Natural ability mixed with hard work and dedication helped turn Dr. Penny Clayton into one of the finest softball pitchers in Springfield history.
But it took Clayton a while to focus on just one sport. Growing up in the Queen City, Clayton was involved in nearly every activity or sport offered to a young girl at the time. Tap and ballet lessons gave way to gymnastics and piano, baton twirling and lot of “neighborhood baseball”. Finally, around the age of nine, Clayton discovered softball. And the rest was history.
Once immersed in the sport, Clayton blossomed. While Hillcrest High School didn’t have softball, she was busy during the summers in the local Jr. Miss program and later led several amateur teams to state and regional championships. Her teams finished in the top 10 at the Amateur Softball Association of America national tournaments twice, and in 1978, she hurled a perfect game at the ASA nationals at age 20.
At Missouri State from 1976 to 1980, Clayton helped her teams reach the AIAW College World Series three times, as she won 40 games in the circle and finished her MSU career as the program’s all-time leader in strikeouts and ERA (0.72). It’s for those reasons the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Clayton as a member of the Class of 2023.
While Clayton enjoyed being busy growing up, it was her mother who made a key decision which changed the direction of her athletic career.
“I think I was nine years old when I first started playing and was immediately put in the outfield,” Clayton said. “Mom decided that it was a bit boring to watch since I didn’t get many balls hit my way, so I quickly transitioned to pitching.”
While Clayton admits to a natural aptitude for pitching – “I never had lessons”, she said – she was a sponge, watching both men’s and women’s teams play and learning how to be better from what she saw. It also helped to have a pair of legendary coaches on her side. Coaches who encouraged her growth and challenged her skill level.
“I grew up playing Jr. Miss Softball,” she said, “where my coaches included Kay Hunter (MSHOF 2022) and Sue Schuble (MSHOF 1998). When I was 14, the better players from the Jr. Miss program were selected by Sue to play on a traveling women’s team. Sue and Miss Hunter played for Foremost – a very strong women’s team. So, we just tagged along and played in the same tournaments.”
Clayton’s relationship with Hunter continued several years later when Clayton joined Hunter’s team at Missouri State, where things seemed strangely familiar.
“We were exposed to top-level competition at an early age,” Clayton said. “So, by the time I went to college, I had played at a high level. Almost my entire summer team went to SMS so with a few exceptions in terms of recruits, college softball was almost an extension of our summer team.”
But more than just the winning and losing, softball helped shape the rest of Clayton’s post-athletic life. She recently retired after 30 years as an accounting professor at Drury.
“Softball allowed me to fine-tune my character,” Clayton said. “I learned how to handle pressure given many pitching situations. I learned the importance of teamwork and hard work. I tried to pass along these same characteristics to my accounting students.”
Even her contemporaries at Drury took note of her teaching methods, and results.
“Other Drury professors would often say that I seemed to ‘coach’ my students,” she said. “I guess that’s true. I think we could all use a little life-coaching from time to time and the approach seemed to work for me. I was ‘rah rah’ and supportive at times but always challenged them to be better.”
Clayton cites many influences in her life as she looks back at her career, including Hunter and Schuble, but none have made the impact members of her family have.
“In terms of people who have had an influence on my life besides teachers, it naturally started with my parents and their never-ending support of my various interests,” she said. “Currently, my husband, Stu Dunlop, has the biggest impact on my life. It sounds cliché but he is also my very best friend. We ‘get’ each other and even though he’s a much more accomplished athlete than me, we have also shared similar athletic experiences. As a trained engineer, he is also analytical which makes communicating with an accountant a tad easier.”