"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Blog: The Watchdog: When a close friend is killed, there’s no explaining her death — only her life by Dave Lieber

A loaded moving van sits outside. Inside, where Penny Terk lived alone, a couple of lamps are on the floor. Rugs are rolled up. Bookshelves are empty. There’s no sign that a champion for people lived — and died — in this Oak Cliff house.

My friend Penny Terk was killed inside her home a week ago in a burglary gone very wrong.

Someone she may have known from the neighborhood killed her three different ways, through shooting, strangulation and beating.

Immediately after, a man tried to sell items she owned on the street and to an area pawn shop, police say. That man, a career criminal with more than 20 years spent in state prison, was arrested for burglary. The homicide investigation continues.

Now, as I come to pay my respects to the two adult children of my friend, I hear a voice echoing in the emptied house. The voice says the same thing over and over.

“For this evil, evil, evil person to come into our neighborhood to do this,” the voice says. “Evil! Nothing but pure, pure evil.”

The speaker is neighbor Edrena Holmes-Fahmi, come to pay her respects, too. She’s in shock, like everyone else who knew Penny Terk, the opposite of evil.

“She was such a kind person,” Holmes-Fahmi says. “She helped people. She had this way about her.”

The grotesque details of her death could overshadow her life. I can’t let that happen. Penny Terk, a 73-year-old with smiling eyes and unlimited energy, was something else. She had a mission in life unlike most others. She wanted people to laugh, learn and love. And she actually pulled it off.

Turns out Dallas and surrounding cities have more women’s book review clubs than any city in America. By my count, there are about 75 of them. The women in these clubs don’t read books and discuss them. Not that kind of book club.

At these clubs, “reviewers” stand on stage and discuss, actually act out through storytelling, a book of their choice. If a club meets 10 times a year, the club needs 10 different speakers. That’s where Penny came in.

These clubs, with names such as Idlewives Book Club, Amores Librorum and Country Gals, don’t have websites, so it’s difficult to find them. The best way for speakers to connect is through a website dedicated to matching speakers with clubs. That site is pennyterk.com.

Penny charged performers for a place on her website, a reasonable fee considering the exposure to groups that could find entertainers no other way. But she also became a cheerleader. She made her speakers, including me, feel appreciated.

That’s how I know Penny. I love these clubs filled with laughter and delight. I talk about books I’ve written and met thousands of people this way.

Rose-Mary Rumbley, the popular longtime queen of the book review circuit, says of Penny: “She was an innovator, one who could think of new ideas to help others. She contributed a lot to the world of entertainment at these women’s clubs.”

Once, in gratitude, I offered to take Penny to lunch. Pick your favorite restaurant, I said. She insisted we go to Grandy’s. Really? Yes, she said. So there we sat with our chicken-fried steaks and plastic forks. She wasn’t the least bit pretentious.

A week from now, Penny had planned to host her fourth “Summertime Showcase.” A couple dozen speakers, women mostly but a few men, talk for five minutes each and preview their program for the 2013-14 review season. The audience includes members from several dozen women’s clubs. It’s like a baseball draft for book lovers. My job was to be master of ceremonies.

In the kitchen freezer, Penny’s daughter, Eve Holder, finds brownies baked from scratch and homemade peach cobbler. Her mom baked these for the showcase.

Her children, Holder, 44, and Jason Terk, 46, say they had no idea how many people her mother helped laugh, learn and love. But they’re hearing from all quarters now.

“I was shocked at how many lives she’s impacted,” the daughter says.

The man arrested for the burglary, Gary Anthony Sanders, 50, is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail. A year ago, he was released from prison after serving 20 years. His crimes were eight counts of aggravated robbery. After his release, he lived with his mother, a friend of Penny’s, a block from Penny’s house. The mother sometimes worked for Penny around her house. Penny knew the son.

Sanders’ parole expires in 2032. If he’s convicted of burglary alone, he will likely return to prison for the rest of his life.

He was caught because his fingerprints were found on a water bottle on Penny’s couch, police say. A neighbor reported that he was trying to sell lawn equipment and jewelry on the street. Video captured him at the pawn shop.

“This was not a criminal mastermind,” Jason Terk says.

Police are waiting for results from a forensic analysis of physical evidence before proceeding with possible murder charges.

The neighbor is right: It is pure, pure evil. But when a close friend, one so uniquely talented, is killed like this, there’s no explaining the darkness of her death, only the brightness of her life.

Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Follow Dave Lieber on Twitter at @Dave Lieber.

Reposted from watchdog@dallasnews.com

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