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Taking a Collection for a Lifelong Giver

Benefit: Fellow liberals plan fund-raiser for activist Tim Carpenter, whose illness is all that can make him stop fighting the good fight.

May 09, 1999|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tim Carpenter has spent 20 years as the conscience of Orange County's liberal left. He organized concerts, prayer vigils and protests for causes such as nuclear disarmament, helping the homeless and abolishing the death penalty.

This time, activists and politicians from Orange County to the Bay Area are rallying around a new cause: Carpenter himself.

The 39-year-old nearly died in January of a ruptured colon and faces a second surgery later this month. The illness has strained finances for the Rosary Catholic High School teacher and his wife, Barbara, a writer. So the friends with whom Carpenter has stood in the trenches--including former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and Irvine Councilman Larry Agran--are pitching in to raise money for Carpenter's medical and living expenses.

The event is May 16 at the Corona del Mar home of Frank and Beverly Kaspar. Other organizers include state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove), labor leader Bill Fogarty, actors Robert Blake and David Clennon, and longtime activist Jeannie Bernstein of Laguna Beach, founder with Carpenter of the Orange County chapter of Alliance for Survival.

"After 20 years of helping everyone else out, it was time to help Tim out," said the Kaspars' son, Mike, who works at the Gutenberg Group, a Democratic public affairs firm in Santa Ana.

"This is as much to raise money to help him through a difficult time as [it is] to say, 'Thanks,' " he said.

Carpenter, recuperating at his Fullerton home, said he balked at the idea of a fund-raiser at first, figuring there are so many other people in worse shape than he.

"Jerry called the day after I got out of the hospital and asked what could he do; then other friends started talking about doing something," Carpenter said. "I told them I didn't want a fund-raiser. They told me to chill out and allow them the opportunity to help me. It's been overwhelming."

"He's a great guy with years of dedicated service in the Catholic Worker movement on peace and justice issues, and he's given unselfishly of his time," Brown, now mayor of Oakland, said Friday.

In 20 years, Carpenter has become a legend locally and across the state for producing results for the progressive movement, Agran said, particularly in Republican-dominated Orange County, where environmentalists and liberals more often are sneered at than saluted.

He founded Housing Now, an advocacy group for the homeless. He helped organize the cross-country March for Peace in 1986. He was a Democratic delegate for Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign and was a Jerry Brown delegate at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. He still wears a black "No Nukes" T-shirt from his days advocating a freeze on nuclear weapons.

"Tim's the kind of person who, regardless of your political views, gives citizen activism its good name," said Agran, who enlisted Carpenter's help in the early months of his short-lived 1992 campaign for president.

Other friends said Carpenter's sunny personality and gentle nature make him unique in advocacy politics. Instead of shunning opposing views, he welcomes them.

Last October, for example, he persuaded conservative Republican Robert K. Dornan, a former congressman, to speak to an overflow class of high school students in Carpenter's class.

Most recently, he has been working with Republican Assembly Minority Leader Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach on reforming the state's "three-strikes" law. Carpenter organized a group to advocate an amendment that would require a convict's third strike be for a violent felony before a sentence of 25 years to life could be imposed.

"He definitely tries to pull people together," said Democratic consultant George Urch, a Santa Ana roommate of Carpenter's in 1982. "You have to be impressed by his energy level, his intelligence, his expertise in working the system. He mobilizes people."

Carpenter was busy digging into his classwork on Jan. 16 when he had to be rushed to the emergency room at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Orange. During emergency surgery, doctors discovered that his colon had burst from a blockage in his intestines.

He spent three days in intensive care and an additional six days in the hospital. On May 21, he'll undergo surgery again to repair his colon and remove a colostomy bag.

It wasn't Carpenter's first brush with death or with medical complications. He has suffered from degenerative arthritis since he was 12 and has limited vision.

In 1982, while visiting his parents in Arizona, he had a mole cauterized. The mole turned out to be melanoma. He underwent surgery to remove the cancer but delayed a second operation until after a Rose Bowl concert for nuclear disarmament, which he helped to organize.

At the second operation, a priest administered the last rites. It proved premature, and the cancer ultimately went into remission.

"This last one made the cancer look like a walk in the park," Carpenter said. "I guess the good thing was that it happened so rapidly. By the time I realized I'd almost died, I was waking up on a ventilator."

He said his illness had one positive side effect: the ability to spend time with his wife and their daughter, Sheila, 17 months.

Carpenter already is trying to instill the protest bug in Sheila. When she was only 4 months old, he took her to her first public protest--an anti-death penalty candlelight vigil in Santa Ana.

Carpenter plans to return to his teaching post in September. Though he had worked at Rosary only three months before becoming ill, the students are eager for his return, said Lisa Nollette, Rosary's director of campus ministry.

"He made a great impression on the students," she said. "He's a real asset to our school."

For more information about the fund-raiser, call (949) 721-0338.

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