Farewell to the best of us journos.
By Hank Nuwer
John Carlson started as a copyboy in the 70s at Muncie’s evening paper. Years later, gruff World War II veterans like Dick Stodghill asked him to bring over a coffee.
But jokes aside, at a newspaper with many good writers, John was the best wordsmith.
He never missed a deadline.
When the Blizzard of ’78 hit, he was one of three reporters, including Stodghill, to crawl over drifts to the office.
In the 90s, I joined the paper as a freelance outdoor columnist and writing coach. John was doing double duty as columnist and feature writer. Soon after, he added the title of city editor.
I recall walking over to his area — second desk front left — to introduce myself.
The wrappers of Snickers under the seat and a half-sipped 44-ounce beverage marked his territory.
John gave me three pieces of advice.
One, our fellow ink-stained wretches drank their cold beer at Miller’s Tavern.
Two, he shared the location of the men’s room at Miller’s.
Three, he cautioned I should never be the first to arrive at Miller’s. The first to arrive bought the pitchers.
Some years ago, the morning and evening Muncie papers merged into a single Star-Press.
Eventually, John wrote one column every Friday. Some columns were about family, some were about his misadventures, some were food reviews.
All were laced with John’s trademark humor.
The last food review was about eating chapulines — grasshopper tacos. John joked that something stuck in his throat, then started crawling back up. “I do feel kind of jumpy,” he confessed.
If you didn’t read a Carlson comment and laugh, you needed to check if you still had a pulse.
The joke was usually on himself, especially when he threw in a staged funny photo.
I split a gut laughing at John with a head full of spiky hair. He said it had been sculpted with a cattle prod.
John explained he had a congenital condition known as “bed head.”
Once a pilot, John met for breakfast every Saturday with latter-day Wright Brothers, nodding his head as they rhapsodized over cylinders and wing camber. He said he always nodded as if understanding every word. What he had been thinking was: “Wonder how many little chunks of pork are in an average mouthful of sausage gravy?”
John sold his Quicksilver GT400 ultralight in 2020. His engine conked out while airborne three times. No mechanic, he couldn’t fix the problem and feared landing nose down.
John also wrote about his great love for motorcycles.
He owned eight in his lifetime. He wrote a regular column on motorcycles for a while.
Stodghill had urged him to title it “Skidmarks and screams.”
Finally, last October, he bade adios to his last Harley-Davidson. “Wonder what it costs to buy a scooter?” he mused.
His columns always referred to his wife Nancy, the love of his life for four decades.
It was a funny schtick. John could do no right, and Nancy could do no wrong.
I treasure their visit to our house a few months back. Our wives put up with our newspaper war stories. Then they wisely abandoned us for girl talk.
I joked about Pat’s last talk with his dying friend Mike. Mike asked Pat if he could leave a pint of Jameson’s on his grave. “I will,” Pat thundered. “But do you mind if I filter it first through my kidneys?”
Sadly, John passed away April 7 with his loving Nancy and family at his side.
If you visit his grave, you can wonder what demented pal of John’s put down a Snickers bar and a 44-ounce Slurpee.
His last column ran April 8. He wrote tenderly of his love for Nancy, daughter, son, and daughter-in-law.
He shared his one life regret. His first-born son was born with a defect. The doctor asked John if he wanted to hold the boy’s tiny hand for the last time.
John feared “the crashing depth of emotion” and fled empty handed.
Ten minutes after reading those words, I stopped bawling.
One day if my wife Gosia keeps me out of trouble, I’ll also get to that big newsroom in the sky. There will be my friend John, his hand wrapped firmly around his little son’s hand. “Hey John, I’ll say, “where’s the toilet in this joint?”
He’ll point to a door past St. Peter in a white apron, wiping down a bar with a wet rag.
“Hey Pete,” John will say. “Pour us a cold pitcher. I’ll pay. I got here first.”