John Carlson died doing the job he loved in the school he called home

Image 1 of 6

John Carlson died doing the job he loved in the school he called home. That’s the opening line of a touching tribute written by the family of the Minnehaha Academy custodian, husband, father and friend.

Carlson, 81, was unaccounted for after Wednesday morning’s explosion at Minnehaha Academy’s Upper School on the Minneapolis riverfront . According to the Minneapolis Fire Department, the explosion was reported at 10:20 a.m., but search and rescue crews couldn’t get to Carlson until about 8 p.m.

Carlson was a friend to the Minnehaha Academy students, and was known for handing out Dilly bars to students. Wednesday night, students passed around those ice cream treats to keep hope alive.

“He’d always talk to you in between classes and he would always offer you Dilly bars. He was super sweet and super friendly to everyone. He loved being here,” said student Roddy MacDonald.

Witnesses say Carlson stayed behind when the explosion happened, making sure as many people as possible got out safely.

"He would always put everyone before himself no matter what; he would save everyone," MacDonald said.

The Carlson family wishes to thank Officer Jason Anderson, the chaplain coordinator at the Minneapolis Police Department.

“With so much negative press these days for the police it would be really nice if he was called out for his compassionate duty during this difficult time for so many,” Carlson’s daughter, Lynnda Nelson, said in a statement to Fox 9.

Nelson said her father wrote a family history several years ago. He had been working on a second book in recent years but was upset that he lost it on this computer. Some hard copies of that history have been recovered and were used in the tribute to John Carlson, which you can read in full below.

John Ferm Carlson
April 12, 1935 to August 2, 2017

Minnehaha Academy Class of 1953.
Son of Swedish Immigrants Ivar and Elsa
Brother to Jim and Ruth
Husband to Barbara
Father to Lynnda (’79), Beth (’82), Lisa (‘84), and Jim (’91)
Grandfather to Alyssa, Alex, Megan, Zachary, Kjersten, and Cody
Great Grandfather to Machayla and Bailey

John Carlson died doing the job he loved in the school he called home.  “I feel like I’ve been here my whole life," John tells students and teachers alike when he returns to Minnehaha Academy in 2003 to serve as school custodian after he got bored with retirement.

John’s life at Minnehaha Academy began when, as a three year old in 1938 he sat with his parents during Bethlehem Covenant Church’s Sunday services which were held at the south end of the south 1922 building where rooms 240 and 241 and the hallways are now located.

In 1941 he began attending Sunday School where he met his life-long friends Dick and Lowell Tornquist.  His classroom was later the room used to publish the “Quiver” school paper.

In his memoirs, John writes, “Now as one of the school’s janitors, I clean these areas where I learned about God as a young child and I find it nostalgic.  I confess to enjoy being the oldest staff person and recalling where ‘everything used to be.’  The teachers and staff are really great wonderful Christian people and made me feel very comfortable with them.  I’m careful to work hard and do my job to the fullest in the time provided.”

The last year or two he found it took him longer to get his job done.  His solution was to start earlier and then clock in at the time he was supposed to start.  He didn’t want to take advantage of the school and the opportunity they gave him to work there. 

He attended Minnehaha beginning in the 9th grade in 1949 and graduated in 1953.  While attending high school he served on the Religious Council as well as being involved in clubs and other activities.   (This was discovered by reading the 1952 yearbook that was found in John’s dining room.  It was marked “Property of the Academy” and will be returned!)

In John’s senior year, he lost his dad to cancer.

Upon graduation he attended one year at the University of Minnesota as part of “General College.”  He had applied to some other colleges, but his grades weren’t good enough.  Then in 1954, John volunteered for the army. He writes in his memoirs, 

“I joined ready to take on any of our country’s enemies – at a hefty 117 pounds, but with no war to fight, I served as a clerk and pounded a typewriter.  I joined the army for two reasons.  First, I was still uncertain as to my future and thought the two years of service would give me time to think what that future might hold for me.  Second, as the last born, and the “baby” of the family as well as the physically smallest of my group of friends, I wanted to see if I could take the tough mental and physical training and discipline of basic training.
I found that I took that training and discipline as well as most and a whole lot better than many.  The experience was a real morale booster and confidence builder.  To this day I encourage anyone and everyone to spend some time in the service of this country.”

After his two years in the army he returned to the University of Minnesota for his second year of college.  He was always a hard worker.  During high school and while attending college, he had many jobs.  He loved working at Bill’s A&W root beer stand on Lake Street and the River Road.  He also worked at Boutell’s Furniture Store and Carl’s Men’s Store.  He worked 35-40 hours a week while going to school. 

John met his wife Barbara during the summer of 1959 at what was Walter’s Drug Store but later became Crane’s.  They were married on April 29, 1960 at Bethany Lutheran Church.  It was the wedding that almost didn’t happen.  When they got to the church it was dark and the doors were locked.  It seemed the pastor had forgotten about the wedding.  The furnace was off, the church was cold, and it was a cold, windy, and rainy April evening.  His life-long friend Dick Tornquist served as the best man.  Lowell lit the candles (this was forgotten too!).

To top off the evening Dick signed the wedding certificate on the wrong line – instead of signing on the “Best Man: line he signed on the “Husband” line.  This was quickly corrected.

While the wedding day may have gotten off to a rocky start, John and Barb celebrated more than 57 years together.  He writes that Barbara Joan Carlson is his closest and best friend.  He also writes that whenever he gets “hot under the collar” or “exasperated” by “women” (he is not specific here as to which women), he’s been heard to say, “Women!  They drive me nuts! But you gotta love them!”

John used his college education to get his first office job at Univac.  He then moved to Gould Battery as an office manager.  John and Barb moved from Minneapolis to Eagan where they began raising their family of three girls.

After working for Shelter Corporation, John lost his job in 1972 as the company was moving to Chicago.  John’s home was Minneapolis.  He wasn’t moving.  With the loss of his job, they sold their home in Eagan and moved back to the city and the “old neighborhood” in the spring of 1972. Jimmy was born in January of 1973.

Jobs were difficult to find in the early 1970’s.  After working odd jobs as a security guard and anything else he could get, John decided that he needed to take care of his family.  He signed up to work at the Post Office and at the MTC.  MTC called first so in the fall of 1973 John began his new career as a bus driver.  He was bus driver 342.

Driving a bus might not have been the job he imagined when he planned his life after high school and then college, but it was the job he had and so he did it the best way he knew how.  He was friendly, kind, and got to know his “regulars” as he called them.  He was a “people person” and if people were riding his bus he was going to get to know them. 

In the early days he often had the first bus out and the last bus in – sleeping between the split shifts. It was a difficult time.  He says in his memoirs:

“My belief, my ‘code’ that I was to follow was inherent within my character.  Be dependable. Be on time.  Be where you should be. Do what you should be doing – people depend on you.  I took that code with me every block I drove that bus over those 32 years.”

Those of you who know John probably know that while he lived most of his life within a 5 mile radius in South Minneapolis he didn’t always know where he was going.  In fact, he often got lost.  Often.  So before he was given a new route, Barb would go along with him in the car to “practice” so that he and the passengers would get to where they needed to be as scheduled. 

Maybe because of how easy he could get himself lost, John was not the world traveler.  His idea of a day off was to drive to Red Wing and Lake City where his mother grew up.  He made that drive with Barb a LOT of times!

He warned Lynnda when she went to college in Chicago that she would have come home as much as possible as he wasn’t spending much time in that crazy city.  After Beth also moved there too and grandchildren were born he decided he’d have to drive there – but he wasn’t happy about it! 

John and Barb raised their four children in a small bungalow on 28th Street and 43rd Avenue.  They lived there until 2013.  All four children attended Minnehaha Academy.  We are not sure how they were able to pay for the tuition and assume some assistance was given, but having his kids attend Minnehaha Academy was his dream and what he considered the best he could do for his kids. 

Minnehaha Academy made a difference in the lives of all four of the kids.  But that’s their story to tell.

Barb and John took on second jobs as custodians at Bethlehem Covenant Church in 1983 and worked there for 8 years.  This was his training for the job he eventually took as a custodian at Minnehaha Academy in 2003.  It has always been a mystery to his family how someone who didn’t know how to use the vacuum cleaner or clean the kitchen could clean a church and then a school… 

John loved sports – especially baseball and football.  He loved to play catch – as a young child with his dad and later with his kids and grandkids.  But as he said, he was perhaps a better ball boy than ball player.  He played on the church softball teams from a child until the mid-1970’s. 

What he lacked in natural ability and talent he made up for in enthusiasm.  He loved being on a team and participating.  He even got to pitch once in a while.

For a wedding gift he chose a season ticket to the Minnesota Vikings – behind the home team bench on the 50 yard line – over a down payment on a lot on a small lake.  He thought that was the right decision – Barb may have disagreed! 

While Bud Grant was coach and during the “Purple People Eaters” era, John was able to finagle a way to be the bus driver for the team back and forth from the airport or hotel to the stadium several times. One of those trips he got the team to sign a book on that year’s winning team for a Christmas gift to Lynnda.  He regretted giving that book as a gift and tried to sneak it out of her house several times over the years!

During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s a mentorship program at Bethlehem Covenant Church was started as part of the church’s confirmation program.  John was “picked” by Bethany Isaacs and as he says, “That started a very nice relationship between us.  Over time other Bethlehem kids are added to this program and I am truly blessed. John names over 12 kids he mentored as part of this program.

John shared his love of baseball and the Minnesota Twins with them.  He shared in his memoirs the enjoyment given to him by the many youths who went with him to ball games, stood in line for baseball bobbleheads, ate ice cream with him, and joined him for meals and fellowship.  He said that those friendships gave him enjoyment and encouragement in the absence of his own kids and grandkids (sorry Dad we moved!).  John felt blessed that the kids would go to the ball games with him and share in his passion for the game.

John decided to participate in the Minnehaha Academy 2003 Homecoming 5k Redhawk Race.  He had never run before.  Ever.  He said he could do it as he could walk and running is just walking but a bit faster.  His wife and kids were quite concerned and tried to talk him out of it.  Every year.  For 10 years.  He finally stopped because he had eye surgery and then was caring for Barb during her recovery from cancer surgery.  He wrote in his memoirs that he hoped to run again this year (2017) and needed to begin practicing as it had been a while.

He was inspired to run because of friend of his, Allen Ahlquist, who he’d known since seventh grade as Sanford Jr. High and then again at Minnehaha, had died from cancer that summer (2003). That year the 1953 graduation class voted to establish an “Allen Ahlquist Endowment Fund”, to give incoming students tuition assistance.  John had walked the route for years for exercise and he thought maybe he could run it and use it to encourage financial giving by our class of 1953.  And so John drafted the letters, mailed them out, and substantial contributions were made to help many students attend Minnehaha.

John didn’t run fast.  But he ran with his heart. He gave what he could.  He pushed himself to do better.  He ran for the benefit of others. 

The runner to his right is his grand-nephew who was a member of the cross country team.
John also loved music and singing hymns and other music as part of the Bethlehem church choir. On Viking home games John would sneak out early so he didn’t miss the kick off.  His love of sports was passed on to his oldest daughter Lynnda – whose husband and kids all enjoy sports as much as John.

Once John retired from driving the bus he needed a hobby so he took up vocal lessons and learned to sing “properly.”  He loved the lessons and gained confidence.  He shared his new interest and talent by singing at Colonial Acres at Covenant Village once a month. 

It all began after a visit to his friend Leo Vetvick and his wife Betty.  Leo wasn’t doing so well.  John went to visit him and remembered Leo liked to sing.  Barb suggested that instead of just “singing for Leo” he should volunteer to sing some Sunday during their service.  Chaplain Jim Anderson immediately lined him up to sing for the coming Sunday’s service.  He writes,

“I was a nervous wreck because I had not solved by ‘stage fright’ of being in front of people.  But here were these old people, many in their wheelchairs.  That encouraged me to remember that I wasn’t an ‘accomplished singer’ and so I only had to try my best.

It’s been over twelve years now and no one has walked out or ridden their wheelchairs out the door in fright yet.  I enjoy telling friends that I sing for a ‘captive audience.’  I know there are those who appear to nap a little, but Barb said, “Did you see that white-haired man with his head down – it is bobbing up and down right in beat to your hymn?  He heard you!’

There was another little old lady who sat in the second row and who sang WITH ME each Sunday.  Two or three beats behind…But it didn’t bother me.  She inspired me to sing to her and for her.  I love those old people and enjoy singing for them.”

He only stopped most recently when he was began working at Minnehaha Academy on Sundays to support a new church using the chapel.  He said he thought his mom would laugh that he finally got someone to pay him to go to church!

He shares a story about his mother encouraging him to sing while a young boy in church.  His favorite hymn was “Holy, Holy Holy.” 

“Whenever I hear it or sing it now, I hear her encouragement, ‘Sing now! You have a good voice.  I want to hear you sing!’ she would whisper to me.”

John, you will be missed by more people than you could have imagined possible.  You touched so many in so many different ways by doing so many different small things every day to make life better for someone else. 

Much of the content shared here is from memoirs dated summer 2015 found on the desk in his den paper clipped together with the note – KEEP – PUT INTO COMPUTER.  He had over 100 pages typed out so not sure where he saved them if not into his computer but we will look for them or enter the text for him in the coming days. 

He concluded with these words:

“Now it’s summer 2015 and I’m just like many others at this age.  I don’t remember what I was going to say, and yes, there are times when I make a wrong turn and if Barb’s not in the car, I ask myself, WHERE ARE YOU GOING JOHN?!?

I love my work at Minnehaha. I hope they will let me work there until I am 85 – though I’ll cut back my hours before then –hoping I can still do the duties assigned to me.

I enjoy the kids and love and respect the teachers.  I know how hard they work at their jobs.  I try and pass on a little of my Minnehaha ‘history’ whenever possible.  And when 4:30 arrives these kids are hungry so they get a dilly bar.

I’ve made God very unhappy at times, but I know he is a forgiving God.  Try and serve when and where and how you can for the benefit of others.  Use whatever skills you have.  Those talents don’t have to be great ones.  Littles ones also help. Do the best you can.”

John had two requests for his funeral.  “I’d like the service to be held at Minnehaha Academy’s chapel and I want you to sing Holy Holy Holy.”  John, you died serving God and the school where you found God’s presence in its walls and in the people who work there.  We can’t have your service at the school’s North Campus but we are all here today to grant you your request at the next best location.

John Carlson, you were loved by us all and we celebrate your life today as you enter the Holy City where the gates are opened wide to welcome you into God’s presence for now and forever more.  Amen.