I dedicated my latest book, TEACHING THE NEXT GENERATIONS to the memory of Eugene Carpenter. He passed away in 2012, but his influence and example continues today. I posted two articles to my former blog, which was later hacked and ransacked. So, the articles are only accessible via Goodreads. Please indulge me and allow me to post them here again. With the popularity of the new book, I assume that some may be curious to learn more about Gene beyond his extensive publishing record.
[Originally posted July 10 & 11, 2012. Combined, adapted and edited on Sept. 17, 2016]
While on a wilderness camping trip to the Boundary Waters, I received a text message that a dear colleague and mentor had suddenly died while on his fishing trip. Eugene Carpenter (1943-2012) was the Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department when I was hired at Bethel College, a position that I have now held for eleven years when Gene was named Scholar in Residence in recognition of his world-class scholarship in Old Testament studies.
We were in shock. If you would’ve peeked in Gene’s office, you would’ve seen the computer power light on, the mouse aglow, papers strewn about, the marks for his latest work-in-progress. It would’ve looked as if he’d just sat there a few minutes prior and stepped out to lift weights, eat a bite, or go see his wife Joyce for a lunch date.
And that’s how we left it for almost a year. The captain was gone.
I remember the first time I met Gene, it was on my first day to interview for an open faculty position at Bethel College. As a longtime youth worker, I was terrified of the jump into college teaching and felt over-matched intellectually (I still do). When I met Gene the first time, he spoke to me in Hebrew (one of the seven languages he knew and one of four that he could write with ease). That didn’t help matters much. I was terrified.
I had known of Gene from a distance, this world-renowned Bible scholar who Chaired the Department of Religion and Philosophy. I was at Bethel College to interview for the new director position of their new youth ministry degree program. The jump from the practical ministry world to academics is a big one, and the gap is wider than many pastors who want to be profs think it is. It’s even more intimidating to move into a department that held biblical languages to such a high value when I hadn’t taken any in my schooling.
Fortunately, I never felt out of place, and Gene was regularly encouraging and excited for my candidacy. I made it to the second round of interviews, the level where I just “knew” that questions about my lack of biblical languages and general ignorance would come up. As I walked into the faculty conference room in advance of that interview, I found Gene and one of the college’s VP’s watching Rodeo Bloopers on a TV. I think it was at that point that I thought, “Ah, I can work here with real people like this!” My life felt like blooper reel sometimes! The thought was echoed when Gene took me to Steak and Shake (he even asked for a Green River soda not on the menu) and we listened to Johnny Cash (check out David Urbanski’s book on Cash) on the way while talking about Elvis impersonators.
There were six of us “young” profs in our department and every week was “school” for us on how to be a dedicated teacher and an author. We learned by watching Gene crank out first-class scholarship while living life well (and with laughter) with those around him. He loved lifting weights, fishing, movies, eating out, and anything Tennessee. Gene set the pace for us younger faculty members in our department. He taught us how to teach and find time to develop book proposals, publish academic papers, and write books. Never was he sarcastic with me or negative, but always a cheerleader for my more social science-oriented research.
And he loved his wife, Joyce. In fact, at his funeral, it was his love for Joyce that told the story of the greatness of the man more than the countless books, papers, commentaries and Bible translations that he produced and contributed to. And we experienced Gene’s affection through encouragement. In fact, I can’t remember a single corrective moment from him personally (there were plenty in meetings when it came to the college and its mission. He was fiercely dedicated to biblical theology and education that informed ministerial practice), but his relationship with us was a constant push toward the ideal and better way (and he knew we’d figure out what not to do).
When I was named his successor as Chair of the department, he continued to encourage me and would regularly stop in my office. Well, “pop in my office” is more like it as he would just come in to discuss what was on his mind. It was often an administrative or philosophical matter, but more often than not to talk about fishing. Here was one of the great Old Testament scholars in the world (the world!) who was as genuine as can be, not detached like many who have reached his level of renown.
When I think of II Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth“, I think of Eugene Carpenter’s life and commitment to Scripture.
It’s been four years now, which seems strange to see on the screen as I type it. It seems like it was just this past summer. And I now have his old office, though it has been updated a bit. Or has it? Really it hasn’t. It’s current resident won’t even come close to matching the pace and depth of the previous occupant.
But I’m gonna’ try! It’s what Gene would tell me to do as he’d head out the door for his next Tennessee fishing trip.
There were many great tributes written to Gene online. Author and colleague J.B. Stump wrote a poignant eulogy that he gave at the funeral. Author and colleague Chad Meister also posted a rich perspective. And author and women’s leadership thought leader Joan McClendon also wrote a touching piece.