BAR HARBOR — Bill Carpenter leans into a question a student has asked in his history class at College of the Atlantic. Perhaps it’s to hear better — he is, after all, pushing 80. But he gives the impression of being fully engaged by the query. He leans back in his chair to ponder his reply.
In this particular class, in addition to 15 or so students, he has a good number of alumni and former and current faculty. COA President Darron Collins, himself a member of the class of 1992, is one of them.
This is because the history being discussed is that of COA itself, and also because, after 48 years of teaching here, Carpenter is retiring.
Collins has set up a still camera at his place at the conference table and has invited filmmaker Peter Logue to record the class for a film to be aired during the college’s upcoming 50th anniversary celebration.
“Bill has been my teacher, my mentor, my friend and my colleague,” Collins said after the class. “He just might be the most curious person on the planet. He’s so full of wonder about the world.
“That kind of curiosity has been elemental to this college since Bill first stepped foot on the campus in 1971,” Collins continued. “He certainly inspired me as a student back in 1989. And while we will miss him, fortunately, that wonder and curiosity is imbued in every fiber of this place and won’t be lost in his absence.”
Back in the classroom, after some thought, Carpenter passes the student’s question to one and then another of his colleagues before gently taking the reins back, adding his own take on the matter, then moving the conversation forward.
The topic at hand is a pivotal and traumatic period in the college’s history, immediately following a fire in 1983 that destroyed the main building. The fire not only threatened the college’s existence but exacerbated a growing schism between COA’s then-president, Judith Swazey, and many faculty members and students.
“This is beginning to sound positively Shakespearian,” Carpenter remarks at one point mid-discussion. Although no one died a gruesome death during the old conflict, and no togas or tights were involved, it really does.
They kick this ball around among the students, Carpenter and the other institutional memories at the table — Gray Fox, Millard Dority, Matt Gerald to name a few — which makes it seem more like an open discussion than a classroom lecture. Still, it is doubtful anyone left the room without having learned something interesting.
Bill Carpenter is not merely one of the early COA faculty members — having come on board as a newly minted English professor at COA’s inception in 1971 — he was actually the first faculty member.
“I’ve never had to say, ‘I wish I’d been there,’” he laughs during an interview at his book-lined office in Witchcliff Hall. “I was there. For all of it!”
He’s sitting behind a desk that has many coffee stains on its white surface. Student projects of yore, including a life-size, blue effigy hanging from a bookcase and a small dollhouse, are scattered about. OK, the room’s a clutter fest, but its large window offers a stunning and pristine view of Frenchman Bay.
Carpenter, a Dartmouth grad who earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota, grew up in the Waterville area, spending summers at a family home on the coast. In 1971, he was teaching literature at the University of Chicago when destiny appeared in the form of a newspaper article in the Maine Times about a new college being created on Mount Desert Island.
Missing Maine and questioning the trajectory of his own career at a time when many young people were questioning a lot about American and personal values, Carpenter says he was intrigued and sent a letter to Ed Kaelber [who would become the college’s first president].
“Ed responded, saying he was sending a board member, Cushman McGiffert [this reporter’s great-uncle], a doctor of theology, to Chicago to talk to me,” Carpenter recalls. “So that was impressive. And when Cush suggested that we have lunch at McGiffert Hall, at the university’s School of Theology, I was even more impressed.”
According to Carpenter, McGiffert, who had appropriated the term “human ecology” for the degree the new school would offer, cautioned COA’s founding fathers, Les Brewer, Ed Kaelber and Jim Gower, not to neglect the humanities while designing a curriculum for this fledgling concept.
His point was well taken, and when it appeared that the young professor who had responded to the Maine Times article would be an excellent place to start building the COA faculty, McGiffert was dispatched to convince Carpenter to drop his promising career in Chicago and come east.
“I knew it was a risk,” Carpenter says, “But the idea of being a part of this new college, this new concept, was compelling.”
He says he has never regretted the great leap of faith he took — along with his first wife Joanne, an artist who was also on the faculty by the time COA opened its classrooms to 32 students the following year.
In his near half century here, Carpenter has taught dozens of courses in including world literature, Shakespeare, creative writing, history, film, Maine Mythology, poetry and something he calls Freudian psychology and Evolution, which seem to be totally unrelated topics until he explains the connection in such a compelling way that you beg him to put it in a book, envying those who got to be his students.
His faith in the school has remained steadfast throughout — even when, a decade after it opened, the college’s main campus building, his own office included, went up in flames.
“You know, it never occurred to me we wouldn’t rebuild,” he says, “or that we wouldn’t prevail over those who said we were headed in the wrong direction, insisting we should lose the family-like aesthetic that had emerged in those early years and pattern ourselves after more formal universities such as Harvard.”
This was the era when things went all Shakespeare and, Carpenter acknowledges, one of the most exhilarating periods of his life as he and others fought to continue on the path of its visionary founders.
Eventually the loyalists prevailed. COA rebuilt a handsome new main building and has continued to build and grow both its physical presence on the shores of Frenchman Bay and its student body, which is now close to its desired capacity of 350.
“We have striven to become a small center of excellence,” he says. “And we’re just about there. We have never had a more excellent student body — just walk around the campus, it’s like the United Nations, — or a better faculty. The community support is also as strong as it has ever been.”
All of this good news is a large part of Carpenter’s decision to retire.
“I don’t think I could go if we were struggling,” he says.
If Carpenter has helped navigate COA to this sturdy place in the pantheon of America’s small colleges, he says the experience has changed him, both in the abstract and in discovering new personal strengths.
“I was never a creative writer myself, until 1985 when we held a festival here for Maine poets. It inspired me to start writing my own poetry.”
Since then he has compiled three award-winning collections of his largely narrative poems — “The Hours of Morning,” “Rain” and “Speaking Fire at Stones.” He has also written two novels, “A Keeper of Sheep,” and “The Wooden Nickel” about which a New York Times review commented “Melville would be proud.”
Asked if writing more poems and novels are part of his retirement plan, Carpenter confesses that he really hasn’t made any plans.
“For the better part of 48 years,” he says, “I have been leading two lives. My work life and my family life. He and his second wife, Donna Gold, a former COA public relations head, have a home in the coastal town of Stockton Springs.
“I simply can’t manage two lives anymore.” Carpenter says. “It’s time to marshal my energies into leading one good one.”
While acknowledging that the trend at colleges these days is to hire short-term adjunct professors, he says he hopes the COA board will seek out another energetic young educator to replace him. Someone who, as he did, will stick around and help COA set a course deep into the future and, and as he has, become a strong part of its institutional memory.
“Early on, when the question of offering our faculty tenure, came up,” Carpenter recalls, “Ed Kaelber remarked, only half kidding, ‘Oh we don’t need to offer tenure. No one will want to stay on that long.’”
It was one of the few things COA’s founding president appears to have gotten wrong, well, half wrong. Carpenter, along with many of his fellow faculty members, has stayed onboard for decades, but he says it wasn’t the promise of tenure that anchored them here. It has always been their love and loyalty to the school and the ever-sharpening clarity of its vision.
“Hell, I thought we were better than Harvard!” he exclaimed at one point during that classroom discussion.
One suspects he still does.
Carpenter will read from his work and hold a question-and-answer session Saturday, May 18 at 7 p.m. at the Jesup Memorial Library.
“I felt, if you’re going to answer to nature and this place, you better answer with poetry and not with writing about poetry,” he said.
Carpenter will also talk about the origins of the Maine Poets Festival, held on COA’s campus from 1976-1983. The gatherings grew from a small group of poets from Skowhegan, Machias, and Portland to scores from across the state.
“We beat the bushes to get every single poet in Maine to come to College of the Atlantic,” he said. “The festivals were totally democratic. It didn’t matter if they were famous, or they had been published, or hadn’t been published at all, they all got three minutes to read, and that was it.”