Resilient Volunteers

Dave and Penny Carver

After a successful 28-year career in pharmaceutical sales and marketing operations, Dave Carver (HCB, ’83) was at the top of his game when a moment came that changed his life forever. While attending a concert with his wife, Penny, Dave began to feel unwell. He lost consciousness and fell on his head, sustaining a spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic.

“I was flat on my back, not able to move anything below my neck,” says Dave. “All the quotes I used to use to motivate everyone else, I had to start applying to myself. I could give up, but why would I want to do that?”

A gifted leader at work, Dave realized he was the one who needed motivation now. With the same upbeat attitude that helped him tackle college in a different region of the country and lead teams and corporations to success throughout his career, he would tackle the biggest project of his life-regaining his mobility.


Dave originally set off to attend the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, after growing up in New Jersey. “I had no real idea what I was getting into as I loaded up my old convertible and aimed it south for the 11-hour drive,” he says, with a laugh. He fared well in a freshman accounting course and decided to pursue it as his major. It was a smart decision, considering he says he’s used the skill in every job he’s ever held despite never working as an accountant. “The degree is more helpful than you may imagine if you want to run a business or a significant part of a large corporation.”

Dave met Penny, a student in the College of Arts & Sciences, while they were students at UT. When he graduated, they both moved back to New Jersey, where Dave worked in a hospitality business for a few years before a fellow Haslam alumnus, Deborah Estrin (HCB, ’82), offered him a job at Ciba-Geigy, a pharmaceutical corporation.

It was the beginning of a dramatic ascent. Within a few years, Dave became marketing systems manager and was sent off to oversee two international projects, the first in Basel, Switzerland, and the second in Sydney, Australia, where Dave and Penny were married in 1992. Shortly afterwards, the Carvers returned to New Jersey, where Dave became Ciba-Geigy’s head of field support, overseeing systems and processes while navigating through two company downsizings and a merger. “Pharmaceutical corporations had to go through major downsizing in the 1990s, and all of a sudden their processes needed to be made more efficient,” he says. “I was very ruthless about what was working and what was not while finding ways to help my team work smarter. My ability to look at processes from a different perspective enabled me to rise from a manager to an executive director role over my career.”


In 1996, Ciba-Geigy merged with Sandoz to create a new company, Novartis. It was the biggest merger in pharmaceutical history, and Dave tackled the formidable task of leading his team forward with his typical drive. After the merger, the company doubled in size and ultimately employed eight times the previous number of drug representatives. “We had to rethink the way we did everything,” says Dave. “We basically broke all the systems our sales force used and put them back together better again.”
Over the next six years, Dave directed sample operations for Novartis, applying his accounting skills to helping the sales force balance the millions of Rx samples given to healthcare offices. He also worked on improvements to sample packaging and came up with the idea of vouchers for doctors to hand out to patients, who could then redeem them at a drugstore for samples. “Using techniques learned in cost accounting classes, I was able to show Novartis how we could account for vouchers in the same way we did samples,” he says. “That changed the way we did business.”

In 2003, pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough recruited Dave. The company was in trouble, and Dave followed his previous boss from Novartis to lead the sales operations function. “Working under a corporate integrity agreement, we had to audit thousands of contracts with doctors to ensure compliance with our agreement with the Department of Justice,” he says. “Going through that level of self-inspection made me very confident that my team was doing a great job.” During his tenure, the sales operations department grew from four to nine functions ranging from call centers to fleet cars.

Merck bought Schering-Plough in 2010 and made Dave their leader in global marketing effectiveness. All drug promotion and customer communications have to go through a medical, legal, and regulatory review process. “With the existing processes in place at both Schering and Merck, no one was happy,” says Dave. His new boss said, ‘Okay, Mr. Carver, you have a background in breaking things and putting them back together better. We want you to take this on.’” With the help of a team, Dave prepared more than 1,000 medical, regulatory, legal, and marketing professionals for the coming process and system changes. “The doctors, lawyers, and marketing teams often struggled to collaborate in this space, so it was satisfying to help people change the way they worked with each other and also put in place a whole new business process.”

After meeting with success in the United States, Dave led the initiative to make similar changes throughout the world, working with thousands of colleagues. In the process, he and Penny had the opportunity to travel to Moscow, Johannesburg, Istanbul, Shanghai, and Tokyo.


Dave was still at the helm of global marketing operations for Merck when he was injured in 2013. The same year, Penny faced a breast cancer diagnosis and resulting surgery. “Everything went crazy that year,” Penny recalls. “I’ve recovered, but Dave’s injury changed our lives forever. We don’t have children, so we had to put our heads together to get by. And we managed to keep our sense of humor, too.”

Faced with a formidable road to recovery, Dave poured his energy into the work. Ten weeks into physical therapy, he was able to stand for the first time. Almost a year later, he hit another milestone: taking three steps with the help of a walker. “Before you walk, you’ve got to stand, and before you stand, you’ve got to raise your head,” he says. “Instead of getting frustrated by how little progress you’re making, you have to appreciate every tiny improvement. The best advice I received was to be a participant, not a spectator in my recovery, which is exactly what I’d been teaching the young softball players I’d coached for years.”
Karyn Baig, Dave’s physical therapist since his accident, says his attitude gets him through. “Even in the most nebulous times, when we didn’t know what might come, he remained focused and stayed in the light,” she says. “He always has a smile and enjoys what he is doing, even the hard work.”

Longtime friend Robert Reece (HCB, ’83), who was Dave’s college roommate, says the Carvers are the most positive people he’s ever known. “Dave has always said that 10 percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent is your attitude toward working and overcoming obstacles,” he says. “Both he and Penny are great examples of that viewpoint.”

Former mayor Mary-Anna Holden appreciates Dave’s years of service to their community of Madison, New Jersey, as a volunteer softball coach, a role he’s continued in after his injury. “When we needed more fields for the children to play ball, Dave was able to bring everyone together and find a solution,” she says. Today, Holden is amazed at the Carvers’ resilience. “They both have unstoppable enthusiasm, and nothing’s going to get them down.”

The Carvers also recently made a gift to the college through the Dave and Penny Carver Endowed Business Scholarship. “Education is everything,” Penny says. “We hope this scholarship will give that opportunity to someone in need.”

Dave continues to make slow but steady progress. Today he can stand easily, walk half a mile at a time in a harness on a treadmill, and grab objects with his right hand, which was completely unresponsive at first. “He’s determined to walk into Neyland Stadium again one day,” says Penny, “and I believe he’s going to do it.”

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