Valter Ennis Pilcher Jr., professor of physics emeritus and author of a comprehensive history of early science at Union, died on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009 at his home in the Glen Eddy in Niskayuna. He was 84.
Known by his middle name, Ennis was born in Savannah, Ga., son of Valter Ennis Pilcher Sr. and Ida May (nee Findley) Pilcher. He earned B.S. and M.A. degrees from Emory University and a doctorate of engineering science from North Carolina State College. He specialized in nuclear physics, doing doctoral research at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he later worked two years as a staff physicist.
In 1956 Ennis joined the Union College Physics Department, preferring an academic career to the frenetic pace of full-time research. He loved teaching and working with students and colleagues over the next 30 years.
“In many ways, he represented the ideal of what a college professor ought to be,” said Ken Schick, a longtime colleague. “He was a wonderful teacher and a really fine person with whom students and colleagues could talk about anything.”
For many years, Ennis and his family were at the center of a lively social scene that included many colleagues and their families that often spent winter weekends together in the Adirondacks, Schick said. During those trips, Ennis, who had a “wonderful singing voice,” often broke into song, Schick added.
At Union, he enjoyed four sabbatical leaves which combined academic work with travel and service. In 1962-63 he worked in a Swedish Atomic Energy Research Laboratory at Studsvik. In 1968 he received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Ethiopia at Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa. He also represented Volunteers for International Technical Assistance, as liaison between technical experts in Schenectady and development projects in Ethiopian villages. He took to Ethiopia a moldboard plow, and demonstrated the advancement to officials and farmers in a northern province. His third sabbatical involved research at the State University of New York at Albany.
Ennis was very involved in the identification and protection of Union’s collection of antique physics apparatus. During his fourth sabbatical, he visited several physics departments in other universities which had similar collections. Before and after retirement, he spent many hours helping to catalog and protect Union’s instruments, photographing them for display on the departmental website. He spent many hours sifting through old apparatus in the attic of what is now the Arts Building, Schick noted. He wrote and self-published a history titled Early Science and the First Century of Physics at Union College, 1795-1895. Its publication coincided with Union’s bicentennial anniversary.
Ennis married Edith Bendow in Teaneck, New Jersey in 1950. Survivors also include two children, Steven Walter Pilcher and Dorothy Jane Pilcher; five grandchildren; and two great-grandsons. The family spent many active summers at their cabin at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, where they have been involved in conservation activities.
Ennis’ body was donated to Albany Medical College for medical education or research. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society at 1221 Wendell Avenue, Schenectady. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to Special Collections at Schaffer Library at Union College or Community Hospice of Schenectady, 1411 Union Street, 12308.