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Charles Pettis – the forgotten physicist

Written By: Phillip Stone - Jul• 11•12

Charles S. Pettis served on the Wofford faculty for some 34 years, but he’s almost part of a “lost generation” of professors.

He arrived after long-time professors such as D. D. Wallace, Coleman Waller, John Clinkscales, and James A. Chiles, and was more of a contemporary of Kenneth Coates, John L. Salmon, and W. R. Bourne.  All of these professors came in the 1920s and served into the 1960s, except for Pettis himself.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1892, Charles Semple Pettis was educated at the University of Wisconsin, where he took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and physics.  He also did graduate work at Duke, UNC, and Harvard. Later in life, he was an officer in the Harvard Club of Western South Carolina.  He was a college administrator early in life, serving as dean at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia, and then as president of Morris-Harvey College in West Virginia, both before he was 32.

He joined the Wofford faculty in 1924 as a professor of physics and chemistry, though for the most part, he taught physics.  He was also a mathematician, and was involved with the American Mathematical Society.

Kenneth Coates, his longtime colleague, recounted a story of Professor Pettis’s generosity during the Great Depression.

“It was in the dark days of the Depression, ‘those gray and haggard days,’ as Dr. Snyder described them.

“I was standing on the steps of the library, wondering where I could get a few dollars to buy groceries. I was the baby of the faculty at the time, having been at Wofford only three or four years.

“Professor Pettis came up the steps, spoke to me, and went on into the library. Whether he sensed my difficulty I do not know.

“When he came out of the library with a magazine a few minutes later, he came up to me and put something into my hand, concealing it with his own and folding my fingers over it. Then he said, ‘I won’t take any argument about this. You can pay me back when you can, but don’t pay me until you are able.’

“I started to protest, but he would not hear it and hurried on down the steps. When I opened up my hand, there was a crumpled five-dollar bill.”

            A mass of faculty retirements right after World War II meant that Professor Pettis went from being one of the junior to one of the senior professors.  He continued to teach physics through the spring of 1958, when he died suddenly at age 65.  His colleagues remembered him for his breadth of knowledge – they noted that he enjoyed history and literature, with a special interest in the Civil War, as well as his own fields.  He died too soon to see the new Milliken Science Hall completed.

Perhaps instead of being part of a lost generation, we ought to remember him as part of a bridge between the older generation of President Snyder’s professors and a younger generation who taught into the later 20th century. He was around to teach the GI generation in the immediate postwar years, often, if the stories are true, being led off topic to talk about one of his favorite things – Virginia ham.

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