Along the Pinellas Bayway to Tierra Verde there's a 3- by 1-foot brown sign sandwiched into a lineup of five other road signs. Unobtrusive, it is likely missed by the thousands of drivers who pass it every day. Like so many others, this sign dedicates the stretch of highway to an individual. In this case, the individual is P.E. "Gene" Carpenter, former Florida division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.
Carpenter was a 6-foot-3 Sooner more often found in the workshop with an acetylene torch than in front of a TV, said his daughter, Shelley. Raised on 160 acres of poor Oklahoma riverbed soil, Carpenter studied his way into the University of Oklahoma, turning down a full scholarship to MIT to work on his farm on the weekends.
"He was definitely old-school Oklahoma tough guy," Carpenter's son, Tom, said.
Unable to enlist in the military because of a heart murmur, he worked for the Oklahoma Highway Department before being hired by the Federal Highway Administration in 1961.
In his time with the FHWA, Carpenter oversaw the reconstruction of two massive bridge collapses, including the Silver Bridge in West Virginia and the Sunshine Skyway, according to his daughter and a state bill designating the road in Carpenter's honor. He was so integral to the Silver Bridge's completion, his daughter said, that West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller had him flown from Florida for its opening.
Jeffrey Paniati, the current executive director of the FHWA, worked under Carpenter as an engineering trainee for six months in 1983 and 1984.
"You just knew this guy was in charge," Paniati said, "and that he had the respect of the staff in the office and the respect of the partners — the folks that we worked with at the State Department and at the local level."
Though Paniati recalls a lasting image of Carpenter sitting back in a large chair with boots on his desk, Carpenter wasn't one for his office. He would frequently sit down for coffee with the staff, and hosted holiday parties for employees at his home.
For Carpenter, who retired to Shell Point on the coast of the Florida Panhandle in 1986 with his wife and two dogs, and who died early this year, working at the FHWA was more than just a way to put bread on the table.
"I always think that dad was upset because he was never in the military," his daughter Shelley said. "He was a patriotic guy. So being in the federal government was his way of serving, and that was far more important to him than the amount of any paycheck."