While on a wilderness camping trip, I received a text message that a dear colleague and mentor had suddenly died while on a 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 seven years when Gene was named Scholar in Residence in recognition of his world-class scholarship in Old Testament studies.
As I looked out over those Boundary Waters of Minnesota, I sat stunned and numb. I didn’t want to fish any more or camp and experience all of the joy of the wilderness, a trip that Gene and I had discussed a few weeks prior. And that Gene had drowned while on a fishing trip of his own took all of the joy regarding the trip away.
I remember watching the current flow past our Lake Insula campsite, aware that life and time flow along and that death is a constant reminder that we live in a broken world. I had a fishing rod nearby, the steel leader tied to a 3/4 ounce spoon, a lure that Gene and I had discussed more than once before. I felt detached from the wilderness, not desiring to cast any more, preferring to just sit and stare while wiping the tears away.
I made it back for the funeral and joined my colleagues in the foyer. Shocked, we shared stories and talked of the void that will be with us this coming year. Our captain was now gone.
Gene set the pace for us younger faculty members in our department. He taught me how to teach and develop book proposals, publish academic papers, and was a constant encouragement to me. Never was he sarcastic with me or negative, but always a cheerleader for my more social science-oriented research.
When I was named Chair, he continued to encourage me and would regularly stop in my office. Well, ‘pop’ is more like it as he just came 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.
There are some great tributes to Gene online. Author and colleague JB Stump continues to amaze me with his writing and he wrote a poignant eulogy that he gave at the funeral. Author and colleague Chad Meister also posted some great perspectives. And author and adjunct youth ministry professor-to-be Joan McClendon also wrote a touching piece.
It’s been two days now since the funeral. I peeked in Gene’s office window today, the computer power light on, the mouse aglow. Papers strewn about, the fuel for his latest work-in-progress. It’s 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’re going to leave his office for a while.