After working with some of the most iconic institutions in Memphis — from the Memphis Flyer and St. Jude/ALSAC, to Memphis in May — Penelope Huston now brings her multifaceted perspective to the Downtown Memphis Commission. The native Memphian is thrilled by the daily opportunity to tell the city’s story while highlighting the countless individuals and organizations moving Memphis forward. Meet this week’s incredible FACE of Memphis, Penelope Huston!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Memphis. We moved around a little bit, but I came back to Memphis when I was 5 years old and grew up in East Memphis. I went to Ridgeway High School — I’m a Roadrunner. Even as a young person, I loved my city.
What are some of your favorite Memphis childhood memories?
I have some wonderful river memories. My parents let me slide down the bluff on cardboard — which I would never let my children do now, but we did it. It was awesome. And the Enchanted Forest — we used to go to Downtown Goldsmith’s, and it was like this magical thing. I grew up in East Memphis/Germantown, so coming into Memphis was a big deal for me when I was a kid.
You left Memphis a couple times as an adult — for college and, later, a job opportunity. What brought you back to Memphis?
Like so many recent grads, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I went to work for US Male, [the men’s clothing store]. I was not cut out for retail. So, when a friend of mine came into the shop and mentioned there was an open job as the receptionist at the Flyer — where I could answer phones and read books all day — I was in!
I just had no idea that the Flyer and Contemporary Media would be life-defining for me. When I began at the Flyer, it was the wild, wild west of journalism and such a beautifully inspirational place to be. We had a lot of creative freedom and a lot of room to take risks.
Ultimately, I ran the personals and the classifieds at the Flyer for the next several years and really learned so much about mass marketing — or, really, what we now call social media. We learned to connect with our readers on this individual level and encouraged them to react in a more communal way, and I loved that. I loved building that community.
In the late ’90s, I went to work at a newspaper in Santa Barbara doing some similar things, but also working on the editorial side a bit. It furthered my love for communication. After I had my daughter, we decided to come back to Memphis. I really liked the idea of her growing up here.
What drew you to communications and media?
I really like to talk and tell stories. I’ve always been a natural storyteller, and now I get to tell this really amazing story of Downtown Memphis. Plus, I get to host some pretty spectacular events, and that is always a rush. Watching more than 150 people show up for our weekly free yoga class is just super satisfying. I love seeing all these happy people walking around Downtown with their yoga mats every Tuesday. It feels good knowing I helped make that happen. I’m able to connect all these things because I have had the opportunity to look in at these different facets in Memphis from a couple of different vantage points.
What is the first place you take visitors to Memphis?
Lately, I take people to the river. I think everything that’s going on in the riverfront right now is really amazingly beautiful. I think that’s where our collective story starts, on the banks of that Mighty Mississippi. And so it’s really nice to see it from the physical vantage points of Big River Crossing and watching the Mighty Lights, or having some s’mores at River Garden. I just love all those things.
Everybody takes their visitors to Beale Street and I do that as well, and that’s also kind of amazing in that there is that huge shift between this beautiful, idyllic, riverside experience, and then just a couple of blocks away that gritty, soulful history of Beale.
What are you most excited about in the city’s future?
I am excited about the trajectory we’re on right now. I think we’re on the right path to balance the priorities of our future city with the resources that we have. And I’m looking forward to the development — but not just development for development’s sake. Thinking about it in a forward-looking, generations-to-come kind of a way makes me excited.
With the opportunity that you have to interact with visitors from all over the world, what do you hear back from other people about what makes Memphis different?
Whenever you talk to anyone about what they love about Memphis, you always hear it’s the people. And I so completely agree with that from my own perspective of having gone and lived someplace else. We just had the American Bridge convention in town, and I tried to stop as many of the attendees as I could and ask, “So how are you enjoying Memphis?” And almost everyone who responded to me said, “We love Memphis. The people are so amazing.”
What are your favorite ways to unwind?
I like to run. I am a super-slow runner, but I love to run. I read a ton. I probably read a book a week because I don’t sleep much, so in the middle of the night, I read.
Do you have a current show, movie, podcast or book that you can’t stop telling people about?
Maybe “The Dropout” — the Theranos story. What was so interesting to me about Elizabeth Holmes, the creator of Theranos, was that she had this idea that she wanted to change the world. From a really young age, she knew she wanted to do something big. But instead of realizing that her vision didn’t match her reality and adjusting course, she allowed herself and her company to fall into something really dark — something far beyond the pale. In the same vein, the Fyre festival story is fascinating.
What is your best advice?
Be your authentic self.
What are three everyday things that you cannot live without?
Laughter, a good book – preferably downloaded to my phone – and really tall shoes.
Thank you, Penelope! And thank you to Elizabeth Looney of Elizabeth Looney Photography for these fabulous images of Penelope!
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