Friends of the University

Professor of Engineering Richard (Dick) Pefley

Longtime SCU Professor Richard “Dick” Pefley died on Oct. 6, 2009. He was 88 years old.

Professor Pefley joined the faculty of the School of Engineering in 1951 as chair of the mechanical engineering department and immediately became a favorite among students and colleagues. His keen interest in solar energy, artificial lung development, heat transfer, and gas dynamics of the Polaris missile led to numerous scholarly publications, but it was his exploration of alternative fuels in the early 1970s that made him a leading authority in the field, both in the United States and around the world. 

Pefley was passionate about finding alternatives for reducing dependence on oil imports, and he was a proponent of alcohol-based fuel “not just because it is clean burning but because it can be produced by every country, even underdeveloped countries, since it can be developed from so many sources” such as sugar cane, natural gas, and coal, he said. 

From 1969 to 1980, Pefley received millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Post Office and the California Energy Commission for alcohol car test programs, converting fleets of vehicles to use alcohol fuels. In 1980 he founded the Methanol Research Center where he led and inspired a loyal following of “alcoholics” who were as committed to alternative fuels as he, even as funding dissipated in the wake of falling oil prices. In 1982, Pefley argued, “We are making a terrible mistake by directing so many dollars into destructive weaponry when they could be going into constructive weaponry—like energy.” 

Over the years, Pefley was named ASME Fellow, testified before Congressional subcommittees, and was one of three recipients of the first SCU President’s Special Recognition Award, recognizing superior teaching, publication, and special service to the University and the community. Upon his retirement from SCU, one of his students, David Oliver ’61, wrote: He was a man of “brilliance and exciting energy. [He] blessed a generation of engineers in a time of both exhilarating and desperate technical advances. [He was] a technical man par excellance. But the technical did not detract or blind him to the wider issues of moral seriousness.”

Paul S. Russell ’78, who studied under Pefley at SCU and worked with him later at Pefley’s company, Alcohol Energy Systems, remembers his friend as “an outstanding academic, a visionary, a pioneering researcher, and a philosopher. He could engineer superbly, but in the end his greatest gift to future generations was not the courses he taught, the discoveries he made, or the systems he engineered, but his moral compass. Its cardinal points were knowledge, modesty, justice, and hard work. He was an example to all of us.”

Pefley is survived by two children, Barbara Morgan ’71 and Steven ’79. He was preceded in death by his wife, Nel.

08 Nov 2018