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 the creative writing gives the impression of being fully engaged by the query. He leans back in his chair, to ponder his reply.
At this particular class, besides around 15 or so students, a good number of former and current alumni and faculty are present including the college’s current president, Darron Collins ‘92.
This is because the history being discussed is that of COA itself, and also because after 48 years of teaching here, Carpenter is retiring.
“Bill has been my teacher, my mentor, my friend, and my colleague,” Collins remarked 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 added, “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 the fire in 1983, which destroyed its main building, not only threatening the college’s existence but exacerbating a growing schism between COA’s new president, Judith Swazey, and many faculty members and students.
“This is beginning to sound positively Shakespearian,” Carpenter remarks at one point mid-discussion.
They kick this ball around for a while more between the students, Carpenter and the other institutional memories at the table — Gray Cox, Millard Dority, Matt Gerald to name a few — which makes it seem more like an open discussion, than a classroom lecture.
A prominent Maine poet and writer, Carpenter lives in Stockton Springs. His three books of poetry include “The Hours of Morning, Poems 1976-1979,” “Rain” and “Speaking Fire at Stones.” He authored two novels, “A Keeper of Sheep” and “The Wooden Nickel.” Of the latter, a lobster- and whale-oriented novel, the New York Times said “Melville would approve.”
Carpenter is not merely one of the early COA faculty members — he was actually the first, having come on board as a fairly new English professor at the college’s inception in 1971.
“I’ve never had to say, ‘I wish I’d been there,’” the creative writing teacher laughs during an interview in his book-lined office in Witchcliff Hall. “I was there. For all of it!”
He’s sitting behind a desk that has so many coffee stains on its white surface, I’m reluctant to put my elbow down. Old student projects 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. By 1971, he was teaching literature at the University of Chicago, when destiny called in the form of a newspaper article in the Maine Times about a new college being created on Mount Desert Island.
Carpenter says he was intrigued and sent a letter to Ed Kaelber [a founding father who would become the college’s first president].
“Ed responded, saying he was sending a board member, Cushman McGiffert, 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, cautioned COA’s founding fathers, Les Brewer, Ed Kaelber and Jim Gower, not to neglect the humanities while designing a curriculum around the fledgling concept of human ecology. His point was well taken, and the young professor who had responded to the Maine Times article seemed an excellent choice to start building the college’s 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 also was 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.
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 is the era when things went all Shakespeare and one of the most exhilarating periods of Carpenter’s life as he and others fought to continue on the path of its visionary founders.
“Hell, I thought we were better than Harvard!” he exclaimed at one point during that classroom discussion.
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.”
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. His second wife, Donna Gold, is a former director of public relations at the college.
“I simply can’t manage two lives anymore,” Carpenter says. “It’s time to marshal my energies into leading one good one.”
Carpenter will be giving a poetry reading at the Jesup Memorial Library on May 18 at 7 p.m. The library is located at 34 Mt. Desert St. in Bar Harbor.