In Memory

In Memory: D. Rae Carpenter Jr.

Man smiling

Col. D. Rae Carpenter Jr., Ph.D. Photo courtesy Roanoke College Office of Communications and Marketing.

Col. D. Rae Carpenter Jr., Ph.D., who taught in the VMI Department of Physics for 40 years, died May 26, 2020. He was 92.

Carpenter practically grew up on the campus of Roanoke College where his father, D. Rae Carpenter Sr., was an alumnus, a faculty member and, later, the college’s registrar. He began at Roanoke College in 1945, graduating four years later with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and mathematics.

After graduating from Roanoke, he pursued a master’s degree in science in experimental physics and applied mathematics from Cornell University. He would go on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree in experimental physics from the University of Virginia in 1957. He joined the Institute’s faculty while earning his degree from Cornell, and during the next 40 years, he was one of VMI’s most popular and beloved professors.

In VMI lore, he is best remembered as one-half of the duo that he formed with his colleague and fellow Roanoke College alumnus Richard B. “Dick” Minnix. Their joint lectures were renowned for both their effectiveness in communicating the subject matter and the humor that infused them. For example, their lecture on acoustics was entitled, “Sound is Noisy.”

Carpenter and Minnix did not restrict their teaching to post or to the collegiate level. They achieved a national reputation for their development of a series of short courses on physics produced as lecture demonstrations that they presented in schools under the title, “Phun with Physics.” They would later make them available by publishing “The Dick and Rae Physics Demo Notebook,” which contains 650 physics demonstrations. It remains in print and has been purchased around the world – or, as they were fond of saying, “every continent but Antarctica.” For 25 years, Carpenter and Minnix also coordinated summer courses, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, for high school physics teachers.

In 1987, in honor of their work, they received the George B. Pegram Award of the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society for Outstanding Teaching, and in 1988, the American Association of Physics Teachers presented them with its Distinguished Service Award.

Carpenter was a visiting professor in at the U.S. Military Academy and Auburn University in 1985 and 1986, respectively. He also taught at the Virginia Governor’s School for the Gifted for five summers.

At VMI, Carpenter would become a full professor and serve as the head of the VMI physics department from 1969-74 and again for a year in the 1980s. For 22 years, he was the director of research for VMI Research Labs, which encourages faculty members to pursue research by matching them up with grants, contracts and sponsorships from government agencies, corporations and nonprofit organizations. Such was his service to VMIRL that it established the Carpenter Award, which is given to the faculty member who submits the best research proposal to the organization’s governing committee. He would also serve as the faculty representative on the VMI Foundation Board of Trustees for many years. He also was a member of the faculty committee that oversaw the Foundation’s subsidization of faculty retirement income which was necessary before improvements were made in the state’s retirement plan. In 1982, the Institute recognized his service by presenting him with its Distinguished Service Award.

Carpenter was passionate about service to his community. He was an enthusiastic member of Rotary and served in leadership positions at the local and state level and often traveled internationally for the organization. He served Lexington Presbyterian Church as a deacon, elder and treasurer, and he was on the board of the Science Museum of Virginia, the Montreat Conference Center Development Foundation and W.E. Skelton 4-H Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake. He served his alma mater as part of its Roanoke Rising Campaign, and he established a scholarship at the college for students studying mathematics or physics.

Warren J. Bryan ’71, former VMI Foundation chief executive officer, who knew Carpenter from his service on the Foundation board and remembered him from his cadetship, said, “Colonel Carpenter richly deserves his high status in VMI lore; he’s truly one of our faculty icons. He was enthusiastic about his specialty, devoted to the Corps of Cadets, and an engaging teacher and leader. He was always looking for ways to improve the effectiveness of VMI’s education and elevate its academic reputation.”

Carpenter is survived by three children, Delma Rae Carpenter III, Gordon Grant Carpenter and Barbara Elizabeth Carpenter Lutz, and their spouses; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. His wife, Jane Grant Carpenter, and daughter, Cita Anne Carpenter, predeceased him.

  • Scott Belliveau

    Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects

    The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.