We began our relationship in 2001 at Bethel College, where I was staff member working in the IT Department and he was a Hebrew and Old Testament professor. I desired to take graduate classes in theology but knew Bethel was a conservative Protestant College, and I had a Roman Catholic upbringing. This made me wary of potential theological differences, and the type of education I would receive. One day, at a staff and faculty event, I noticed Dr. Carpenter in conversation with Dr. Long, and tentatively approached them with my reservations about the program. They listened patiently and quickly dispelled my concerns, saying that their focus was on Biblical Theology not on denominationalism, and that I would not get “indoctrinated” with Protestantism. This put me at ease, and I appreciated their kind and gracious attitude toward me. Then, over the next three years, as I pursed my education, I had the privilege of taking two classes with Dr. Carpenter: Old Testament Interpretation and Exodus.
Over the next several years, our relationship grew on and off campus, and I began sitting with him and his lovely wife at church on Sundays. After the service, we would sometimes go out to lunch at either of his favorite restaurants: Arby’s or Culver’s, where he would rarely escape my biblical inquisitions. One time during church, as we all sang during the worship time, he leaned over to me and asked, “Do you know what the difference is between Hallelujah and Alleluia?” I replied “no”, and he instructed me the former is Hebrew while the ladder is Latin. This brought a smile to my face because I always appreciated his tutelage, even outside the classroom. My friendship with Dr. Carpenter meant being in a continual practicum, and I heartily accepted it.
Another favorite memory of Dr. Carpenter was after I submitted a lengthy paper on The Book of Deuteronomy. A few days later, I returned home from work and had a message from him on my answering machine. His message was about my paper and he was clearly excited. For the next several minutes, he went on-and-on praising it, stating how excellent it was, wanting give me an A+ (even though, as he stated, it might not be possible to actually give and A+ in the grading system). As I stood speechless listening to the little black box, I was obviously thrilled to have such a renowned professor calling me, and remember being so proud to tell my friends that Dr. Carpenter had called me at home. The final paper took me many grueling hours to write, and I knew it was solid, but I never dreamed there would be a message from my professor about it—I’m not sure how he even got my phone number! He didn’t have to call; he could have waited. He could have just perused my paper and wrote a thoughtful response on the last page. But Dr. Carpenter took the time to make a phone call and to leave a sincere message without a hint of pretense. To this day, when I think about this, his actions still encourage me to learn, to study, and to write to the best of my ability.
Academically, Dr. Carpenter’s achievements well preceded him at Bethel College and throughout the nation. He authored numerous commentaries on books of the Bible include Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Daniel. He also taught several Biblical languages including Hebrew and Greek, and even helped translate the Book of Exodus for the New Living Translation. In fact, there are too accomplishments for me to list, and many of which I am unaware, but those closer to his academic circles could readily list dozens more published works. My epitaph is less about his curriculum vitae and more about his life in general, because he was one of the most balanced and diverse individuals I have ever known.
Gene Carpenter truly was a man of many talents and interests, who was just as at home in the Smokey Mountains as he was in classroom, who could bounce easily from college professor to Sunday school teacher, from outdoorsman to husband, and from professor to friend. He also loved bodybuilding, movies, theology, teaching, fishing, his wife, and eating at Coney Express Hot Dogs.
To me, recounting the diversity and fullness of his life inspires me to live humbly as he did, to stay genuine, and to live a life worthy of writing about. Who he was, and the life he led was an inspiration to many, and the stories we have of Gene have the power to change us, even through his memory. I am thankful he also wrote many published works from which we can still study.
Death does have a way of refocusing us and our priorities, of remembering what is important, and of not taking for granted the family and friends who are still in our lives today. Of course, sayings like this are cliché-ish, but there is a reason we always recite them when someone dies: because, like death, we cannot escape our desperate attempts to find what is truly important in life. And when we find them, it would do us well to keep them close by, to nurture them, and not forgot what or who they are. It is certain that our lives here will end, but our legacies can inspire others far beyond the short number of years we spend on earth. There are no tomorrows for my professor, but he lived-well plenty of todays. Like Gene, let us lead full lives, embracing today what is not guaranteed to us tomorrow.
I am sad to say I don’t have any pictures with Gene. But he will always be my friend and my teacher, instructing me even from death, by the life he lived–a legacy to which we can all aspire.
-Eric Demeter, M.A., Bethel College, 2005
Photo courtesy of Bethel College