The Lion in Winter

Thank you for your profile of Puon Penn ’92 [“From the Lion’s Den,” June 2012]. Puon was a central part of my Reed experience. Puon and I roomed together in our first year, sharing a double in the antipodes of MacNaughton III, a room so far from central heating that our windows grew half-inch-thick interior ice sheets during Portland’s winter storm of February 1989. I was at the time of matriculation (and, arguably, am still) a deeply provincial kid from small-town Oregon. Rooming with Puon was both rewarding and frustrating. He and I had a cordial relationship, but didn’t connect right away, due to my own well-meaning but fundamentally superficial grasp of how difficult it was for Puon—who came most immediately from rough Oakland and Stockton, California—to adjust to the social norms of the white bourgeois intellectual misfits who populate(d) Reed. They were my people; they were not his.

That said, though, we developed an enduring friendship. To this day I hesitate to lie inverted in my bed, remembering a night in a cheap hotel in Turin when, as we watched a dubbed episode of The Simpsons together, he saw my bare feet on top of my pillow and told me, visibly disgusted, that Khmer people are sickened by the sight of putting one’s feet where one’s head should rest. After we discovered the next morning that would-be car thieves had failed to steal (but had succeeded in damaging) our rental, a long drive the next day brought us to distant relations of his in Lyon, France, where we were both bemused by his relatives’ enthusiastic suggestions to hang out at a suburban mall when we asked what cultural attractions Lyon had to offer. On our last day in Europe, Puon handled the aggressive Parisian traffic capably; I wasn’t trusted to drive, as he’d only taught me to drive a standard transmission earlier on that trip.

Puon and I have stayed in touch after graduation and have seen each other from time to time in Chicago, the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, or wherever we have found ourselves. I invited him to my wedding in 2001, but never received an RSVP, and then was nonplussed when he materialized, Benjamin Braddock–like, at the back of the nave at St. Austin’s Church in Austin, Texas, as Alison and I recited our vows. “Isn’t anyone else coming?” he asked. He seemed to pity me because there were no other guests; perhaps he wasn’t aware that he’d arrived for the rehearsal.

On a more earnest note, though, I have always been impressed and not a little intimidated by Puon: his intellect, his bravery, his patient and determined approach to achieving his goals, his devotion to serving his beleaguered Khmer people. Knowing him has been one of the great gifts of my life. Your extended portrait of this accomplished alumnus is an honor that he unquestionably deserves and that I, among many others, deeply appreciate.

—Greg Barnhisel ’92

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania