Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Eugene Carpenter (1943-2012)

According to orthodox theology, death has been defeated.  Well, if the war has been won, word hasn't gotten out to all of the battle sites yet.  Death still seems to be strutting around with the victor's belt, daring anyone to a fight.  I don't really have any existential angst about death when it comes to old people who have lived a good long life (perhaps I'll feel differently if I ever make it to that category).  But when it comes suddenly to people who aren't yet full of years, I have a tougher time with it.  That's what happened this week to a colleague and friend of mine.  I heard about it through an email while on vacation in northern Michigan.

Gene Carpenter went out fishing by himself on Monday, and evidently the boat got away from him when he was launching it.  Somehow he drowned attempting to recover it.  Gene was 69 years old.  That's no spring chicken.  But he had a lot of good years left.  I don't know any 69 year olds who are in better shape than he was--either mentally or physically.  He walked at the mall almost every night, and the people in the Sears sporting goods department knew him by name because he always stopped there to lift the dumbbells a few times.  He lifted weights and did push-ups during study breaks.  He did a lot of hiking and fishing, especially in his beloved Smoky Mountains.  He still read and wrote a lot.

It took me several years to call him "Gene" to his face.  He was "Dr. Carpenter" to me even when I joined the department of Religion and Philosophy as his colleague.  It's not that he expected me to call him "Dr." or "Professor" as some with those titles expect.  He was too unpretentious for that.  But as undergraduates, we were kind of in awe of him; even though we knew his first name, uttering it was tantamount to taking YHWH's name in vain.  But after I forced my mouth to say "Gene", it was as natural as calling my brother by his first name.

One year after graduation when I was still loitering around the college, he tutored me in classical Greek and Hebrew.  I'm sorry to say the Hebrew didn't stick.  I've also asked him questions from time to time about Latin, French, German, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.  He knew them all, and quite a few more.  Our tutoring sessions were down in his basement where he maintained his office.  The bookshelves stretched from one end of the basement to the other, consisting of raw pine planks on those adjustable strip shelving brackets (which is exactly the way my basement looks today).  One time when I went there he was playing the computer game Civilization II.  I was shocked, I guess unconsciously assuming that all he did was sit around conjugating verbs.  He reacted to my, "You play Civilization?" by saying, "Yes, I play it every so often when I need a break.  I especially like to reenact historical battles."  I had the very same game at home on five and a quarter inch floppy disks, but I always felt slightly guilty when I played it, thinking I was nurturing tendencies in me that would keep me from ever being the scholar I wanted to be.  Even today when I occasionally play the game (though now it is Civ V on a Steam account), I remember that episode twenty years ago and feel slightly less guilty than I otherwise would.

Gene and his wife Joyce loved the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg.  When I was still a very new professor, my wife and I celebrated an anniversary by going down there.  When he heard we'd be going over Christmas break, in a very unassuming and unimposing way he said, "Maybe Joyce and I will go down there too, and we'll take you out for dinner one night."  They did just that, and we enjoyed dinner very much as we learned about the best Elvis impersonators in town.

His earthy-ness always surprised me.  It always seemed to stand in such stark contrast to his world-class scholarship.  His office is just three doors down from mine at school, and it was a very regular occurrence for him to pop his head in and tell me something funny he'd just read.  The most recent of these was just a couple of weeks ago.  He'd been reading Augustine and came across a passage where he went on and on about flatulence.  Gene read this to me and got laughing so hard there were tears streaming down his cheeks.  I'm going to miss that.  I think that was the last conversation I had with him.

Gene wasn't perfect.  I've heard some stories from his past, and I've experienced some of his imperfection first-hand.  I suppose it's not very socially acceptable to rattle the skeletons in the closet of a guy who just died.  I gesture toward them only to set up another of the memorable vignettes from my time with him.  When I first came back to the school as a professor, Gene was the chairman of the department.  I remember him praying before one of our department meetings, thanking God for his grace and forgiveness.  There was a pregnant pause, and I peeked up to see him weeping silently into his hands.  He quickly composed himself and went on with business as usual, but I thank God for allowing me to see that moment of brokenness.

Eventually, I became Gene's boss at work.  That could have been awkward, and I certainly felt some awkwardness.  But he didn't.  He expressed some concern that going down an administrative path would keep me from the scholarship that he believed me to be capable of (he was right about that).  But even when I thought it was time for someone else to chair the department and expended a lot of administrative capital to make it happen as smoothly as I thought possible, he handled it with such grace.  The twilight of his career was marked by this graciousness to his students and his colleagues.  Would that we might all be marked by that spirit as we age, stepping out of the limelight to let the next generation take center stage!  But neither did he just drift through the motions of his job.  He continued to attract students to biblical studies and to the Old Testament in particular.  And he was still pumping out the scholarship.  I cringe to think of the unfinished projects he was working on.

I'm sad that Gene is dead.  I'm not going euphemize and say "gone" "passed away" or "went home".  I think this is the time for staring death in the face and calling it what it is.  And I don't like it when people make it sound like anything other than a tragedy.  I reject as cartoon-ish the sentiment some give (and evidently find comfort in) at such times by saying that God must have wanted him to come home.  Thinking about that for one minute makes me think that I must not worship the same God as such people (or at least that either I or they are hugely mistaken in what we take God to be like).  I do hope to see Gene again one day.  My faith and hope are in the resurrection.  We've seen the first fruits of that already, but now wait for the culmination.  In cosmic time, we're still in between Good Friday and Easter.

In the meantime, my prayer is that God would take this tragedy and somehow use it for good.  We who believe ourselves to be fighting the good fight in the business of Christian higher education have lost a comrade and an exemplar.  It's not going to be any easier without him.  May God raise up others to take his place, contributing to the foundation he laid.

Rest in peace, Gene, until you rise again to see your savior face to face.  


Eric Demeter said...

Thanks Jim for the personal account of Gene--it was encouraging and much needed.

One of my favorite memories of him was after I turned in a grad school paper for an OT Interpretation class, he left a message on my answering machine at home praising the fine work and wanting give me an A+, even though it might not be possible to give and A+ in the grading system. He went on-and-on about the paper and how well-written it was, and I remember being totally shocked while staring at the little black box. I can't remember exactly what sparked his interest so much, but it still encourages me to write and to study to the best of my abilities today.

I don't share this to tout my own academic prowess (because I actually earned a B+ form in my next class!) but to say how encouraging it was to have such a revered scholar display such humility and ill-regard for social classes--that he was willing to call a lowly student and praise him on his answering machine. That was the first and last time this will probably happen in my life, and it was from Dr. Carpenter.

To me, recounting our times with Gene inspires me to live without pretense as he did, to stay genuine, and to keep going. He was an inspiration to many, and the stories we have of him have the power to change us even through memory: This is what it means to leave true legacy, and it's makes me want to life my life as he did, in the fullness of Christ and fullness of life here on earth.

MMR said...

Very touching.

MMR said...

Very touching.