Pelham Wilder carrying the University Mace with President Brodie behind him
Centennial Spotlights

Pelham Wilder

Pelham Wilder had plenty of opportunities to leave Duke University. But, he said in a 1999 interview, “I never saw anything to entice me. Once I saw the quality of the faculty and the administration, I decided to stay.”

Wilder came to Duke in 1949 as an instructor in the chemistry department. He also taught pharmacology in the School of Medicine and served as university marshal, leading processions and making decisions for many of Duke’s important occasions.

Like many of his time, Wilder was called to serve his country. He served with the Navy during World War II and later continued his work with the ROTC. He represented Duke on the National Association of Naval ROTC Universities and was chair for six years.

In 1989, he was presented the Navy Distinguished Service award for his service to the Naval ROTC at the national level, the second highest award the Navy can present to a civilian. At the time, he said it was important that Duke take a leadership role in ROTC. “I’ve always felt that the officers of the military should be educated as well as trained.”

In addition to his scholarship at Duke, Wilder also served as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the E.I. DuPont Demours Company and the Advanced Placement program of the College Board.

His daughter, Sterly Wilder, who served as senior associate vice president for alumni engagement and development at Duke until her retirement in May 2023, remembered visiting her father’s office at Old Chemistry and then Gross Hall. “It smelled really bad,” she said in an interview. “Like chemicals.” But more than her father’s office, she recalled students coming to their home. “He was very close to his students.”

Wilder died in 2012 at the age of 92.