Carpenter, MSU's First Computer Science Teacher, to Retire

Back in 1978, Midwestern State University had one working computer. It was used for payroll and data, and by Dr. Stewart Carpenter, the new faculty member hired to develop a computer science curriculum. Over the past 34 years, a few changes have taken place in technology. Computers no longer take up a whole room. They sit on our desks and we hold them in our hands. MSU has gone through mountains of computers, and hundreds of students have since graduated with degrees from the program Carpenter started from scratch. At the end of the semester another change will take place when Carpenter retires from the department he began.

Carpenter is an Aggie "three times over," receiving his bachelor's degree from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas in 1962, and his master's and doctorate from A&M in 1968 and 1972. Teaching was not the direction he pictured his career path taking. "I didn't think about teaching. I didn't even know what computer science was until I went for my master's." But he moved his family to Wichita Falls in 1978 for his new job at MSU as the director of the computer science center and first faculty member of the brand new computer science department. After one year of heading both the computer center and the department, he was given the choice to head one or the other. "I chose the better part, the education," Carpenter said with a smile.

In 1978, MSU President Jesse Rogers was the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Carpenter is appreciative of Rogers' support and faith in him as the leader of the new program. One of Carpenter's first assignments was to find additional faculty. In those early days, he relied on the math department to help him out with teaching until he could find others, and by 1980, mathematicians Richard Simpson and Dr. Ranette Halverson had joined Carpenter to form the original computer science department. Both are still teaching at MSU. James Chalfant came to the department in 1981 and taught until his death in 1996. The faculty has grown to include Dr. Nelson Passos, Dr. Tim Donovan, Dr. Catherine Stringfellow, Dr. Tina Johnson, and Dr. Terry Griffin. Johnson and Griffin are products of the department, both receiving their bachelor's and master's degrees from MSU, giving them a unique perspective on Carpenter.

"I was his student many years ago and am currently his colleague and friend," Johnson said. "As a student, I always found Dr. Carpenter to be knowledgeable and fair. His assignments were challenging, but appropriate for the course; and he was always willing to help when I showed up at his office. He is as patient and understanding with his students today as he was when I was a student."

Carpenter won't want talk about the department's success without naming his fellow educators and their roles, and those teachers return the respect, calling Carpenter their leader. "When we didn't know anything we went to him," Simpson said. "For almost 10 years he was our leader in guiding us in the direction we needed to go. Without Dr. Carpenter we couldn't have pulled this off. He created the original program. He designed the master's program. Then we really took off." Carpenter directed both the bachelor's and master's programs until Donovan, then Halverson, took over the undergraduate program. Passos took over the graduate program three years ago.

Halverson has a tough time thinking about MSU without Carpenter. "A few sentences are simply inadequate in expressing the contribution that he has made to both the Department of Computer Science and to Midwestern State University," she said. "In addition, his kindness and patience with both faculty and students alike helped in the development of the great reputation that this department enjoys. In all respects he has been both a gentleman and a scholar. In Dr. Carpenter's approximately 10 years as chair, he not only led the way in the development of a viable department of students, but in the development of the two mathematicians into computer scientists," Halverson said of herself and Simpson.

Carpenter believes that the faculty's cohesiveness is part of the department's success in turning out graduates who advance to successful careers in the high-tech computer world. "It's more like a family than a business organization," Carpenter said. That family atmosphere is also part of the reason Carpenter has stayed at MSU. "I might have made more money someplace else, but I wouldn't have liked it as much," he said. Along with his colleagues, the general college environment and the community spirit of Wichita Falls have also been factors in Carpenter's longevity at MSU, even though within his first few years here, the city had its coldest winter on record, the 1979 tornado, and the 1981 flood. "Someone tried to drive us off," he said laughing.

To encourage student development in the professional field, and for students to receive recognition for their research, Carpenter organized chapters of the Association for Computing Machinery and Upsilon Pi Epsilon, the international honor society for computing sciences. To support student research presentations, Carpenter initiated the North Texas Area Student Conferences. At the 16th annual conference held March 31, more than 138 students attended, with 40 college students from 11 colleges and universities making presentations. Students from five area high schools attended.

As the department grew from the one shared mainframe to personal computers, Carpenter said that they kept up as best as they could, making sure to teach fundamentals, making changes as the program matured, and accepting the fact that change will be the constant throughout the years of the program. "Changing the curriculum takes research because you have to live with it," Carpenter said. He studies other schools and the industry to see what aspects may be beneficial to teach, and still sees some vestiges of the early curriculum such as introductory programming and foundations of software development. Another consideration is that students today have been using technology since their childhood in home computers, phones, and games.

Carpenter's post-retirement plans include some quality time with his four children and his grandchildren, and maybe some continued consultation with MSU. Even though he won't be present in his office each day, those still teaching will feel Carpenter's presence. "The Department of Computer Science is the successful department it is today because of the strong leadership and dedication of Dr. Carpenter," Halverson said. "We all owe him a debt of gratitude."

Retiring MSU Faculty

Other retiring faculty members this year are Nancy Steele English, Art; Ann Estrada, Education; Michael Land, Education; Charles Ramser, Business; Robert Redmon, Education; Randy Pruitt, Mass Communication; Fred Stangl, Biology; and Friederike Wiedemann, Foreign Languages.

After a luncheon hosted by the Texas Association of College Teachers, the Student Government Association will honor faculty retirees with its annual tree planting ceremony at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 2, on the lawn south of the University Press Building.