Whether it was about changing public policy or battling cancer for the past 13 years, Chris Carlson was a bulldog admired by all political sides and backgrounds.
Carlson, the press secretary of former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, an author and public lands advocate, died of neuroendocrine cancer on Saturday at his lake home in Medimont surrounded by family and overlooking the water. He was 71.
“If he believed in a cause, he’d go through a brick wall in support of that cause,” said Mike Kennedy, a friend, fellow Democrat and former Coeur d’Alene City Council member who served on the Catholic Charities of Idaho board with Carlson.
“Some policy issues are mind-numbing boring, but if they had huge implications, he’d work on them like a terrier with a bone and not give up.”
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Daughter Serena Carlson said her father was given six months to live 13 years ago after he was diagnosed with cancer.
“What a great thing to get that wakeup call and be able to start checking items off the bucket list,” she said. “He wrote five books after he was diagnosed, got to see both of his grandkids born and see Cecil Andrus’ life through to the end.”
Serena said it was fitting that her father died on Andrus’ birthday and a year and one day after the former governor died.
Kennedy, who described Carlson’s and Andrus’ relationship as like a father and son, said America lost “two giants of integrity” on Saturday when both Carlson and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., died of cancer.
“Chris had remarkable sway across the political spectrum,” Kennedy said. “People knew his word was good.”
Serena said her dad was a fantastic father, a loving husband and a father figure to many people.
“He was universally well-loved,” she said. “He lived a life of public service and directed a lot behind the scenes that people never knew about.”
Even in his farewell column published in The Press last month, Carlson was recommending candidates, even if they’re Republican and he was a longtime “business Democrat.”
“Even with his dying breaths, dad was still trying to leave Idaho in the best shape it can,” Serena said.
Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer said he was a novice in politics when he first ran for mayor and Carlson took him under his wing.
“I always would say to him, ‘What do I owe you?’ and his response was, ‘You can buy me a pancake,’” Widmyer said. “After I was elected, he would email me and he would simply say, ‘Mr. Mayor, it’s time for you to buy me a pancake,’ and we would get together and visit.
“Chris truly cared about people and he was one of the most genuine and kind persons that I have ever met.”
Phil Reberger crossed paths with Carlson when both worked on political campaigns for different parties. While the two didn’t always agree, they compared notes on issues and respected each other.
“I was always struck with how inquisitive and intuitive Chris was,” Reberger said. “He had a unique way of ferreting out what a story was about. We kicked things around and it grew into a delightful friendship. We could always be agreeable and, in this day and age, that doesn’t always happen.”
Sandy Patano, who also knew Carlson through Idaho politics, called him a “dedicated student of Idaho history and politics.” She said Carlson would often close his messages with, “You’re a wonderful friend, and one I don’t deserve, but thanks for always being there.”
“Chris had a compilation of stories about Idaho history and the political figures,” Patano said. “While we could have easily been political adversaries, it was Chris who made a genuine effort to reach out and become my friend.”
Carlson loved baseball, as evidenced by his huge hat collection. He also loved the Idaho outdoors, including fishing on Cave Lake and taking his family on challenging backpacking trails.
“I don’t know how he had the time and energy, but he’d come home on a Friday and march with us kids up to the mountains,” Serena said.
Kennedy said Carlson showed up at a Spokane Indians baseball game last month wearing a New York Mets hat in hopes of getting a rise out of Kennedy, who’s a Yankees fan.
“When I reminded him that I bought the tickets, he reached into his ever-present bag and fixed the problem by putting the proper hat on, even if it pained him,” Kennedy wrote on social media.
Carlson is survived by his wife, Marcia, and other children Alisa Katz, Marissa Carlson and Scott Carlson.
Serena said doctors considered her father a medical miracle because he survived both cancer and Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1999, for so many years.
“It’s extremely rare to suffer from both,” she said.
Carlson, a Kellogg native, was a teacher and newspaper reporter before becoming Andrus’ press secretary nearly 50 years ago. He also served as assistant secretary of the Interior for public affairs under Andrus and was appointed to the Northwest Power Planning Council by then-Idaho Gov. John Evans.
Carlson went into public relations in the early 1980s, working for Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane and later became a founding partner in the Gallatin Group. His books include “Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor” published in 2011, and a memoir called “Medimont Reflections” published in 2013.
“Besides having faith in the Idaho voter, I also put great stock in the land itself,” Carlson wrote in his farewell column. “Idaho is full of scenic wonders that inspire and restore one’s soul. Even ultra-conservatives recognize the need to preserve and protect the special places people have come to cherish.
“I believe that the sun is still rising, that Idaho’s best days are yet to come and that rising sun shines over a land and its people that I have had the privilege to be part of.”
Services for Carlson
A vigil service and rosary in remembrance of Chris Carlson will be held at St. Rita’s Catholic Church, 27 Kellogg Ave., in Kellogg at 7 p.m. Thursday. Funeral Mass will be at the church at 11 a.m. Friday. A private internment will be at the Rose Lake Cemetery.