’s Reflections on John Carlson, Writer Extraordinaire

John Carlson was all smiles after White Castle sent the entire team White Castle gift packs. Photo by Mike RhodesJohn Carlson was all smiles after White Castle sent the entire team White Castle gift packs. Photo by Mike Rhodes

By Mike Rhodes, Editor-in-Chief,—

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago we asked our readers to send us any stories or comments they wanted to make about John, and we would publish them. John passed away peacefully at his home on April 7, 2022.

On Monday, May 21st, 2018 I received the following email.

Hello Mike and Muncie Journal team,

My name is Graham and I’m reaching out on behalf of White Castle in response to John Carlson’s recent column “In Praise of Gut Bombs.” The White Castle team really enjoyed John’s article and are happy that the restaurants have been able to provide such memorable and bold moments for him!

As a response, we’d like to coordinate a Crave Case drop off, along with other White Castle goodies, for John and your team to enjoy.

Would you be interested in receiving this token of appreciation for John’s column, and would you be the best contact for me to speak with in order to coordinate the drop off?


Graham Shippy

Mike Rhodes, Editor-in-Chief,

I was super happy after reading that email above, and thought we could have some fun with a “White Castle” party, but how to get John into our offices without giving away the surprise? John and I usually only met at his home, so getting him into the offices of Woof Boom radio was a rare occurrence. I called him up and told him we needed him to “come over for a critique of his work.”  With a bit of trepidation, John replied, “A critique? Of my work?”  “Yes, Sir,” I said trying not to laugh. “Its no big deal. We are required to do this for all staff every once in a while.”

So when the magical day arrived, John entered our conference room expecting a not-so-fun meeting, but after he saw all the White Castle swag on the conference table, he was just beaming. He had the biggest ear-to-ear-smile I’d ever seen. (See photo above.) That picture and special day is the one that will always be top-of-mind for me when I think of John.

John wrote a piece for us every week that we would  publish every Friday.  During his time with us he wrote over 350 columns. He was never late with any of them. In fact, sometimes he sent me two columns at a time. He partnered with his wife Nancy on all of his columns…he wrote…and she took pictures to accompany his articles.  You can see some of the photos that accompanied John’s articles below. 

His last column, published just a few days prior to his death, was by far, his most viewed column during his time with us, with over 10,000 views in just 24 hours.

J Chapman, President, Woof Boom Radio

I miss John Carlson.  Many people do.

John started writing columns for the Muncie Journal five years ago.

John’s wit with the pen was only surpassed by his wit in life.  I’ve known those who can bring a smile in print or those who can do it in person but rarely are those who are good at both. John was.

John provided a laugh for many, but he will have the last laugh on me.

Many weeks ago, John texted a mutual friend, Mark DiFabio, that John’s untimely demise had finally come.  To this day, I believe that John fully knew the fuse he had lit.  The hook was set.  Never mind, the iPhone does not have an autoreply feature that communicates someone’s passing.  Mark called several other Woof Boom coworkers and me.  The speed at which the news traveled was nothing short of phenomenal.

The Thursday night poker group heard the reports of his death before the evening’s first draw.  The story of Mark Twain’s premature demise might be the stuff of urban legend but not that of John Carlson.

John would have the last laugh. Not only did his prank hit the intended target, but the collateral damage was widespread.

At first, we were thankful that it was a prank, then a brief moment of anger set in, and finally, it was followed by laughter.

John could bring a smile to nearly anyone’s face. I know the Muncie Journal will house a number of his columns, and I look forward to going back through them.

John Carlson was not only a great columnist, but a good man, and he will be missed by many.

Steve Lindell, Host of WLBC’s Wake up Crew

My memories of John are two-fold:
1. My frequent interviews related to his weekly column in, and
2.  Our staff Christmas parties.

As for his appearances with me on the WLBC Wake up Crew, he was always witty, with that dry sense of humor that so many came to know and love.  He seemed to enjoy the attention – but also repelled it as well.   I oftentimes would try to make him chuckle, or laugh – which was not that difficult as he seemed to love life.   We talked about his motorcycle, his trips, his yard, and so much more – but the most memorable talks were surrounding Memorial Day and other significant holidays of the year.  He always seemed to be able to easily shift out of “humor writer,” and to heart-string-puller.  That always amazed me.

As for my memories of Radio Christmas parties, he always was laughing and enjoying – every moment, every morsel, and everybody.  He seemed to thankful, and so happy to be included – and appreciated.  He was.  He is.  He always will be.

John is pictured at the Woof Boom Christmas Party at Mr. Mouse. Photo by Mike Rhodes

John is pictured at the Woof Boom Christmas Party at Mr. Mouse. Photo by Mike Rhodes

Sean Spence, On air DJ, WMXQ, Max Rocks

I would often reference John Carlson’s articles on my Max show because his language was offbeat and fun to say out loud.  This is one talk break I did.  John sent me a nice message after it aired. Below please find a recording about John on WMXQ that aired on 7-29-2018.

John Carlson’s Bravest Act: Reflections from His Daughter, Katie Carlson

As kids, my brother Johnny and I could spend hours exploring our Dad’s relic-filled office, which was technically a garage, lined with books, and tobacco pipes. You couldn’t walk in that room without it feeling like a shrine to a bad mamba jamba. What fascinated me most were the photographs on the walls, mostly of Dad and airplanes, but what always stood out to me was the picture of a race car with a $1 bill in the frame… prize money.

Johnny and I would brag to our friends about our Dad… the pilot, the race car driver, the motorcycle enthusiast, and of course the newspaperman. But I know that I never really stopped. As recently as 2019, in a video recording of a professional race car driver taking me for a spin around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I made sure to mention to the driver that my Dad had raced cars as well, as if the thrill of a fast turn was my birthright.

Dad didn’t just display fearlessness, however, he savored it in others. Some of his favorite work was telling the stories of World War 2 Veterans. This subject was close to his heart as his own Father had earned a Purple Heart fighting bravely in the Pacific. He often recalled with pride a time that I, around 7 or 8,  jumped into a bush outside of our house in Yorktown to save our cat, Dusty, from a loose and threatening dog.

But it wasn’t just death-defying acts or bravery on the battlefield that interested him, it was also the bravery that it takes to open a small business, or share your talents with the world. He loved telling stories about people who heroically put their heart and passion on display.

Beyond thrill seeking, his open-heartedness and vulnerability was the bravest thing about my Dad. He walked through this sometimes cruel, sometimes broken world without wearing any armor. He shared life’s ups and downs with readers, generating a sense that it’s all going to be OK as long as you can laugh at yourself a little. His heart was open and exposed to all whom he encountered. He poured out his love onto others. And he was endlessly generous. The motorcycle he loved so dearly? He sold it one summer so that our family could afford the expensive first year membership fees to the local swim club.

And though Dad was confined to a bed in his last days, he marched triumphantly towards death with the same fearlessness that Johnny and I had known as kids. Without a single complaint, and with the child-like wonder that we all read in his final column, Dad spent his last days giving and receiving love from his amazing wife, his angelic sister, his two children, and lots of dear friends.

Dad loved poetry and in times of being broken-hearted, I find comfort in the words of the Sufi poet Rumi. Rumi said this: “The wound is the place where light enters you.” And he also said this: “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”

So for those of us who loved and admired John Carlson, we can honor his incredible life and legacy by using this heartbreak to soften our hearts, to bravely show the world who we are, and to love and be loved as much as we possibly can. But I think Dad would also appreciate it if we would all leave really, really big tips.

"Happy Father's Day to the kindest, sweetest, funniest Dad this girl could have ever hopped for! So glad I got to spend time with you and Mom today! I love you!—Photo and Instagram post by Katie Carlson

“Happy Father’s Day to the kindest, sweetest, funniest Dad this girl could have ever hopped for! So glad I got to spend time with you and Mom today! I love you!—Photo and Instagram post by Katie Carlson

Warren VanderHill, friend and Provost Emeritus at Ball State University

John took the BSU Fly Fishing-Fly Casting class I taught with Neil Schmottlach, Steve Jones and Jeff Farber for many years. John actually wrote a column about his experience in class,  but months after the class, in a conversation with him Neil and I discovered John had never caught a fish on a fly.

“Aha,” we said and took John out to fish one of Jud Fisher’s ponds full of eager bass. Did it work? Yup! One of John’s well placed casts resulted in a big largemouth bass—the smile on John’s face could be seen for miles. A wonderful memory for all of us…

Second memory—knowing how much John loved motorcycles, my wife and I used to stop in Sturgis SD on our annual drives to MT to pick up a Rally hat for John—usually either a Harley or an Indian. Giving them to John usually got this response: “Well I’ve got the hat, now I need the bike.”
Finally, John and I had the same IU School of Medicine doctor, so we always had visits to see him to talk about our ailments—a bond we could have done without.

Hank Nuwer, from his column published in the Greenville Advocate

John Carlson started as a copyboy in the 70s at Muncie’s evening paper. Years later, gruff World War II veterans like Dick Stodghill asked him to bring over a coffee.

But jokes aside, at a newspaper with many good writers, John was the best wordsmith.

He never missed a deadline.

When the Blizzard of ’78 hit, he was one of three reporters, including Stodghill, to crawl over drifts to the office.

In the 90s, I joined the paper as a freelance outdoor columnist and writing coach. John was doing double duty as columnist and feature writer. Soon after, he added the title of city editor.

I recall walking over to his area — second desk front left — to introduce myself.

The wrappers of Snickers under the seat and a half-sipped 44-ounce beverage marked his territory.

John gave me three pieces of advice.

One, our fellow ink-stained wretches drank their cold beer at Miller’s Tavern.

Two, he shared the location of the men’s room at Miller’s.

Three, he cautioned I should never be the first to arrive at Miller’s. The first to arrive bought the pitchers.

Some years ago, the morning and evening Muncie papers merged into a single Star-Press.

Eventually, John wrote one column every Friday for  Some columns were about family, some were about his misadventures, some were food reviews.

All were laced with John’s trademark humor.

The last food review was about eating chapulines — grasshopper tacos. John joked that something stuck in his throat, then started crawling back up. “I do feel kind of jumpy,” he confessed.

If you didn’t read a Carlson comment and laugh, you needed to check if you still had a pulse.

The joke was usually on himself, especially when he threw in a staged funny photo.

I split a gut laughing at John with a head full of spiky hair. He said it had been sculpted with a cattle prod.

John explained he had a congenital condition known as “bed head.”

Once a pilot, John met for breakfast every Saturday with latter-day Wright Brothers, nodding his head as they rhapsodized over cylinders and wing camber. He said he always nodded as if understanding every word. What he had been thinking was: “Wonder how many little chunks of pork are in an average mouthful of sausage gravy?”

John sold his Quicksilver GT400 ultralight in 2020. His engine conked out while airborne three times. No mechanic, he couldn’t fix the problem and feared landing nose down.

John also wrote about his great love for motorcycles.

He owned eight in his lifetime. He wrote a regular column on motorcycles for a while.

Stodghill had urged him to title it “Skidmarks and screams.”

Finally, last October, he bade adios to his last Harley-Davidson. “Wonder what it costs to buy a scooter?” he mused.

His columns always referred to his wife Nancy, the love of his life for four decades.

It was a funny schtick. John could do no right, and Nancy could do no wrong.

I treasure their visit to our house a few months back. Our wives put up with our newspaper war stories. Then they wisely abandoned us for girl talk.

I joked about Pat’s last talk with his dying friend Mike. Mike asked Pat if he could leave a pint of Jameson’s on his grave. “I will,” Pat thundered. “But do you mind if I filter it first through my kidneys?”

Sadly, John passed away April 7 with his loving Nancy and family at his side.

If you visit his grave, you can wonder what demented pal of John’s put down a Snickers bar and a 44-ounce Slurpee.

His last column ran April 8. He wrote tenderly of his love for Nancy, daughter, son, and daughter-in-law.

He shared his one life regret. His first-born son was born with a defect. The doctor asked John if he wanted to hold the boy’s tiny hand for the last time.

John feared “the crashing depth of emotion” and fled empty handed.

Ten minutes after reading those words, I stopped bawling.

One day if my wife Gosia keeps me out of trouble, I’ll also get to that big newsroom in the sky. There will be my friend John, his hand wrapped firmly around his little son’s hand. “Hey John, I’ll say, “where’s the toilet in this joint?”

He’ll point to a door past St. Peter in a white apron, wiping down a bar with a wet rag.

“Hey Pete,” John will say. “Pour us a cold pitcher. I’ll pay. I got here first.”