Edward Elmer Carlson was born in Tacoma on June 4, 1911. His legal name was Elmer Edwin Carlson, a name he disliked and changed informally in 1925 and later legally. His mother, the Canadian-born Lula M. Powers Carlson (1893-1973), was 17 when her son was born. His father, Elmer Edward Carlson (1888-1966) was a Swedish immigrant who earned his living as a boilermaker and welder. The family settled in Seattle.
Elmer and Lula Carlson’s marriage was not a happy one. Eddie and his younger sister Lois (1912-1972) were often sent to Tacoma to live with Lula’s parents for months at a time. They would travel down Puget Sound to their grandparent's house by steamer.
Elmer and Lula Carlson’s marriage ended in 1925. Many years later The Wall Street Journal would describe Edward Carlson as “not to the (executive) suite born” (October 18, 1971).
Making Ends Meet
This was an understatement. Lula Carlson found work as a bill collector and young Eddie worked to help make ends meet: He pumped air and water at the General Petroleum gas station at the corner of 10th Avenue NE (Roosevelt Way) and NE 45th Street. He attended Lincoln High School, where notwithstanding his after-school and weekend job, Eddie was yell leader for the Lincoln Lynx. The Lincoln yearbook described him as a “pint of dynamite” (The Alumnus, April 1970). Eddie Carlson was 5 feet, 2 inches tall at the time.
In 1928, Carlson entered the University of Washington. A student by day, at night he worked as a pageboy at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. He was soon promoted to elevator operator, then to bellhop. In 1929 he took a night bellman job at the Camlin Hotel.
Carlson left college in 1930, before graduating. Despite very hard work, funds were short. Accumulating credits was difficult with so much non-school work to manage. Although Edward Carlson was a great believer in the benefits of higher education, he would later state, “Even without a college degree I have found life very generous” (Carlson, p. 14). Spontaneously deciding to drop out of school after his winter final examinations, Carlson signed on as a seaman on the President Lincoln. For six months he worked his way through Yokohama, Kobe, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Once back in Seattle he secured summer work at the Mt. Baker Lodge.
Beginning in autumn 1931, Carlson traveled the country with his friend Burr James attempting to sell a machine that mechanically blocked (shaped) felt hats. The idea was to sell the machine to dry cleaning establishments. Although virtually all men at the time wore felt hats, the grim economy in the early 1930s made selling anything, especially a new contraption, an uphill battle. Carlson and James quickly learned to deposit checks immediately lest the customer stop payment. After a year the venture collapsed.
Returning to Seattle, Carlson found work first as a room clerk and then assistant manager at Seattle’s Roosevelt Hotel. Carlson made the best of the Great Depression -- always employed, able to live on next to nothing, accumulating an ever-expanding circle of friends.
Romance and Good Work
In 1936, Edward Carlson moved to Mount Vernon to manage the President Hotel. On June 26, 1936, he married Nell H. Cox. The couple met in 1930 at Mount Baker when Eddie worked there as a car parker and Nell, a Bellingham native, as a baker. They had two children, Edward Eugene, known as Gene (born 1940) and Jane (born 1942).
In April 1937 Carlson was hired to manage Seattle’s very exclusive Rainier Club. He was 25 years old. The position brought him into daily contact with Seattle’s movers and shakers and gave him the chance to forge important business and personal relationships. So thoroughly did Carlson endear himself to club members that when he left the Rainier Club in 1942 to enter military service, he was awarded a military membership. This was converted to a regular membership after the War.
During World War II Carlson was a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy. He worked in the Navy Supply Corps, first in Seattle and then in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
In 1946 Carlson accepted the position of assistant to S. W. Thurston, president of Western Hotels Inc. (later Western International Hotels and later still Westin). Within a year he had been named vice president. In 1953 he became executive vice president. In 1960 he assumed the presidency and in 1969 he was named chairman and chief executive officer.
Seattle's World's Fair
In February 1955, Governor Arthur B. Langlie (a former fraternity brother of Carlson’s) appointed Carlson to head a commission to study the feasibility of mounting a World’s Fair in Seattle. Carlson, 43, was already an inveterate civic booster and well known as someone who could get things done. Carlson’s commission presented its findings to the state legislature in 1957. The legislature approved a $7.5 million bond issue to cover Washington’s share of the fees involved in producing the World’s Fair, soon named the Century 21 Exposition. Carlson’s commission continued hammering out the details of how to make it happen. In spring 1957 the non-profit corporation Century 21 Exposition, Inc. was formed and Carlson became its president -- all this while juggling his obligations at Western Hotels International.
Carlson promoted the Century 21 Exposition in every possible forum, on every level, publicizing it and raising funds. From PTA meetings at McGilvra Elementary School to appearances on national television, Edward Carson represented the public face of the fair.
A sketch Carlson scribbled on a napkin famously became the Century 21 Exhibition’s most enduring icon, the Space Needle. Inspired by the Stuttgart Tower in Germany, Carlson’s original design underwent several incarnations on the drawing board of architect John Graham Jr. before being fully realized in steel.
Even for a supercharged civic booster like Edward Carlson, the pressure was fierce. In mid-1960 he announced that he “could no longer serve as Chairman of the Commission, president of the Century 21 Fair corporation, and president of Western International Hotels” (Carlson, p. 157). Joe Gandy, a veteran member of Greater Seattle, Inc, (producers of the annual Seafair festival) and 1959 King Neptune, stepped into the presidential slot.
Edward E. Carlson Day
Carlson’s connection to the fair continued, however: he was at the center of Opening Day festivities on April 21, 1962, and daily thereafter guiding VIPs through the Exposition. September 23, 1962, was Edward E. Carlson day at the Century 21 Exposition. Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) presented Carlson with an award of merit and that evening an appreciation dinner for Carlson was held at Victor Rosellini’s Four-10 restaurant.
The Western International Hotels properties included such luxury hotels as The Olympic in Seattle, the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, the Century Plaza in Los Angeles, and the St. Francis in San Francisco. As president Carlson was on the road almost non-stop, overseeing operations and working to ensure high quality service.
On January 20, 1966, the Seattle-King County Board of Realtors presented Edward Carlson with the annual First Citizen award. More than 1000 people attended the presentation dinner in the grand ballroom of The Olympic Hotel. Responding to the many tributes and accolades, Carlson exhorted Seattle to “look ahead and ... rise to meet the importance of the global attention brought here by expanding Boeing operations and new gains to be had with Seattle as a center of oceanography” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 21, 1966).
In April 1970, the University of Washington recognized Carlson’s longstanding commitment and dedication to the Northwest community by bestowing on him the Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus award. The award honored Carlson with the following words:
“Eddie Carlson could have stepped out of a Horatio Alger novel, the poor boy who began as a hotel page and worked his way up to the head of the world’s largest hotel chain. Fortunately for the Pacific Northwest, nothing is fictional about Carlson. Over the past decade he has guided Western International Hotels to its finest hour and, at the same time, emerged as perhaps Seattle’s most influential and dedicated civic servant. It is for his contributions as a business, community and cultural leader that Edward E. Carlson is named the 1970 Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, the highest honor the University of Washington and its Alumni Association can bestow” (The Alumnus, April 1970).
Also in 1970, the Seattle-King County Municipal League added to Edward Carlson’s mounting honors by naming him the area’s Outstanding Citizen. Harold S. Shefelman, presenting the award, said, “If the full story of Eddie’s life is ever written it should be entitled ‘A Saga of America’ and it should be required reading for our present generation of students and young people” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 1, 1970). When Edward Carlson wrote his autobiography in 1989 he took a more modest tack, giving the book the title, Recollections of a Lucky Fellow.
A New Direction
On December 22, 1970, Seattleites were stunned to read the news that Edward Carlson was taking a job outside Seattle. “Mr. Seattle Goes to Chicago As UAL’s New Top Executive” trumpeted the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
On August 1, 1970, Western International Hotels and United Air Lines had merged. United, then the largest air carrier in the nation, was expected to lose $40 million in 1970 and Carlson, who routinely worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, was entrusted with bringing the troubled airline back to fiscal stability. Carlson’s new title was President and Chief Executive Officer of U.A.L., Inc. (the holding company for United Air Lines and Western International Hotels) and president of United Air Lines. Carlson told The Seattle Times that his new job was “to provide leadership and energy to accomplish a turnabout” and added that “the two careers are not so much different as it might seem ... The same type of corporate problems no doubt exist” (December 22, 1970).
Carlson acknowledged that he would have to move to Chicago where United had its headquarters, but added that after accomplishing his goal he planned to live in Seattle again. He kept his home at 1001 Northwood Drive and his sailboat, the Indus. Flying home on weekends to sail would be no problem, he explained to the press.
Seattle's movers and shakers feted Edward and Nell Carlson in a grand civic send-off. The January 15, 1971, luncheon at The Olympic Hotel honored the Carlsons “for the outstanding civic service they have given the city over the years” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 4, 1971). Sponsors included the Central Association of Seattle; Greater Seattle, Inc.; Pacific Science Center Foundation; Chamber of Commerce; the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau; Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Inc.; Washington State Hotel-Motel Association, and the Washington State Restaurant Association.
Carlson held the U.A.L., Inc. position from 1971 to 1979, advancing from president to chairman in 1975 and relinquishing the United Air Lines position in 1976. Although he had no previous experience in the airline industry, Carlson was able to draw from his years of expertise in the hotel industry. Carlson was especially noted for listening to his employees and responding to their suggestions. He earned the immediate appreciation of United flight attendants, for example, by switching their layover lodging in New York from the run down St. Moritz to the Waldorf Astoria. He also empowered United employees to make many of their own decisions within established guidelines, thus improving both customer satisfaction and employee morale. He instituted a stringent cost reduction program, revitalizing the airline and making it profitable in less than two years.
This earned him great respect in the business community. Harvard Business School considers Carlson one of the great business leaders of the twentieth century. The Wall Street Journal described his leadership style as “gentle generalship” (October 18, 1971).
In 1977 Carlson was appointed an honorary chairman of the Seattle Center Foundation, a recognition of his pivotal role in the Century 21 Exposition and thus in the conception of the Seattle Center. His name was inscribed on a Legion of Honor plaque in the Center’s Plaza of the States, recognizing his major (and voluntary) contribution to the success of the Seattle Center.
Carlson retired from the board of U.A.L., Inc. in April 1983. He remained as active in Seattle community affairs as he had ever been. He was a board member of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Rainier, Harbor, Seattle Golf, and Rotary clubs. He served on the boards of the Seattle First National Bank, General American Insurance Corporation, Virginia Mason Hospital, Virginia Mason Association, and the Seattle Central Association, and on the board of the Trust Houses Group in London, among many others. He was also a member of the Puget Sound Business Hall of Fame.
In 1982 Governor John Spellman appointed Edward Carlson to the University of Washington Board of Regents. Carlson spoke frequently to young people about leadership. His advice to them was to “be bold, be aggressive and be willing to take the criticism that comes with being bold” (The Seattle Times/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 15, 1984).
The Final Years
He was a member of the Merchant Marine Defense Commission in Washington, D.C., as well as the Henry Jackson Foundation and the advisory committee to the Secretary of the Navy. He raised money for the widows and other family members of police officers shot in the line of duty. Of his many, many activities Carlson commented:
“Early on, I was hungry and wanted to get ahead and have financial security. But as time went on, it became more important to do something for the town that has been so good to me. I have the constitution of an ox and, what is very important, an understanding wife ... I pay very close attention to what is going on in meetings. I read what’s been prepared for me. I try to say sensible things. But if I suggest something and it’s rejected, I don’t get upset” (Pacific Magazine, January 31, 1988).
Edward and Nell Carlson used their retirement years to travel the world. The trips were sometimes prompted by the needs of one of the many boards on which Edward Carlson served and sometimes by personal milestones. A 1986 trip to China with their children and grandchildren marked the Carlsons’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Edward Carlson died in Seattle on April 3, 1990.
In 1992 the Carlson family funded the Edward E. Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center at the University of Washington. The Carlson Center encourages University of Washington students to contribute meaningfully to their community as effective citizens and future leaders. The Carlson Center fosters a commitment to public service -- a living tribute to the beliefs and actions of Edward E. Carlson.