David Penson, 88, a retired Army officer who rose through the ranks from private to colonel, died of respiratory failure May 29 at the Virginian retirement home in Fairfax County, where he lived.

Col. Penson joined the New York National Guard in 1939, a year before it was federalized as an antiaircraft regiment and moved to Georgia, then Rhode Island. He served at each enlisted grade until, as a first sergeant, he entered Officer Candidate School in 1942. According to a family story, it was because his future wife said she wouldn't marry him until he became an officer.

Commissioned into the Coast Artillery, he was deployed to North Africa during World War II and subsequently served in Italy.

After the war, he moved from the Mediterranean climate to Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands, where he served as headquarters commandant. He became part of the Army as a gunner in 1946 and served as a United Nations observer in Palestine in 1948.

His other postings included stints at the Pentagon, in Germany and in Vietnam.

He attended Artillery and Adjutant General Corps advanced courses, the Command and General Staff College and the Armed Forces Staff College. His daughter, Barbara Drake of Annandale, noted that her father, a native of New Brunswick, N.J., never attended a nonmilitary college, but the degrees he received from those military schools were the equivalent of several master's degrees.

"He was a huge believer in education," she said. "He probably felt behind the eight ball because a lot of his friends went to West Point, and his brother went to Harvard and got [a master's in business administration]. . . . But my dad educated himself over the years."

Col. Penson's awards included the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman's Badge.

He retired from active duty in 1971, then served six years on the staff of Army Emergency Relief, a nonprofit organization. He moved to the Virginian in 1988 and was a member of the grounds committee and the residents council.

His wife of 62 years, Nellie Kate Penson, died in February.

Survivors, in addition to his daughter, include a son, David S. Penson of Fairfax; a brother; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

David Penson, 88, a retired Army colonel, spent his career furthering his education.