Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, January 12, 2000

Donald Carlson, former community relations director, dies


Donald T. Carlson, a Stanford public relations official who served under four presidents during three dynamic decades in university history, died Jan. 5 in Taos, N.M., at age 78.

Carlson retired from the university in 1986 as director of university relations, emeritus. He had served the institution in several capacities during his 35-year career, gaining a reputation for his directness, humor and devotion to Stanford.

He was known for his adept responses to vituperative letters from alumni and others during the years of anti-Vietnam war dissent on the campus, for his work during major fund-raising campaigns and for his handling of numerous prickly public relations issues.

The latter ranged from Stanford land use controversies to the university's decision to change the athletic mascot from an Indian to the color cardinal. He was involved in efforts to develop the Stanford Shopping Center and Research Park, and to bring power lines to the new Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He played a part in defeating an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to build a 500-acre dam on Stanford lands, and he worked to widen and extend Sand Hill Road on the campus to El Camino Real.

In 1979 Stanford Magazine published "Sincerely, Don Carlson," an article that excerpted his replies to some of the hundreds of letters from the public to the university. No two of his responses were alike, and all were known for their forthright -- yet often witty -- explanations of the institution's actions.

The late Chester Berry, former director of Tresidder Memorial Union, said Carlson was "a man who poured barrels of oil on troubled waters."

"Don Carlson was the ultimate Stanford man," said Robert Rosenzweig, vice president for public affairs from 1975 to 1983. "His loyalty to Stanford, warts and all, was deep and intense, but his vision was clear and his views were his own and absolutely incorruptible. Stanford will be lucky, indeed, if it can command such clear-eyed devotion in others."

Between heated issues, Carlson found time to edit an illustrated booklet on the Stanford Memorial Church; to help launch the Stanford Historical Society; to advise the university marching band; and to oversee the university's Medical Center dedication and centennial celebrations.

Carlson was born in Whittier and grew up in Alhambra. He attended California Polytechnic Institute as a freshman and Pasadena Junior College as a sophomore. His interest in journalism began in his early years, when he reported for high school, college and area newspapers. He joined the Coast Guard in December 1941 and came to Stanford with the first wave of GI students in January 1946.

After his graduation from Stanford in 1947, Carlson became assistant editor of publications at Oregon State College and an instructor in journalism. In 1949 he joined the OSC president's staff as an assistant for public relations.

Carlson returned to Stanford in 1951, where he worked for the News Service and Development Office before being asked by President Wallace Sterling to head Stanford's new Southern California regional office. He helped build a base there for the major Stanford fund-raising campaigns that followed.

He was brought back to the campus as an assistant to Sterling in 1959 and served subsequently under presidents Kenneth Pitzer, Richard Lyman and Donald Kennedy, mainly in what is now the office of government and community relations.

Lyman recalls Carlson as a "touchstone for the sense of the community," a valued interpreter of attitudes among Stanford's neighboring political jurisdictions.

Carlson married his high school sweetheart, Ann Corinne Osborne, in 1943. They have three daughters, Cristen Osbourne of Palo Alto, Ann Robertson of Taos and Marsha Carlson of Oakland. Three granddaughters are Karey Juencke of Taos, Sara Juencke of Palo Alto and Molly Robertson, also of Taos.

The family asks that donations be made to the Donald T. Carlson Memorial Fund for Summer Stipend in Creative Writing, in care of the Office of Development, Attn: Gift Processing, 301 Encina Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-6076.

Plans are being made for a memorial service in the Stanford Memorial Church, a setting long dear to Carlson's heart. SR

Andy Doty is director of community relations, emeritus.