Cal Carlson was as fit as any 72-year-old could possibly be. During the warmer months he was an avid bicyclist, in the winter an avid cross country skier.
Maybe that makes his death Sunday difficult to comprehend. Carlson had just finished a bike ride, walked into his south Brainerd home, collapsed and died.
Carlson taught for 35 years at what is now Central Lakes College. He coached Raider men's basketball for five years, coaching two teams to the Region 13 tournaments, the final step in the process to qualify for the national tournament.
In 2004, CLC qualified for the region for the first time since Carlson took teams there in 1962 and 1967.
His 1961-62 team went 12-7 and wound up splitting two region games. Carlson's 1966-67 Raiders finished 16-5, losing their only region game.
Brainerd Realtor and Crosby-Ironton High School graduate John Pecarich played for the Raiders the last two seasons Carlson coached. Pecarich received word of Carlson's death while in Iowa and reflected on Carlson's impact on his life.
"I always thought of him as a real gentleman," Pecarich said. "He respected his players. It was not beyond him to let us give him advice, which he either accepted or rejected. He treated you like a human being, not just a player.
"I respected him greatly. I learned a lot from him. I kept in touch with him. I consider him a friend."
Pecarich said Carlson's death was "a shock because he kept himself in such good condition."
"He rode his bike every day," Pecarich added, "so you didn't expect something like this to happen. I guess I should have called him one more time."
Glen Peppel taught, coached and was friends with Carlson for about 40 years.
"We did many things together," Peppel said. "We hunted, harvested wild rice, fished and camped in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area where he was an awesome guide, being an Ely native. We officiated many games together, and the last few years we enjoyed golfing together.
"Cal was a great leader as a coach. He also served in leadership roles in local and state faculty associations. He was intelligent and a very respected teacher. In addition to that he was a great family man and a wonderful friend. I will miss him greatly."
Carlson was an Iron Ranger, born Nov. 21, 1932, in Ely. He graduated from Ely High School in 1950 and attended Ely Community College and St. Cloud State University. He obtained his master's degree in chemistry and math from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Possibly a little-known fact about Carlson was that he was an offensive lineman and briefly attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., on a full-ride scholarship to play football.
"He went for a couple weeks," Cal's son, Bob, said, "then I think he realized he was out of his league, so he pulled up stakes and came back home. But the coach at Vanderbilt told him he would honor the scholarship if he wanted to stick around."
Carlson retired from the community college in 1992. His passions included fishing, hunting and making an annual trip to the BWCA. He also officiated basketball, football and baseball, and, in his later years, officiated volleyball.
Bob Carlson said, other than a year in Puerto Rico and a year in Michigan, that his father spent his entire life in Minnesota.
"One of his friends went to Puerto Rico a couple years earlier," Bob said. "They taught at the Air Force base high school in Puerto Rico. We were going to stay a couple years, but my mom had allergy problems in the tropics so we came back."
Pecarich, Peppel and many others are glad he did.
Mike Bialka, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5861.
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