More years ago than I care to admit, I entered graduate school at the Penn State University. In my first semester there, I took a colonial history seminar with Dr. Bill Pencak, an experience I shall not soon forget. Bill was an accomplished author. He completed eight books on his own, thirty-nine peer-reviewed articles, and he co-authored or edited about twenty additional books. Moreover, he sat on the committees of at least thirty graduate students. Many of them have since graduated Penn State and have gone on to become pillars in their respective fields. Civil War buffs will best remember him for his wonderful book, Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War, co-edited with William Blair. Bill lived an active, illustrious career, leaving this earth too soon on December 9, 2013.
Bill Pencak’s litany of accomplishments represented only one side of his colorful life. His happy, out-going personality will be remembered by all who knew him. He was gregarious, upbeat, and always generous when it came to his friends. Unlike many in his profession, he did not take life too seriously. To his students, he offered precious words of wisdom for getting through the absurdities of existence, cherished acumen that ought to have been collected and published for all to read. In short, he was an enjoyable person and a prolific historian, all in one.
And he hunted vampires! When I first arrived at Penn State, sometime in mid-September, he invited me to the debut of a student-film in which he played a minor role. Sadly, I cannot remember the title of this film—it was written, directed, filmed, and cast by undergraduates—but it involved a secret society of vampire-hunters called “The Watchers.” In this movie, Bill played the sage-leader of The Watchers. For several plot-related reasons that would take too long to narrate, Bill’s cabal of undead-hunters endured internal turmoil. One of the Watchers had turned traitor, foolishly allying himself with the vampires, the villains of the film. Bill had to star in a pivotal scene where he pontificated in anguish over the brewing division. (Bill later told me that he studied Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now for his inspiration.) In the end, Bill’s character died in a shoot-out when the traitorous Watcher burst into the inner sanctum, gunning down his former colleagues. Here, Bill had to perform his own stunts, at one point, leaping from a chair, hitting the floor with his “death wound.” (The Penn State students who filmed this scene shot it on the 4th Floor of the Weaver Building, the headquarters of the University’s Department of History.)
It brings a smile to my face to think of my friend, Bill Pencak, as captain of the vampire slayers. It proves his generosity and light-heartedness better than any example of which I can think. I cannot imagine many tenured professors taking such a role, but Bill was no humorless academic. He loved to help his students. He loved to have fun and he never felt shame when he did it.
Bill left us Civil War historians with two priceless lessons: 1) write often and 2) indulge your students’ creativity. Let us strive to honor him by so doing.
(Making and Remaking Pennsylvania's Civil War, 2001.)
(The unforgettable Bill Pencak.)