After more than 40 years, Professor Panek set to retire

April 27, 2010

Just mention the name LeRoy Lad Panek around the Hill and the praises pour forth in admiration for the seemingly indefatigable English professor who has served as teacher, administrator, morale booster and all-around campus cheerleader.

“He is a true scholar – always thinking and always working,” said Mary Bendel-Simso, a fellow English professor who is collaborating with Panek on an effort to unearth and establish a vast online library of detective fiction. “My research, and most of my colleagues’, stops about a month into each semester, to await the next academic break. Not so for LeRoy. He has been known to transcribe two to three stories before class and before the rest of Westminster is awake. And after walking his dogs.”

“He is one of the few teachers that I have encountered in my entire school career who brings to life the subject they teach,” said Courtney Jordan ’06. “He genuinely cares about his students and their success.”

Panek is retiring at the end of this semester. And having spent more than 40 years on the Hill – his only workplace as an adult – serving in numerous teaching and leadership roles, Panek said he finds it impossible to pinpoint a singular highlight.

No doubt, there are high points, he allowed.

He is proud of having served as the “voice of the college” by reading the names of graduates at Commencement from 1984-2004 – an assignment he took extremely seriously, making sure to learn the proper pronunciations well in advance of the ceremony. He is proud of helping to create the College’s Writing Center, along with English professor Pam Regis, in the 1980s. He is proud of the successful grant-writing campaigns that he waged to secure funding to help enrich the academic and building efforts on campus.

But for Panek, it all boils down to the relationships he has developed over the years.

“From a teaching point of view, my greatest contribution has been my students and my colleagues,” he said in a recent interview. “We have made something here together on this campus.”

In Panek, Bendel-Simso sees a man not only devoted to teaching at McDaniel, but one also committed the College community.

“He is a true Renaissance man,” Bendel-Simso said. “Not only does he teach it, but he excels in teaching, service and scholarship.”

By training a Shakespearean, Panek is an internationally known literary scholar. He has published studies of works covering four centuries of American and British literatures, concerning, among others, Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Graham Greene and Edgar Allan Poe. These have appeared in some of the field’s most highly regarded periodicals including American Literature, Modern Philology, Shakespeare Quarterly, and Studies in Short Fiction.

English professor Kathy Mangan regards him as one of the “world’s premier experts on detective and crime fiction” and said McDaniel students have benefited greatly from his teachings.

“Students know Professor Panek as an engaging instructor, whether he’s discussing a Shakespeare play, a Sidney verse, a contemporary crime novel, or semi-colons,” Mangan said. “I long ago got used to walking by a classroom and seeing LeRoy, sweeping one arm wide while wielding in the other a bloated collection of Shakespeare plays, orating from ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Henry V’ while standing on top of the table.”

In 1983, Panek was granted the College’s highest honor for pedagogy: The Distinguished Teaching Award.

“Generations of Western Maryland College and McDaniel students are the better and the wiser for having studied with Dr. Panek,” Mangan added.

Panek is an internationally recognized authority on detective fiction and other associated genres of popular literature. His analyses of specific detective authors and movements have appeared in collections published by both the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. Among his books are “Watteau’s Shepherds, the Detective Novel in Britain”; “An Introduction to the Detective Story”; “Probable Cause: Crime Fiction in America”; “Recent Hard-Boiled Writers”; “The American Police Novel”; “Reading Early Hammett”; “The Origins of the American Detective Story,” and, with McDaniel English professor Mary Bendel-Simso, “Early American Detective Stories.” Chapters from these have been widely anthologized and his work has been translated into both French and Italian.

In a review of “The Origins of the American Detective Story,” critic Jon Breen wrote that “Panek has been crime fiction’s most prolific scholar, and historian. Happily, he is also the most learned, readable, and original of mystery commentators.”

The Mystery Writers of America have awarded two of his books the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best critical or biographical work of the year, and Panek was chosen for the George Dove Award from the Popular Culture Association of America in recognition of contribution to the serious study of popular literature. He has been a featured speaker at the convention of the American Library Association and has been the Distinguished Guest Speaker at the Baker Street Irregulars’ annual Sherlock Holmes Birthday celebration.

Currently Panek is collaborating with Bendel-Simso in on-going research and production related to the Web-publication of The Westminster Detective Library, a project designed to identify, catalog, and put online all short fiction about detectives published in the United States before 1891. He has also begun work on a literary history of 19th century detective fiction.

While he will officially be retiring from the College, Panek is open to the idea of returning to the classroom next spring to teach Shakespeare.

He said, “If they ask me the right way, I'll come back.”