March 31, 1957 - February 4, 2022
Dennis Witmer was born in Lancaster, PA, on March 31, 1957 and died from pancreatic cancer at his home in Spokane, WA on February 3, 2022. As the second child of the late J. Donald and R. Naomi (Shank) Witmer, he grew up on a small farm near Mount Nebo and attended River Corner Mennonite Church. He graduated from Penn Manor High School in 1975, from Millersville College in 1980 with a degree in Physics and a PhD in Materials Science from University of Pennsylvania in 1985. After a brief stint working for Bell Labs in New Jersey, he followed his wife Rachel Brubaker, also of Lancaster, to Northwest Alaska in 1987 to work at the Selawik Wildlife Refuge. In 1991, they moved to Fairbanks and three years later Witmer began teaching in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. In 1998 he became a research professor, working on fuel cells and other new technologies. He continued at UAF, mentoring graduate students until 2009, when he formed a consulting company.
Dennis was the loving husband of Rachel for 35 years and the proud father of Benjamin Tae-yung Witmer. Wherever Dennis was, laughter was sure to abound and he greatly enjoyed the company of his family and friends. Storytelling and political banter were common, and Dennis was always willing to share from his wealth of knowledge. One of his greatest joys was the view from the porch at his farm in upstate Washington. He also enjoyed cooking, gardening and keeping vigilance over the gophers.
Dennis was also an accomplished photographer, interested mostly in the American Landscape. Between 1979 and 1985 he traveled across the US by bicycle, finding this an ideal way to photograph and always a reason to stop and take a break. While in graduate school, he photographed the city of Philadelphia, as well as the forests of Lancaster County. However, his major work was the landscape of Alaska, with its beautiful, unspoiled landscapes in some places, but also showing the effects of industrialization and climate change. He published two books, Far to the North: Photographs of the Brooks Range and Front Street Kotzebue. He also had numerous exhibitions of his work.
In both his work as an engineer and as a photographer, Witmer was driven by a desire to see the world as it is, because in the long run, lies are never reassuring. As an engineer, this meant confronting overly optimistic projections about new technologies, which sometimes crossed the line into stock fraud. In photography, this meant photographing the brutal winters in Fairbanks, and the developing effects of climate change.
Witmer is survived by his wife Rachel Brubaker, his son, Ben Witmer, his mother, R. Naomi Witmer; and three sisters, Ruth Ann (John) Kulp of Harleysville, Pa, Marian Witmer of Schwenksville Pa, and Sue Witmer of Lancaster, Pa. He was preceded in death by his father, J. Donald Witmer. Also surviving are 9 nieces and 5 nephews and 3 great-nieces and 1 great-nephew.
A Zoom-Memorial Service will be held Sunday, February 27, 2022 at 4:00p.m. Eastern Time (1:00p.m. Pacific Time/12:00 noon Alaska Time). The Zoom link will be posted on Dennis' Caring Bridge Site.