Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Memorials: Bill Pencak

Bill Pencak

Photograph courtesy of Vincent Parker

Remembering Bill Pencak

Bill Pencak was such a sweet and generous soul—in addition to being someone with an endless, passionate, always-fun-filled interest in history. We first met at a SHEAR conference many moons ago—and we had an annual cigar-smoking afternoon at history conferences ever after. Bill would talk about his students— and how proud he was of them. He would talk about fellow historians who he admired, appreciated, and just plain liked. And he would regale me with wonderful historical anecdotes and engage me in all kinds of meandering enlightening history-minded conversations—while we puffed on cigars and drank scotch. Our most recent cigar-and-scotch meeting was at a cigar bar in Milwaukee during the OAH, and in no time at all, Bill was regaling not only me, but a roomful of people with stories and insights about American history that most assuredly were something new and different for that cigar bar.

Bill wore his scholarship lightly. He was remarkably accomplished—the author of over seventeen books encompassing topics ranging from early America to semiotics to film studies to Icelandic sagas. Yet he never paraded his scholarship. Rather, he drew on it to contribute to the scholarship of others.

Indeed, as a colleague and mentor, Bill was supremely generous. He was interested in virtually everything (although he had a special passion for Pennsylvania history), and he eagerly and enthusiastically encouraged younger scholars. A graduate student recently described seeing Bill at a conference, standing up after every paper to offer help and suggestions (booming out his comments with enthusiasm), not to posture and grandstand, but because he sincerely wanted to give something to each and every speaker, displaying the kind of generosity that the rising generation of historians should have as an example.

In this way—and in so many others—Bill will be sorely missed. He was a rare and special person—always a gentleman, always kind-hearted, unapologetically enthusiastic about almost everything, dedicated to his craft and to fellow scholars, and a sincerely thoughtful and fun-loving friend.

Joanne B. Freeman
Yale University