Linda Penkower, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, died Feb. 27, 2018, after a long battle with cancer.
Joseph S. Alter, director of the Asian Studies Center, memorialized her as “a valued and beloved colleague whose energetic, enthusiastic and broad contribution to Asian studies will be sorely missed.”
Penkower earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the State University of New York-Buffalo in 1972, and received her other degrees from Columbia University — an M.A. in 1977, M.Phil. in 1992 and Ph.D. in 1993. Scholarships, including two Fulbright-Hays fellowships, and visiting faculty appointments allowed her to undertake extensive scholarship in Japan and China through 2004.
She taught at New York University and the University of Colorado-Boulder before joining Pitt in 1991. During her tenure at Pitt, she received numerous awards and grants, including several National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, and served on the University Senate’s tenure and academic freedom committee.
Penkower’s work focused on medieval Chinese and Japanese Buddhist history as well as modern East Asian popular religion. Among her most recent publications was the book “Hindu Rituals at the Margins: Innovations, Transformations, Reconsiderations,” 2014, which she co-edited.
“She was a fighter — clearly,” said Adam Shear, her departmental colleague since 2001 and currently acting chair. He noted that, following a cancer diagnosis nine years ago, Penkower was teaching the demanding senior capstone seminar as recently as last fall.
“She was so dedicated to mentoring the work of young scholars,” Shear recalled. “She kept on being a relentless advocate for the department, and a wonderful mentor for the faculty in the department, especially the junior faculty.”
Shear said that during her 11 years as religious studies chair, among the 11 department faculty, Penkower brought three junior faculty members to tenure, hired two assistant professors and a new lecturer and worked to get lecturers promoted — “all the while being a mentor to graduate students,” he added.
Shear was particularly struck by Penkower’s ability to teach a seminar for undergraduates and graduate students on death and the afterlife in the Buddhist tradition. “She’s teaching this seminar while she is facing this real health crisis — and kept it to herself,” he said. “I really admired her teaching this class on this topic that must have weighed personally on her mind. She was also very optimistic about being able to beat the disease.”
He recalled his last conversation with her: “‘Let’s talk about what I’m going to be teaching next fall,’ she said. She wasn’t going to say, ‘I’m going to give up’ until the end.”
She is survived by her sister and brother-in-law, Sheila and Bruce Post, as well as nieces and nephews.
Memorial donations should be directed to the GCS Project, which aims to find a cure for gynecological carcinosarcoma, at thegcsproject.org.
A memorial service for the Pitt community is set for March 18, 1 p.m. in the second-floor Alcoa Room of the School of Law, with the gathering beginning at 12:30 p.m.