Dr. Sam Carlson was a big shot in his field — health care — who didn't feel the need to act like one.
"He's known nationally as a remarkable physician leader, innovator and teacher," said Mike Rona, founding partner of the Rona Consulting Group. "But he was humble and soft-spoken. He wasn't self-absorbed. He really had a way of connecting with people."
As Rona's chief medical officer, Carlson traveled around the country coaching health care executives using the Toyota management system to improve quality of care and outcomes for patients.
"His specific interest was mistake-proofing in medicine," Rona said. "He knew a lot," yet sought to learn more. "He was interested in continuous learning. He was always reading."
Carlson, 71, died at home in Loretto, Minn., on March 12. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in mid-November, six weeks before his planned retirement.
He grew up in St. Peter and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College, where his father was president, before attending medical school at the University of Minnesota.
Carlson practiced as an internist for more than two decades before becoming chief medical officer at Park Nicollet Health Services, where he led the transition to full disclosure of financial relationships between physicians and the pharmaceutical industry.
Park Nicollet was the first health care system in Minnesota and one of the first in the country to require such disclosure. "He worked with physicians to get on board," recalled Jeremiah Whitten, then director of media relations, who recalled some "contentious" meetings. "Sam was always the calmest person in the room. He knew how to take people with different emotions and opinions and gather them into consensus. He had a gift for that."
Carlson was "a fantastic listener, who asked inquisitive and probing questions," said Dr. Steve Connelly, now president of Park Nicollet Health Services, who considered Carlson his mentor and friend. "He made sure you thought about all the angles."
After Carlson left Park Nicollet in 2009, he was recruited by Rona, launching his next phase as a teacher, coach and innovator. "He felt very privileged to have three very different careers," said his wife, Barbara. "Patients were always at the center."
Carlson was also a family man who supported the activities of his four children. "He always made us know we were the most important thing," said his daughter Laura Ross. "When I was in the state track meet, he had a meeting, and he brought the meeting to the track meet."
Carlson was often the doctor on call for his children's sports events and also found time to serve on the board at Hennepin County Medical Center, including two years as chairman.
Whitten describes Carlson as a "Renaissance man" who devoured history and literature as well as scientific writing.
"He loved music and singing and playing the piano," said his daughter Angela LaJoy. "He wrote lullabies for all of us."
Carlson spent his final days surrounded by family — including a last family trip to Arizona — and reading a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill that he had hoped to finish, Whitten said.
In addition to his wife and daughters, Carlson is survived by sons Adam and Joshua; nine grandchildren; a brother, David; and a sister, Joanna Swanson.
Visitation will be 4-7 p.m. April 11 at David Lee Funeral Home in Wayzata. Services will be held at 11 a.m. April 12 at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church in Plymouth, with visitation one hour before.