 - 2023
Journalist, NPR Reporter, Rock DJ, Gardener, Wife & Friend
November 22, 2023

elinda Ann Penkava-Smith, born in New Haven, Connecticut, January 21, 1959, passed away at her home in Oriental, North Carolina November 9, 2023.

Known as Mel to friends and Min to family, Melinda had long lived with Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple System Atrophy.

Melinda Penkava-Smith visiting with her friend Jamie Knapp on the West Coast. (Jamie Knapp photo)

Complications from both diminished her body and her ability to communicate. Yet Mel’s mind, spirit, and determination remained fully intact, undaunted, and at the forefront of everything she did.

The eldest of three, Melinda “was the creative one,” according to her brother Bill Penkava.

She wrote and read prolifically and developed a life-long love of photography and music. Melinda also had a curious and fearless nature. It took her abroad, gave her the gumption to ask tough questions of herself and others, and kept her calm and sensible when dealing with the chaos of life.

Melinda learning to ride a bike. A later cycling incident would begin “Look, Ma! No hands!” and end with a missing front tooth.

Priscilla, Mel’s younger sister by two years, shared a room with Mel while growing up in West Haven. Mel’s part of their room contained books, a self-made box camera from her time in AV Club, and a poster of Olympian swimmer Mark Spitz.

The sisters even shared a paper route together for 3-4 years, when Priscilla was 11 and Mel 13. “We would get up early, on the weekend mornings, much to her chagrin. I’m sure she wasn’t really a morning person back then.”

Summers were spent camping with the family in a pop-up camper. “When we traveled our mom would be exhausted from packing all night, but dad still wanted us to get past New York in the early morning,” Priscilla said. The family camped in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Hell, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada to name a few.

“So while my mom would sleep and my dad drove, Melinda was his co-pilot and his map reader, keeping notes for him on what time we get into New York, the cost of the tolls, and every little minute detail from our trip.”

Melinda had the same attention to detail when they were Campfire Girls together. “She was very organized,” Priscilla said. “I’m pretty sure she was our treasurer, and all the other things that needed to be done in the group.”

Melinda (left) with her sister Priscilla in the early 60s, and with her brother Bill at Sleeping Giant State Park in 1982.

Out of high school, Melinda worked as a waitress (she said “beer wench”) at Toad’s Place – a legendary New Haven music venue hosting acts like The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. She did a volunteer stint as a rock DJ at Yale University’s WYBC radio, though she wasn’t a student. Bill, her younger sibling by 7 years, recalls she took him backstage to see acts like Joan Jett, The Ramones, and (Mel’s then favorite) Marshall Crenshaw.

Mel also snagged a job at New Haven rock station WPLR as an evening rock DJ. Sometimes she’d fill in for other DJs, putting her own spin on their show. At one of these guest-hosting gigs, Mel ran a segment called ‘Band in Demand’, where listeners called in to vote for the band they most wanted to hear.

“I’d be there, and the phone would be ringing for 30 minutes,” Bill said. “I’m like, ‘you want me to get that?’” Mel would shake her head, tell him not to bother.

Melinda choosing her own ‘Band in Demand’ at WPLR.

At the appointed hour – having taken zero call-in votes – Mel would announce, “your band in demand tonight is Marshall Crenshaw.”

“Which nobody was voting for, okay?” said Bill. While callers clamored for Boston or ACDC, Mel chose to play Elvis Costello or Huey Lewis.

“She was kinda like my first hero,” he said, “you know, aside from Batman and the Lone Ranger on my black and white TV. She was just great and someone I looked up to always.”

Melinda on the tandem bicycle with Regina Dubiel, at the 2015 Turkey Pedal.

“She was quite the nomad, you know,” her sister said, “she always loved to travel.”

Mel spent a year at The American University of Paris, then took time off to travel through Europe – backpacking or sometimes traveling with an aunt and uncle.

She DJ’d briefly from a pirate radio ship off the coast of England, reporting it to be more trouble than not, given the systems – cobbled together from this and that – rarely worked as intended.

By 1984, Mel was in Durham, NC, having secured a job at WDNC. Within a year she’d moved to another station, WRAL FM & the North Carolina News Network.

In that era radio stations often shied away from “ethnic sounding” names. Penkava is a Czech/Bohemian name. So for a while in Raleigh, Melinda Penkava was known on the air as ‘Melinda Penn.’

Melinda, Raleigh radio, late 80s.

While at WRAL, Mel met Keith Smith – a young man who’d recently relocated from Charlotte. While he’d also been a DJ, Keith was then at the North Carolina News Network on the technical side of radio.

The two maintained an easy friendship for a year or so. Slowly, they decided to see if they wanted to be something more.

Their first date, Keith recalls, may have been when he asked her if she wanted to go sailing.

Mel, having no sailing experience – but plenty of gumption – accepted. Acquiring a nine-foot foam ‘thing’ from a newspaper ad, Keith and Mel took it to Lake Jordan.

1991: Belen Puleo-Scheppke helps Melinda get ready for her wedding at The Stallings House in Oriental.

“It was just a good, stupid Saturday morning sail, you know?” he said. “We had a good time. And it was too windy and we didn’t die. She had a good spirit about the things that went right and the things that went wrong.”

When Mel’s apartment lease was up, she moved in with Keith. They set about building a life together.

Being close to Keith meant learning to sail. And she did, though Keith says it didn’t come to her naturally. “She didn’t like it when the boat would heel – she was afraid it would go over.” While at the tiller, if the boat began to heel, Melinda would yell out to Keith for help.

Melinda and Keith at their wedding in 1991.

There was a day when Keith was below decks, and heard Mel calling. He made the decision to be indisposed for a bit, hoping Mel would get the feel of the boat at heel – and maybe the understanding that it would not tip over. Surely, she’d be suddenly comfortable.

When he went above decks (after a long 15 minutes) – Mel let loose at him with a string of words not suitable for radio (or this publication).

While learning the finer points of sailing (or not), Melinda determined she wanted to work into public radio. Specifically National Public Radio – NPR.

Needing experience in longer format news, she made the move to WPTF. After about a year at WPTF, and more experience logged on her résumé, Mel made the jump to WUNC Chapel Hill. She was now reporting the news in the format she sought.

Mel and Keith dancing at their wedding.

When not working, Melinda and Keith, explored Raleigh and got involved locally. With her fluency in French, thanks to high school language classes and time at The American University of Paris, Mel was able to join the Raleigh chapter of the Alliance Française.

She also explored the local music scene, and had a knack for finding the unexpected. Keith said she once convinced him to go with her to see “a man play an electric rake.” While not Keith’s preferred musical genre, he was impressed. So was Mel. “She even bought his album.”

The two had also found a small sailing town on the coast to escape to on weekends: Oriental. Though they kept their boat in nearby Whortonsville, the pair were charmed by the people and the place.

Keith and Melinda on a visit to her brother Bill’s house in the late 90s.

In September 1991, Melinda and Keith sent out invites to family and friends, asking them to visit. They were getting married.

The Stallings House, situated along the Oriental waterfront, was rented out. Keith and Mel were married on lawn by the river.

Melinda’s family liked the odd Canadian; they thought the two worked well together. “We said she’s quirky and adventurous,” said Bill. “That probably, you know, helps explain Keith.”

The two intended to leave the next day on a sailing honeymoon, but their guests seemed to be enjoying themselves, and were not inclined to leave.

Opting to stay on land a while longer, Keith called Mrs. Stallings and extended their rental for another couple days. It was spent celebrating and relaxing with family and friends.

On their year long cruise, Keith and Melinda stopped off in Cuba, and met Carlos while there.

The pair made it to their sailing honeymoon, but discussed a longer excursion in the future. Not just a few weeks, but several months. Maybe even years. While they returned to their jobs in Raleigh, Keith and Mel kept their future sailing plans in mind when evaluating their working lives.

After a few years with WUNC, NPR came calling. Melinda was offered a position reading the nightly newscasts. Needing to relocate closer to Washington, DC, she found an apartment in Alexandria, VA.

Within a short while, Melinda was also filling in as a guest host for programs like Weekend Edition. Knowing they were planning on sailing away in the near future, the couple were content spending weekends and vacation time with each other while pursuing careers in different states.

Melinda and Keith at the tiller of their Westsail 28.

1995 arrived, Melinda (despite her dubious sea legs) and Keith were ready for their sailing adventure.

Over the next year and half – with stops here and there to pick up work and see friends and family – Melinda and Keith went sailing on their Westsail 28 cutter.

It might be a strange trip, to most sailors, but made sense to them. Late in the sailing season, the two sailed north instead of south, arriving in Annapolis in time to see the holiday decorations.

From there they turned south again and, over the course of the next year and a half, sailed down along the coast down to visit Cuba. Then up north to Nova Scotia.

Melinda and Keith stopped to eat wings with Christopher, a nephew from the Canadian side of the family, while on their 2018 Erie Canal cycling trip.

Along the way, both Keith and Mel hopped off at various ports, small and large, heading to the nearest airport for work here and there. Though Mel was still not a natural sailor, Keith said, “her jubilance when you arrived somewhere was magic.”

Cruising exposed them to many new things they carried into their later lives: different styles of traditional fiddle music in Canada, life-long cruising friends and acquaintances found on the water ways, and stories from occasionally questionable situations.

Like freighters rolling out of a thunderstorm dead ahead of their tiny boat, or finding themselves the focus of attention for several armed guards outside one of Fidel Castro’s compounds.

Melinda running on the beach with her 2-year old niece Sarah.

While in Cuba, the couple had gone cycling on a road on the outskirts of Havana. Along the way, one of the bike tires needed air. Mel began snapping pictures of the surrounding forest (the compound was neither marked nor in sight) with her Nikon FM2 while Keith got out the air pump.

Keith was the first to notice the guards emerging from the trees. “I don’t think she saw the guy with the AK-47,” Keith said.

Mel’s language skills – this time in Spanish – helped explain their flat tire, and their unintended cycling stop. The guards were polite, Keith recalled, and after lengthy questioning, they were allowed to go on their way. With both a bit of a fright, and a hell of a story.

In 1997, they returned to land. This time to Atlanta. Keith was offered a job running a satellite communications company. Within weeks, Melinda was offered a chance to host Talk of the Nation on NPR.

Prior to streaming, DVDs from Netflix were part of life in Oriental. Especially for Melinda. If you didn’t send them back, you didn’t get more. A search ensued.

The gig was for a few months, and it once again meant living in Washington, DC. But the pair took a different approach, moving their cruising boat to Gangplank Marina on the Potomac River. Mel would live on the boat, and drive to work. Given cell phones were still not in wide use – and wireless internet networks did not exist – Keith rigged up a physical phone line for Mel’s use on their Westsail 28.

After her few months of guest hosting were complete, Mel returned to Atlanta.

She continued to work with NPR and other radio programs on an ad hoc basis. Keith built Melinda a small sound studio in their basement.

Melinda scheming with Jennifer Smart New Year’s Eve 2012.

Keith says he does not now remember which radio program it was for, but one morning he double-checked all the equipment before leaving for his office. It was an important day and the equipment couldn’t fail; Mel would be talking to astronauts in orbit from her studio in an Atlanta basement.

Despite leaving their cruising days behind them, Mel and Keith continued to enjoy time on the water. And time in Oriental. In 2002, they came to town looking for a weekend house.

What they found instead was their next full-time home. Mel went back to work at WUNC, hosting The State of Things, and living in a Chapel Hill apartment from Monday to Thursday. Keith did satellite communications consulting.

Back in Oriental, Keith & Melinda created a website about the sailors that came through Oriental, calling it TownDock.net after the town dock where cruisers would tie up. There was information from the community, an article or two about town goings-on, and Melinda’s pictures. TownDock quickly became a key part of Oriental.

Melinda and Jennifer Smart went on a bicycling trip in Oregon. Melinda stopped to take pictures so often, Jennifer began taking photos of Mel taking photos.

In 2005, Mel chose to stay in Oriental full-time. With the end of her weekly commute to Chapel Hill, TownDock.net became her focus. That and building her garden.

The front of Keith and Mel’s Oriental home is crisscrossed by brick paths and garden beds. Nearly all the bricks have come from the old timber and rail offices that used to sit near the Oriental Bridge.

There was a windstorm “where it blew like 60 miles an hour outta the west one day. And the water levels went down like, I don’t know, I’d guess like four or six feet,” says Keith.

Melinda and Keith, dressed for Jeff & Ellen Troeltzsch’s Garden Party in 2007.

“If you’re walking from the marina over to the condos, you know, you walk into the bridge. So that’s all just kind of open, flat, mostly barren, a little bit of scrubby territory. And so from there, looking down, Melinda could see – she was just walking around – she came back and said, ‘there’s bricks!’”

Driving her small car back near the bridge, Mel started packing the trunk with the formerly submerged bricks.

“She collected those bricks, literally a handful at a time,” said Mel’s longtime friend Jennifer Smart. “That is the way she tackled her life… piece by piece”

A second wind event gave her access to even more, and her Mel’s garden began to come together. Though it wasn’t always as it is today.

“Melinda was kind of brilliant at doing stuff, but not always at planning stuff, if that makes sense,” Keith says. At first, the garden was not a garden. But one day, after Mel and been at it, moving bricks and objects around, the garden began to take shape.

Melinda was close with her siblings Bill and Priscilla. New Year’s Eve 1999.

The Blue Bottle part of the garden started with a a singular bottle of German wine, the blue bottle upended and placed on a pole as garden decoration. It spiraled out of control with the help of friends, and cases of fizzy water in blue bottles from Trader Joe’s.

As this was going on, Mel took the Master Gardener class. She planted native perennials, and herbs and vegetables. The herbs she harvested and dried, packing them for her own use and as gifts for friends.

Melinda’s Blue Bottle Garden. (Harry Hughes photo)

During this time, and in smaller ways for many years prior, Mel began exhibiting slightly concerning symptoms.

Her balance was off. Her posture was twisting a bit. She was having trouble with her handwriting.

Her close friend, Jennifer Smart, was a physical therapist and urged her to see a movement disorder specialist.

In 2015, Melinda was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

“I always called her the gardener,” said Jennifer. “She would plant the seeds and then I would take it. And she loved to go, but she was always is in the background letting me take the credit, whereas she came up with the ideas.”

It was Melinda who discovered the research on tandem biking and the link to better mobility for Parkinson’s patients. It was Jennifer who started the Tandem Biking program in Oriental.

Melinda, at Rock Steady Boxing in Oriental, 2017.

Melinda discovered the Rock Steady Boxing program, and its benefits for Parkinson’s patients balance and prolonged health. It was Jennifer who connected Mel with legendary boxing coach Don Turner to get Mel’s boxing education started. Meanwhile, Jennifer went to Indianapolis to learn more and become a coach for the program.

Rock Steady Boxing classes began in Oriental in 2017, with Melinda as the first student.

“My career is what it is, and it is 100% due to Mel,” said Jennifer. “And it’s why people come to my course. And I always open my courses crediting Mel.”

Jennifer and Melinda took trips together, took out the tandem bikes together, and eventually worked on Mel’s health together. And while Jennifer, of her own accord, says she is the person that charges ahead to make things happen, Mel “was the person that slowed me down to notice what I was missing, and what I needed to process different.”

Case in point, on a cycling trip in the Pacific Northwest, Melinda would stop to take photos of waterfalls. Often for 20 or 30 minutes. While Jennifer was impatient to continue, she realized Mel wouldn’t be rushed. So Jenifer began taking photos of Melinda.

Bill flew out to meet Melinda and Priscilla on a camping trip in 2021. When he asked if they were camping out or staying in a hotel, he was told tent camping. Priscilla said of Mel ‘She’ll end up on the floor anyway.’

Melinda had a way of setting things in motion, of asking questions – not so she could talk, but so she could listen. She really wanted to know. And to understand.

During a summer visit to Oriental, Melinda’s nephew Chris was sent on a mission to interview a resident. He was nervous, but Mel reassured him.

“She told me, when you ask someone about themselves, there’s a fundamental force that makes them feel compelled to answer, even if they ultimately resist it. And, Melinda said, “You have a right to ask questions, just like she has a right not to answer them.” That stuck with me as a journalist, but then more on just as a person with time.

As time and her disease wore on, Melinda continued to fight. “Her whole attitude always blew me away,” said her sister Priscilla. “It was never ‘why me’? It was ‘why not me’?”

Melinda releasing monarch butterflies at her home, November 2023.

While her body and voice failed her, Melinda’s mind never did. Occasionally she would frustrate her friends and aids as she tried to communicate. They thought she would use her limited abilities to talk about her health or comfort.

But Mel’s ever-curious mind pushed her to ask detailed questions: about the Oriental, about the people. She wanted to know what was happening in town.

Friends marveled that she would spend her energy asking about things not related to her immediate needs. That trait was very typically Melinda. As they laughed, Melinda would smile with them. And wait patiently for the answers.

Melinda passed away in the morning of November 9, 2023.

She is survived by her husband Keith Smith, her sister Priscilla McDermott (Bob), her brother Bill Penkava (Michelle), nieces Missy, Brittany, Sarah, nephews Chris (McDermott), Christopher (French), and Sam.

Melinda’s memorial service is 11a, Saturday, April 6, 2024 at Lou Mac Park in Oriental.

Melinda Ann Penkava
Links to Listen to Melinda Penkava
State of Things: Timothy Tyson & Blood Done Sign My Name – May 24, 2004
Talk of the Nation: Teaching Slavery – Feb 11, 2003
Talk of the Nation: Robust Weapons Inspections in Iraq – Feb 12, 2003
Weekend Edition Saturday: Mafia Musical Taste – May 12, 2001
Talk of the Nation: 300th Episode of The Simpsons – Feb 13, 2003
Weekend Edition Saturday: Nicholson Baker – May 12, 2001
Talk of the Nation: Allies and Iraq – Feb 10, 2003
Talk of the Nation: Letters – Feb 10, 2003
The Diane Rehm Show: Anne Hunsaker Hawkins: “A Small, Good Thing” – Aug 23, 2000
Talk of the Nation: Summer Music Festivals – May 27, 2002

Posted Wednesday November 22, 2023 by Allison DeWeese