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Tuesday August 20th, 2019 8:02AM

Carpenter's unique "history" at Piedmont College

By John Roberts, Piedmont Communications

DEMOREST — Former Gainesville High standout and Major League Baseball pitcher Cris Carpenter was at a crossroads during the fall of 1997.

As a professional baseball player, he had pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, Florida Marlins, Texas Rangers, and Milwaukee Brewers. But after a storied 10-year career (where he compiled a 27-22 record mostly as a relief pitcher) his journey had taken him back to his native north Georgia.

Carpenter had saved his money but was restless and energetic. 

He needed a purpose. He needed a job.

Because he entered the draft during his junior year at the University of Georgia, Carpenter did not have a college degree. So, needing that and a bit of career inspiration, he enrolled at Piedmont College.

So, there he sat. In a third-floor room in Daniel.

The former ballplayer was 33, married, had one child and twins on the way. He was surrounded by anxious college freshmen. It was his first day of class, and he felt old.

At 12:58 p.m. Dr. Al Pleysier, Professor of U.S. History, strode into the classroom. Thin, angular and dressed in a suit and tie, Pleysier had sharp features and blue eyes. And he was all business.

The professor dispensed curt pleasantries, took roll, and then – in a soothing voice that belied his strict manner – launched into his first lecture: America during World War I.

Baseball is a game of emotional measure, discipline, and command. So, Carpenter was immediately drawn to Pleysier's command of the room. 

But he found much more in that first lecture. Inflecting and gesturing, the professor made the long-dead characters of history come alive. His stories erupted with color and emotion.

As a ballplayer, Carpenter had traveled the U.S. many times over. He had seen the historical attractions. But suddenly they seemed immensely more interesting.

"Dr. Pleysier was so passionate about teaching. And he could tell stories. For me, he opened up a whole new world of learning," Carpenter said. "After his class, I knew that I wanted to be a history teacher."

And he did.

Carpenter graduated in 1999 and began teaching and coaching at his alma mater, Gainesville High School. Modest, Carpenter rarely spoke of the transformational experience. Only his wife, Jane, knew the entire story.

In 2016, Carpenter's son, Sam, enrolled at Piedmont. Like his father, Sam pitches, and he wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do beyond baseball. Until after the first day of a second-semester class.

"My son calls me and says 'Hey, I want to be a history teacher. You see I have this professor Dr. Pleysier...' and I thought, Oh my."

Linking past to the present, Cris Carpenter told the story of how the same person had come to inspire father and son to a small baseball gathering last spring. But he had never told the story to Pleysier until the two were reconnected earlier this fall.

During a warm, hour-long conversation in the Mize Athletic Center conference room, the two discussed baseball, shared memories, their careers, and significant figures in U.S. history. Jane Carpenter was there. And so was Sam.

As is often the case between teacher and pupil, Carpenter and his son conjured vivid memories of classroom quotes from Pleysier that helped shape their thinking or impacted their lives; moments that were lost to a professor that has spent most of his life in a classroom.

They also shared stories of Pleysier's stern classroom demeanor, unchanged through the decades.

"I never smile in the classroom before Christmas," says Pleysier, perpetually friendly outside the classroom. Then Cris Carpenter says: "In my classes, I still find myself impersonating you. You are the reason that I have been teaching for over 19 years. I just wanted you to know that."

Pleysier nods smiles and enjoys the moment. A little more than a year ago, the professor, who has kept the same office since joining Piedmont in 1982, was considering retiring to his home in the country. Should he continue teaching?

"I prayed for an answer," he said. The master teacher who had provided guidance to so many was seeking some of his own.

About a week later, Pleysier received an email from a student who graduated in the 1990s and now works in higher education. She thanked him for his class. "It will be with me for a lifetime," she wrote.

A month later, a similar note arrived – this one from a student who had taken Pleysier in the late 1970s as a high school student in Texas. Another, from a member of the Class of 2014, arrived last October. And now this.

With misty eyes and an easy smile, Pleysier reads the notes and hears the stories. "All of this came so unexpectedly," he says. "I think I have my answer."

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