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.