Denison’s ‘Rev’ is moved by a spirit of tolerance and inclusion

Belonging & Inclusion MLK Celebration Music
January 18, 2024

Timothy Carpenter begged his mother to let him stay home.

It was April 5, 1968, the morning after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Carpenter, the only Black student in his high school in East Palestine, Ohio, recalled it being the longest day of his life.

His mother wouldn’t hear it. 

“Dr. King died for you to have the right to go to school,” she told him.

His heart heavy and his mind reeling, Carpenter boarded the bus.

“As I was making my way to my seat,” Carpenter said, “one of the students — I can tell you his name, but I’m not going to — looked up and said to me, ‘We got him.’”

Sitting in a recording studio at the Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts, Carpenter reflected on the experiences that have shaped his worldview.

The man best known around campus as “Rev” is Denison’s gospel choir director and Christian life coordinator. He teaches a course on the history of gospel and pinch hits on special projects tailored to his renowned musical talents and ability to connect with students.

Carpenter is also an indispensable resource for the campus’s annual MLK celebration.

“These days mean so much to me because of what I lived through,” Carpenter said. “Dr. King’s tenacity, his justice, his righteousness — the amount of good he did gives me energy to continue on in his legacy.”

‘The struggle’

On the first day of class in spring semester 2024, Carpenter told students it’s not his objective to make them gospel music lovers.

“I’m here to get you to understand the struggle that went into the creation of this music,” he said. “It didn’t just come out of nowhere. So that’s what we’re going to discuss. That journey, that evolution.”

Carpenter, who’s contributed to two Grammy-winning albums, has lived that struggle. Beyond the grim memories of King’s assassination, his family received threats of cross-burnings in their yard. They kept their drapes shut so as not to attract unwanted attention or gunshots through their picture window.

He realizes his perspective might have been different if his father, James, had not relocated the family from Youngtown, Ohio, after retiring from the steel mill. But adversity coupled with sound advice molded Carpenter in ways he could not have imagined that day on the school bus.

“My upbringing showed me how to get along with people who are different than me,” Carpenter said. “My parents were amazing. They taught me how to surround myself with good people and how to deal with, but not avoid, the bad ones.”

Carpenter embraces the struggle. He never loses sight of it or forgets it can be marshaled in ways to make those around him feel welcomed and included.

The ordained elder and pastor hosts a weekly “Power Hour” at Herrick Hall in which students of all faiths are encouraged to participate. His God’s Way Ministries in Columbus has assisted Denison students going through difficult spells.

“What makes him such a wonderful fit for us is his capacity to be open with everyone,” said Stephanie McLemore, director of religious and spiritual life. “He doesn’t know a stranger, and that makes him a real gem.”

Musical achievements

As Carpenter introduced himself to a new class of students, he pointed to the piano in the corner of the room. “This is my instrument,” he said.

Born into a family of musicians, Carpenter began playing piano at age 3. He was touring the country in his teens as part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and earned a music scholarship to the University of Cincinnati.

His talents as a writer, composer, and studio musician have put him in the orbit of many gospel legends. But he’s also worked outside the genre, serving as a musical director for Tony Award-winning plays in Cincinnati and performing across Europe, including a guest stint as conductor of the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg symphony orchestra in Germany.

“Rev is an internationally known musician, and you wouldn’t know it talking to him or listening to him because he’s so humble,” McLemore said.

Winds of change

Carpenter takes the same route every day to Denison, where he began working in 2010. Traveling east on Ohio 37, he gets off at the Cherry Street exit to ensure his first sight of campus is Swasey Chapel.

“It’s a centering thing for me,” he said. “When I see the chapel, I know I’m going to be OK that day.”

Carpenter loves interacting with students, especially members of his choir. Among his many highlights is the group’s 2014 performance with recording artist Bobby McFerrin in Swasey Chapel.

Madeline Borger ’24 said Carpenter allows students ample latitude to reach their potential. She recalled the choir director letting Siqi Lui ’22, a student from China, rap during a performance.

“You would see Siqi light up when she started rapping,” Borger recalled. “Rev knows how to get the best of people.”

Kwaku Akuffo ’23 spent four years getting to know Carpenter, singing in the gospel choir and assisting him in special presentations. Akuffo saw him create an immersive experience, filled with audio and visual effects, that led students on a journey from slavery through King’s march on Washington and culminating with the 1968 assassination.

“It was a cinematic masterpiece,” Akuffo said. “Denison is truly blessed to have him on campus.”

On the day after the 2016 presidential election, Carpenter sensed the tension gripping his gospel history class. He ditched his lesson plan and encouraged his students, a mix of races and ethnicities, to discuss what was on their minds. There were just two rules: Be respectful and speak from the heart.

“Rev is someone a lot of students trust,” said Toni King, director of the Center for Black Studies. “They feel like they can have honest conversations with him, and they value what he says because of his life experiences.”

Carpenter, who just celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Denise, shows no signs of slowing down. He’s working with the Black Student Union, greeting folks with coffee on many Monday mornings at the Gilpatrick House, and rebuilding the ranks of a gospel choir decimated by the Covid years.

How does a man who’s experienced so much yet has more to offer find time to unwind?

“I like to fly kites,” Carpenter said. “I brought one to campus and flew it on the football field. My dad taught me how to launch them without running. It’s a matter of patience and being cognizant of which way the wind is blowing.”

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