I recently learned William Pencak has died of complications related to heart surgery. Bill spent most of his career in the History Department at Penn State University and upon retirement moved to Alabama to help start a Jewish studies program at the University of South Alabama.
Bill was a scholar with wide-ranging interests. He wrote or edited books on the era of the American Revolution, Pennsylvania History, American Jewish history, Icelandic sagas, and veterans in America. Also worth mentioning is his provocative 2002 essay, “The American Civil War Did Not Take Place.” Bill was prolific. I always used to tease him about his book on Iceland. It just seemed so out of place in comparison to his other scholarly work. But Bill took it all in stride, reminding me that his work on Icelandic sagas resulted in his election as president of the Semiotic Society of America. Only a few hours before I heard about his death I had made the final decision to use his book Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth (co-edited with Randall Miller) in my Spring 2014 Pennsylvania History course at Messiah College.
Bill was a generous, compassionate, friendly, and very funny historian. I am glad that I got to spend some time with him–mostly at social functions during my stint as a fellow at the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies (later McNeil Center). I also sat on a panel with Bill at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Association and got to hang out with him a bit during a week-long seminar on the history of the book at the American Antiquarian Society. (Bill had a longstanding fascination with early American almanacs). I will always appreciate Bill’s approachable style and his capacity for making young scholars feel comfortable.
Upon learning of his death I decided to do a search for Bill in my e-mail archive. I found an unsolicted note from him, written shortly after I accepted my current teaching job. It read: “Congratulations on landing a job at Messiah College, a fine liberal arts college–Bill.”
Anyone associated with the McNeil Center, the Pennsylvania Historical Association, or the early American community is going to miss Bill Pencak.
I share your grief.
Bill was my undergraduate mentor and friend.
He encouraged my love for early American history when everyone else seemed interested in the Civil War.
Early in my sophomore year, he told me that I would end up in grad school. I looked at him as if he were crazy, but in the end he was right. By my senior year, I wanted to go to graduate school and I not only went, but thanks to his tutelage and recommendation, I went on to work with a preeminent scholar.
I will miss exchanging holiday cards and bumping into Bill at conferences. He was one of the most jovial, kind, smart, and generous people I have ever known.
John Fea says
I did not know you went to Penn State, Liz. I am sure you knew him much better than I did.
Tom Van Dyke says
On a post on “Black American history” at USIH-blog, the thought occurred that “Irish American History” rather ends with Jack Kennedy.
Whither Jewish American history? Its story also rather conflates with Democratic Party politics [a dead end?] except that demographically, the lion's share of Jewish babies being born are orthodox.
The much discussed Pew Research Center study on the American Jews has revealed a community in rapid flux. The Pew results showed that the non-Orthodox sectors of American Jewish society are shrinking fast thanks to intermarriage, loss of interest and above all, low fertility. In contrast the Orthodox sectors, especially the Haredi and Chassidic ones, are growing rapidly.
What we might see as “mainstream” Jewish American political-cultural not-very-religious history–an old joke is that the [Reform?] Jewish messiah looks a lot like FDR–may be like studying the Shakers or the Hittites come another 100 years…
Thanks for posting this, John. I had several positive interactions with Bill at SHEAR meetings. Also, he considered the Jay Family worthy of serious study, which marked him as a man of fine taste.
John Fea says
Jonathan: Didn't he publish some stuff on the Jay family?
I don't think he published much on the Jay Family.
You know Bill, he would work on his work and then another project would come along, or a scholar would need help with their project, and he would shelve it for a bit. As of June, he said it was back on the shelf.
Aaron Cowan says
In the past few years I have taken students to present research at the Undergraduate Poster Session at the PHA – Bill was fantastically encouraging to students, and even helped one get his research published in the organization's journal.
Students left conversations with Bill feeling more confident, and eager to do more work in the future.
Seems he was the consummate mentor – very sad to hear this news.
Chris Magra says
Bill chaired my MA committee at PSU. He was a mentor and a friend. I will miss him.
John Fea says
Thanks for these comments. I am bit embarrassed because it is clear that many, many of you knew Bill better than I did, yet everyone seems to be linking to my post.
Horst Rosenberg says
I met Bill in Gettysburg in 2012. Over the course of a semester we became friends over Opera stories and drinks. Bill wound up writing one of my letters of recommendation for graduate study and I am on my way to an MA in history thanks to him. He got me my first publication, gave me my first real teaching experience, and bought me more martinis than I could ever count. He was Henry's courage and John Falstaff's joy in one man. I'm so glad I got to know him, if only briefly.
Thomas Beal says
I just learned that Bill Pencak passed.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Bill while I was an adjunct at Penn State, finishing my Ph.D. at SUNY Stony Brook. Bill served on my committee (outside reader) and helped me get a start in life.
I remember he used to love to schedule appointments at 10 or 11pm. At such times, he could be found behind a computer and a stack of books in a cramped office in the Weaver Building. He was a voracious reader and book reviewer. One night, I had to wait until he finished a book review. He wrote the last sentence, tossed the book in a huge pile near the door, saying, “I've finished those, if you want one or two.” Then taking a drink from a diet coke bottle, he said, “here is what you need to do.”
So giving, such a friend and a fantastic scholar. And, no one could laugh like Bill.
I am in a strange position today, because Bill helped me get my first position, and he helped me with my first issue as one of the Editors of New York History. For the first time in 15 years, I can not ask for Bills advice or help.
And believe it or not, Bill owes me (New York History) a book review on Howard Rock's volume.
I wish I knew him longer,
Editor, New York History