Carlson’s mourners pay tribute to generous heart

by Kane Loukas

The church filled to capacity Tuesday afternoon, accommodating hundreds of mourners at the funeral of Curtis Carlson, president of Plymouth-based Carlson Companies and devoted University benefactor. He died at the age of 84.
Among those at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church were former Gov. Arne Carlson; former University President Nils Hasselmo; David Kidwell, dean of the Carlson School of Management; and vice president and provost of the University, Robert Bruininks.
In 1986, Carlson made a $25 million donation to the University. He gave a total of $36 million to the school, $18 million of which went to the Carlson School of Management, which carries his name.
When the Carlson school building was in its planning stages, Carlson and Hasselmo visited other business schools to look at the buildings and technology.
In his remembrance speech, Hasselmo warmly recalled how Carlson routinely carried a tape measure and notebook to write down in detail the things he wanted for his own business school, which opened in January 1998.
Hasselmo stood behind the casket piled in layers of red roses and palm fronds. Just beyond the casket, Carlson’s family filled more than a dozen rows. His widow, Arleen, sat nearest the podium with daughters Barbara Gage and Marilyn Nelson next to her.
Nelson, the current president and chief executive officer of Carlson Companies, recalled her father’s sometimes harsh demands on her and the company. She called him “a self-avowed salesman and self-avowed ultra-entrepreneur.”
Carlson’s brother, Warren, talked proudly of the success of the Carlson Companies, now one of the top-20 largest private companies in the world. Radisson Hotels, TGI Friday’s restaurants and Carlson Wagonlit Travel are among its holdings.
“I just can’t comprehend that we have 47,000 direct employees and 174,000 related employees,” said Warren.
He joked about Carlson’s unending frugality. After his debilitating stroke earlier this month, the doctor suggested a special treatment to aid his recovery. Carlson’s first question, remembered Warren, was, “How much will it cost?”
Carlson never lost his down-to- earth qualities.
“Curt could talk to kings and queens — and delivery boys,” said Warren.
While traveling in Russia he met a family whose daughter was ill with leukemia. They didn’t have the means to provide her with adequate medical treatment, so Carlson financed the family’s travel to the United States and the medical costs of the daughter.
Carlson even donated his own land and money to the church hosting the funeral to build a retreat.
The big folklore story, however, was Carlson himself.
Family, friends and admirers celebrated Carlson for his “encouragement of others” and “loyalty to family and company.”
His brother Warren remembered: “In a time of instability and the breaking up of families, what stability he has shown.”