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Memorial for Dr. Bill Pencak by Lindsey Keiter

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.

Lindsay Keiter