Just before Pat Miles paid tribute to former colleague Bill Carlson Thursday afternoon, legendary Viking Jim Marshall, leaned over and whispered in her ear: “I’ve never been to a funeral where everybody clapped.”
The memorial service for Carlson, a WCCO-TV broadcaster for more than 50 years, was unusual in many senses of the word, from the State Theatre venue to the three-hour ceremony that featured pop songs, celebrity impersonations and a tribute from the Minnesota Honor Guard.
Even more diverse than the program was the crowd of 800 well-wishers; a mix of sports legends, media giants and everyday folk who had never met the longtime WCCO anchor, but considered him a cherished member of their family.
“I liked that man,” said a woman who identified herself as a convention center coat checker during an open-mike portion of the event. “When I heard that he has died, I thought, 'I could cry.’ And I did cry.”
More than 30 people spoke throughout the afternoon, sharing one anecdote after another that reflected the warmth, patience and generosity of the local legend who died last Friday after a long struggle with prostate cancer.
They spoke of the time he chased down a uniformed officer on the street outside of the WCCO radio station and gave him $10 so he could get home to Wayzata, the time he finagled a special furlough for a prisoner so he could come to his home for Thanksgiving, the way he would strong-arm his longtime buddy, attorney Ron Meshbesher, into doing pro bono work.
Mostly they talked about how, even after 50 years in broadcasting, he never took his audience for granted.
“He considered all of you as treasured friends,” said his widow, Nancy Nelson, speaking directly to his many listeners and viewers. “You tuned in for decade after decade and he lived in constant gratitude.”
Of course, there were also plenty of reminders that Carlson had some rather famous folks in his fan club. Karen Proft, the wife of screenwriter Pat Proft, performed a breathy, moving version of “Follow Me,” a song the late John Denver wrote for Bill and Nancy’s wedding. Vegas staple Fred Travalena imagined a star-studded salute to Carlson in heaven, imitating the voices of Hubert Humphrey, John Wayne and Sammy Davis, Jr.
“For crying out loud, he called Robert Redford 'Bobby,’” WCCO anchor Don Shelby said during his testimonial.
Other speakers included WCCO radio’s Charlie Boone, who couldn’t resist plugging Nelson’s updated boutique store in Richfield (“I’m a radio guy. I’ve gotta do a commercial.”); singer Patty Peterson who performed “Till There Was You”; WCCO anchor Jeanette Trompeter, who read the short story, “The Eagle and the Wren”; Old Log Theater owner Don Stolz sharing the Biblical story of “The Good Samaritan”; longtime friend Ricardo Ortizcazarin, who reminded the crowd that the Carlsons loved animals so much that “if it’s possible to return to life as a dog I would run immediately to Bill and Nancy’s house.”
Marshall, 70, shared some of the most touching, and revealing, words.
The once indestructible defensive end has had his own medical struggles, and when he took the podium near the end of the service, he leaned on a cane. He recalled that, even in his final days, Carlson would deflect questions about his own health to ask about Marshall’s state of health. That, he said, was classic Carlson, and one of the main reasons Marshall considered him his role model.
“On some clear night soon, when the stars are out, I’ll look up and see one twinkling. That will be Bill,” Marshall said. “He’ll be saying, 'I’m all right. How are you doin’?’”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431