June Pfister Gray was a woman ahead of her time

Drs. June and Rudy Pfister
Drs. June and Rudy Pfister

By KIMBERLY MARCOTT WEINBERG

 

            Some days, it must have been Dr. June Pfister's brilliance that got her through.

 

            How else could she have taken exams without having had a chance to study due to family illness? How else could she find time to serve on the school board, the PTA, Eastern Star, the

 

4-H Council, the Newcomers Club, the AAUW and the DAR (as an officer in several instances) while working as a scientist or engineer and raising five children?

 

            Pfister, a math and chemistry professor at Pitt-Bradford from 1963 until 1981, was a thoroughly modern woman who was decades ahead of her time in balancing her research, work and teaching with obligations to community and family. She was a superwoman even by today's standards, but she was accomplishing this in the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s.

 

            So it is in one way surprising (and in another way not at all) that she was known to a generation of Pitt-Bradford's earliest students as “Ma” Pfister. That is where the heart comes in - the big ones she and her husband, Dr. Rudy “Pa” Pfister, had.

 

            Alumni from the 1960s routinely refer to the Pfisters, who both taught, by their parental monikers.

 

            The Pfisters' daughter, Mary Pfister Benton '65, remembers that there were often students studying around her family's dining room table. Once their own children were gone, the Pfisters rented out their attic to students in their large Jackson Avenue home. The students got a shelf in the refrigerator in the family kitchen to store a few provisions and could easily walk to Hamsher House next to the hospital for classes and Emery Hall downtown for meals. The Pfisters also kept the students on the straight and narrow.

 

            June Pfister's smarts had to have helped her keep all the balls in the air - students, children, spouse, friends, community. Something must have come easily for her, right?

 

            An Ohio native, June Braun went to Oberlin College in 1933 on a math scholarship as the top algebra student in the state. In the spring of her freshman year, her roommate, who was also a chemistry major, fainted during chemistry lab. June was called to assist her friend back to the dorm, as was the graduate student in charge of the lab, Rudy Pfister.

 

            The two began dating and married two days after Christmas during June's sophomore year, but kept the marriage a secret so that she would not be expelled from school. At the end of that academic year, the couple moved to State College, Pa., and Rudy Pfister began working on his doctorate at Penn State while June finished a bachelor's and a Master of Science in physical chemistry.

 

            During World War II, she worked as a chemical engineer with Dr. J.G. Aston at Penn State on a project for the National Defense Research Committee to build a skid-mounted unit to produce oxygen for field hospitals by liquefying air and fractionating it.

 

            Rudy Pfister received his doctorate in 1942 and served as an assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering before becoming involved with research on Penn Grade crude and moving to the Bradford oil field.

 

            The family, now with several small children, settled in Limestone, N.Y. After a couple of years working in research with Schlumberger Well Surveying Corp., June became an engineer and sales research manager at Clark Brothers Co., a division of Dresser Industries.

 

            “At that time, she couldn't get paid more than the secretary to the president,” the Pfisters' daughter, Benton, recalled, because the secretary to the president was the highest-paid

 

woman.

 

            It was one of the few instances of gender issues Benton observed as a girl.

 

            “I didn't realize there were male and female roles because growing up in my house, there weren't,” she said. “Mom bought the car, and one time, she even moved the whole family to Olean, N.Y., while Dad was on the road.”

 

            When Pitt-Bradford opened in 1963, however, June Pfister saw an opportunity.

 

            “I was hired to teach math; the chemistry teacher did not show up, so I convinced Rudy to teach that year,” she said in an autobiography she wrote for her family while recovering from an illness in 1991. Rudy Pfister would not stop teaching until he died in 1971.

 

            “Teaching at UPB gave Rudy and me the opportunity to be together again in a laboratory setting. It also enabled us to send our children to college. Now that I am retired, I miss working with the students.”

 

            Mary Cattoni Rizzo '66 remembered the Pfisters and their large home in Bradford. “June Pfister made her science classes extremely interesting, and they had study halls at their home almost every week.” Rizzo said that in the late afternoon and early evening, both professors would be at home and were willing to go over things for as long as it took for students to understand.

 

            “They had a big house, and there were always a lot of people there. These courses were not the easiest to take. It was just a wonderful environment.”

 

            June never rested on her laurels, however, earning her doctorate in chemistry from Penn State in 1967 after four years of commuting. On the night before her oral dissertation defense, she was up all night with Benton, who had been sick.

 

            “Nothing stopped Mom,” Benton said.

 

            That would continue to be true as June nursed her husband, Rudy, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1971. He died within a few months. She had taken a sabbatical that year to help the city of Bradford get a new program off the ground, Model Cities, which then-president Dr. Donald Swarts had gotten her involved with.

 

            The following year, she would return to Pitt-Bradford, where she taught until 1981. After leaving Pitt-Bradford, she moved to Principia College in Elsah, Ill., and taught organic and biochemistry for four more years before returning to Bradford. In 1976, she married Vernon Gray, but was widowed again three weeks later.

 

            She barely slowed down in retirement, serving on Bradford City Council, remaining active in civic life and being “Ma” to many of the people she came in contact with. She died in 2000.

 

 

            The Dr. Rudy Pfister and Dr. June Pfister Gray Scholarship has benefitted 19 students science students since it was created in 2001. To contribute, contact Jill Ballard, executive director of institutional advancement, at 814-362-5091 or jballard@pitt.edu.