Robert F. Pennell was born in Maine in 1850 and received his AB degree from Harvard University. In 1889 he was in California and was principal of the Marysville schools. From 1890 to 1893 he was principal of the Stockton Schools. In 1893, he was elected principal of the normal school at Chico. During his term of office, he promoted the beginning of the Normal Record as the school newspaper and the ungraded or country school was added to the training school.
In an introduction to the Normal Record, he wrote " We are trying to lay our course on the broad foundation of scholarship and practical teaching".
In January 1896 the graduating class, which had arrived at the normal school at the same time as he did, presented him with a gold headed cane to show their respect and esteem. In 1897, a newly appointed Board of Trustees replaced him with Carlton Ritter.
Pennell and his wife, Eleanor, had one son. Robert Pennell died in San Francisco in 1905.