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Michael Gale "Mike" Penney (1945-2021): Taft native helped veterans get access to benefits

Michael G Mike Penney

Michael G. "Mike" Penney

Michael G. "Mike" Penney, a Vietnam veteran who later helped others collect the military benefits they had earned, died Aug. 21 at the age of 75 from what his family said was pneumonia related to COVID-19.

Friends and family described the Taft native as having a passion for helping veterans, even to the point of paying his own way on honor flights to Washington, D.C., to accompany vets for whom a solo trip would have been too difficult.

"He would go out of his way anytime for a veteran," said Cassandra Ortiz, a health-care specialist with whom Penney worked to qualify vets for home-health care and assisted living benefits. "When I was in a pickle, I would call Mike."

Penney worked for years at the Kern County Veterans Service Department, serving for a time in senior leadership. His friend and mentee, Benny Rodriguez, said Penney had a reputation as being so approachable and knowledgeable that it put veterans at ease.

He would insist that the departments' workers deliver a personal touch as a way of demonstrating veterans were not just numbers to be met.

"That was his ethos, just that we put these veterans above everything else," Rodriguez said of Penney. "Always focused on the mission, always focused on having that connection with veterans."

Penney was born Dec. 27, 1945 in Taft to Robert "Bob" and Jerry Steinert Penney. He ran track at Taft High, where he graduated in 1964 before going to work in local oil fields.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1966 and served on a gunship off the coast in Vietnam. Three years later Penney was honorably discharged and, having married Melva Gray Hiller on Jan. 14, 1967, he returned home to work in the oil industry.

Soon he went to work at the Taft Fire Department. But an injury forced him out of the agency and he took a position at Elden's Drapery and Carpet Cleaning, where he worked his way up to become manager. In 1977 he earned an associate's degree at Bakersfield College.

Penney married his second wife, Robbie Rose, on June 20, 1998. In 2005 he began working for the county veterans service department helping connect former military members with health and other benefits. He stayed with the agency until his retirement from county government in 2013.

Daughter Cindy Yrigollen said he loved to go camping, fishing and spending time with his grandchildren. Often he would take in a show at a local melodrama, and he was particularly fond of tri tip steaks.

"He was just a super-genuine guy all around," she said. "He was friends with everybody."

A longtime friend and fellow Taft high alumnus, Michael Patterson, said Penney would drive from his Bakersfield home all the way to the Pismo area and back, the same day, just to have breakfast with his old pals — though he joked he was there to see his family, not them.

Penney enjoyed spending a week at a time on the coast in his RV, taking walks along the beach with his dogs. But his true passion lay elsewhere, he said.

"His real passion was the veterans," he said.

Penney is survived by wife, Robbie Rose Penney; daughter Cynthia Yrigollen (husband Louie); son Michael Penney (wife Erin); and sisters Janie Olafson (Jim) and Roberta Penney. He is also survived by grandsons Jonathan Yrigollen; Christopher, Cody, Brandon and Michael Penney; granddaughter Allison Yrigollen; and six great-grandchildren.

A graveside service has been scheduled for 9:15 a.m. Sept. 17 at Bakersfield National Cemetery, 30338 E. Bear Mountain Blvd., in Arvin.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to Honor Flight Kern County ( or any favorite charity, in Penney's name.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to reflect a change in the scheduling of the graveside service.