Memorials: Bill Pencak
Photograph courtesy of Vincent Parker
Memorial for Dr. Bill Pencak
Others can better assess Dr. Pencak’s numerous and varied contributions as a scholar. While I was aware of his towering intellect, it was Dr. Pencak’s kind heart and generosity of spirit that most affected me. Without his support and encouragement, I would never have gone to graduate school.
I met Dr. Pencak while an impetuous undergraduate at the Pennsylvania State University. After an undergraduate course with him, I requested permission to enroll in a graduate seminar he was teaching on Colonial and Revolutionary America. His relaxed and friendly teaching style made this sudden immersion into historiography and graduate-level discussion much easier. Taking that course, and another the following semester, convinced me that I could handle graduate work. Dr. Pencak worked with me while I crafted my applications, reading over countless iterations of my letters and writing samples. His advice was valuable long after the application process; while I still struggle to follow it, I remember his suggestions to lead with my thesis and original research. He even mentioned publication! I see that now as a gentle prompt to speak more as a historian and less as a student.
I kept in touch with Dr. Pencak after leaving for graduate school. He somehow managed to remain a mentor while treating me as a colleague. We would occasionally get together when I was visiting State College, though after his “retirement” from PSU, he was, if anything, even busier. Over the last few years, as I've begun attending and presenting at conferences, I was able to touch base with him there. He was always unfailingly cheerful, making new friends and introducing me to people. He truly had a gift for striking up conversation. I was able to catch up with him at the Omohundro Institute conference in Baltimore last summer, and I am so glad I did. He was moving a little more slowly, but that gave us time to chat as we walked to and from panels. I ran out to pick up lunch for us, and when I returned, he was deep in conversation with a new acquaintance. As always. I had to smile. He may be been the most relentlessly friendly person I’ve ever met.
Not seeing him at SHEAR this summer will be painful. I like to think I didn’t take knowing Dr. Pencak for granted—that I understood and expressed how much he’d done for me: encouraging a budding determination to study history, supporting flagging spirits when research or writing proved difficult. Seeing him each summer was a shot in the arm. He offered something difficult to come by in graduate school, whether I was taking classes or contemplating a fiercely competitive job market. Dr. Pencak had faith in me—as I know he did many others he had taught and mentored. His legacy, to me at least, is more than scholarly. Dr. Pencak had not only a brilliant mind, but a huge heart. He took young scholars under his wings and offered support beyond the intellectual. I’m deeply grateful for the shelter his wings offered me over the years, and know I will miss their shade in the future.