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Chemist engineers a better environment

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It started in boyhood with a chemistry set, the polluted air and water around him and learning about something called the environment as a sixth grader.

Early awareness propelled Dayton Carpenter's career as a nationally recognized chemist and environmental engineer committed to improving air and water quality in West Virginia and elsewhere.

Design awards abound for work on water and wastewater plants, removing hazardous waste and curbing chemical emissions that foul the air.

Inspired by the two principles that guide his life -- "leave the world a better place" and "do it right or don't do it" -- he masterminded construction of Celebration Station in the East End and heads Together We Build, an organization that refurbishes homes for the poor.

At Christ Church United Methodist, he coordinated a multimillion-dollar rebuilding and renovation project.

Maybe he can't change the whole world, but he's doing what he can to improve his corner of it.

He's 64.

• • •

"I grew up in Dunbar. Dad was a milkman for Greenbrier Dairy, or Meadowgold. I was blessed to grow up where I did, although it was rental housing. We had very little money.

"In the sixth grade, I got a Gilbert chemistry set for Christmas. It changed my life. This was 1961, the start of the space age. My heroes were the Mercury astronauts. I started experimenting in a shack behind our house, my rocket lab. I had my chemistry set out there trying to make rocket fuel.

"I played with making homemade gunpowder. I could make quite a fire. I was sitting on an old steamer trunk one day packing a steel water pipe with my homemade rocket fuel. It blew a hole in the side of the shack. I came out with singed eyebrows.

"I started messing with zinc and sulfur and match heads to get as much thrust as possible. I couldn't come up with this nozzle. I was doing the same thing as Homer Hickam at the same time, but I just couldn't come up with a nozzle. I finally got them to launch a few hundred feet.

"A friend graduating from WVU law school invited me to the commencement. Hickam was the speaker. I remember his three P's for success: Have passion for what you want to do, patience to let it happen and perseverance to see it through.

"A friend had given me a copy of 'Rocket Boys.' On stage, one of the deans pointed to her watch to say it was time to go. We were on the upper deck. My wife said, 'You are not going to get your book signed.' I reminded her of what he said about perseverance. I grabbed the book and ran down two flights of stairs. They were running to get to the airport.

"The woman with him said he wouldn't have time for autographs. I told her I just wanted to thank him for the memories and that I'd had an FAA license to launch rockets on the football field at the University of Cincinnati. He stopped in his tracks. 'You launched rockets and had an FAA license?' He grabbed my book and wrote: 'To Dayton, a Rocket Boy.'

"It always perplexed me that we had so much black soot on the cars in Dunbar. There was hardly a day when you could see blue sky. We had carp and catfish belly up on the water. The water we drank had a weird taste. You could barely breathe if you drove through Nitro.

"In my ninth-grade civics class, they talked about environment, your surroundings, and how you needed to take care of your surroundings. I thought mine had to be better.

"I had this affinity for chemistry. I didn't know how to clean up the environment. I decided to go into chemical engineering, maybe work in the plants and figure out how to clean up how we do things.

"I studied chemical engineering at Cincinnati in '68 and '69. I had long hair, the beard. I was a Vietnam War protester, went to rock concerts, made crystal balls. I can remember going to the Diamond Department Store in '68 and getting on an escalator and this kid comes up and says, 'Mommy, Mommy, there's a hippie!

"People in the dorm knew I liked to tinker. After a football game, somebody brought in a streetlight and said to make a crystal ball. A friend gave me his busted radio with a motor. I came up with a crystal ball that would change colors. The head shops asked if I could get a peace sign to come up. I worked on it one whole weekend. I found the focal length necessary for the peace sign to come up. I sold the ball for $60. I only had $1.89 in it. I probably made 20 while I was at Cincinnati.

"I still had this burning desire to do something about the environment. I decided to go to West Virginia State and work full time. I worked as a draftsman for Milam Engineering in Dunbar and studied chemistry and math. All but one of my professors were PhDs. Dr. Jim Brimhall taught me how to think critically and analytically. He was in astrophysics.

"I wanted to do a study of the Kanawha River. He got a fishing boat and we started at Glen Ferris and came all the way down to St. Albans, taking samples and measuring.

"I learned that yes, chemical plants do pollute, but not nearly as much as untreated raw sewage. I said then and there I would try to design water and waste water plants to give people good drinking water and clean up the dirty river water.

"I made a career out of designing water and wastewater treatment plants that did the job and were cost-effective.

"I won a lot of awards for doing that, but the biggest reward is that people have good water. I wanted my kids to drive across the St. Albans-Nitro Bridge and not smell rotten potatoes and to catch fish in the Kanawha River. Those things have come to pass.

"My guiding principles are to do it right or don't do it and to leave the earth a better place. If there's a crummy part of town, leave it a better place.

"In 1994, we had a Sunday school class here at Christ Church Methodist looking to see what we could do to make a difference in our community. We didn't have to look far. The playground across the street was nothing but asphalt with broken glass next to a drug house.

"I thought we would raise money and build a playground. But we thought they would just tear it up. So the concept of a community built playground was hatched. Through newspapers and TV, we were able to tell our story. The project grew from $30,000 to $200,000. The city of Charleston, Gov. Underwood, everybody came to the table. We had 3,000 volunteers and built this playground in six days.

"Somebody bigger than me has my back. If you are doing something for the right reasons, things happen.

"I got a call from Sandra Hamlin from the Religious Coalition for Community Renewal. I was on their board. She said a new program was coming out to renovate houses for low-income homeowners.

"I said I'd given a year of my life building the playground and I was done. But they showed a video at the third meeting of a lady at the kitchen table with her children. It was a wretched place. Then all these volunteers came out on a Saturday and put in new cabinets and windows and painted. My tears rolled. I said I would get the program started. I've been president for 17 years.

"About five years ago, we were re-branded as Rebuilding Together. We have as many as 500 volunteers, and we're doing over 100 houses a year.

"Here at the church, I'm chairman of the board, so when our tower and education wing were in bad shape, I was asked to be point person to do something about it. We have faithfully restored the tower. It has been a real joy to look at the old rebuilding plans, the vision people had when the church burned.

"From my old Celebration Station days, I've got this thing: Vision without action is just a dream, and action without a vision is just passing time. You could put in some playground equipment and not have anything. But if you have action with a vision, you can change the world. That what it's all about, being able to see the whole picture.

"I've had several monumental projects in my career. One is the train derailment in Point Pleasant that contaminated the city well field. In five days, we laid 3,000 feet of line to restore water.

"The Fike-Artel thing was even bigger. We had 10,000 gallons of methyl mercaptan on a Superfund site in Nitro. If released, hundreds of people would be killed. The safest way to remove it was to do it with the PhDs. I trained them, put them in moon suits, did the chemistry, figured out the scrubbers and worked with the engineers.

"We transferred it successfully and won the grand prize for the environmental engineering from the American Academy of Environment Engineers.

"Since 2006, I've been an environmental consultant to chemical and coal companies, Thrasher Engineering and others. My greatest joy is working with my son, Jonathan, who runs Thrasher. My son, Jeff, runs Land Rover/Jaguar for Smith Company Motors

"I work 80 percent of the time. Barbara and I travel a good bit. I've got to pinch myself sometimes. Is this really real?"

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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