Saturday, February 04, 2012

Conrad C. Karlson, 1937-2012: Love, Family, Friends, Laughs, Joy, and Peace Before Dying.

Conrad Karlson was living out his last days, emphasis on living.

Conrad is shown above in his hospital bed, along with two good friends, Dave Griffin, left, and, being held by Conrad, Flat Stanley. Yes, Flat is what you think, a cutout cardboard character.

Yet Conrad had specifically requested that Dave bring Flat to stay with him. He had the best of reasons, which I'll explain.  But first some background.

Conrad Karlson, Dave, and I were kids together, class of 1955 at Stoneham High in Stoneham, Mass. It was a time when it took five minutes for the TV to warm up; 14 cents got you two movies preceded by a newsreel; an ice cream cone cost a nickel; boys and girls "went steady;"  the worst thing you could catch from the opposite sex was "cooties;" we drank "soda pop" from glass bottles while listening to Elvis on the jukebox; a "race issue" was who could run the fastest; and all boys dreamed of impressing girls with a Ford or Chevy, cruising, peeling out, and laying down rubber.

We called Conrad Con or Connie and, this being a Boston accent area, I answered to "jodgie." In the high school society of the time, however, we inhabited  two different worlds. I was a varsity football and ice hockey player.  Con sang in the glee club and acted in the senior play ("What a Life," in which he played Mr. Ferguson).

He, a singer and actor and me, an athlete; we could hardly have been more different. In the 1955 Yearbook, Con is remembered this way: "Conrad is full of fun but he knows when there's work to be done." The yearbook says that I performed "many wonders with a puck," but that I was "oh so shy!"  

Nothing scared me on an ice hockey rink but, although I was on the Senior Play Committee, the thought of getting up on a stage before an audience ... well, I found it scary. But of course a tough-guy athlete like me could never  let on that he was scared of anything. Secretly, from afar, I admired Con for getting up on the stage -- and for being so natural there and so good.

After we graduated, as so often happens, we lost track of each other. That is an understatement. For  half a century I didn't see Con or hear from him. Then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from another classmate, Dave Griffin, with sad news.

Con  was in the hospice unit of a hospital in Reading, Pennsylvania; he was in his last days. Dave asked me if I would be willing to give him a call and talk to him, if his wife Judy approves. Of course I would, I immediately wrote back.

Judy agreed. Dave gave me Con's  telephone number. "He has a phone right by his bed and I'm sure he would be glad to hear from you," Dave said.

The next day, I picked up the phone and dialed the number.

"Hello," a weak, barely audible voice said.

"Hi Con, I'm Jodgie Pollock.  I don't know if you remember me."

"Oh, I do."

"Dave Griffin told me you were in the hospital and I thought I would give you a call.  How are you doing?"

"Not good."

Instantly deciding not to make a dying man explain, I made a quick pivot.

"Listen, Con, I want to be honest with you," I said, my voice taking on an edge.  "I'm annoyed with you."

I let the words hang there.

Then I went on. "Not a single call from you. Not one. I wait and wait and wait. Year after year, nothing. So I decided to call YOU."

The YOU was like fired from a gun. "Was it something I said, something I did, what?" Then, like a shot, I said, "Tell me!'"

Con laughed. It was a real laugh, too. And, unlike that barely audible first hello, I had no trouble hearing it.

I made another instant decision: to get off the phone fast.  What could be better than to leave a dying man laughing?

"So, Con," I said in a now soft, friendly voice, "have we patched things up?"

"Yes," he said, with a little chuckle.

"Good, I'll be thinking of you, kid."

"Thank you for calling."

And we signed off.

A few days later, I got an E-mail from Dave Griffin. He wrote:  "Sorry to have to let you know that Con moved on this morning. His soul is with us and will be here forever."  He said that he and his wife Bev said their goodbyes at his bedside and that Con "had made the decision to move on and not be resuscitated."

Dave described Con as "upbeat and very interested in Flat Stanley. He wrote: "We told him the story about Flat Stanley and how we carried Stan with us on our trip to Georgia. We took pictures of Stan any time we could. He was so interested in it, that he asked us to go to the car and bring Stan in so he could have his picture taken with him. He proudly had it with him until his last day."

Now, Flat Stanley. Why was a child's cardboard cutout figure so important to Conrad Karlson?  The answer is because this is no ordinary cardboard cutout. Flat Stanley is a character created by Jeff Brown in a 1964 children's book that has enthralled untold millions of kids over the years.

A quick synopsis: Stanley Lambchop and his younger brother are given a big bulletin board by their dad for displaying pictures and posters. One night the board falls from the wall and flattens Stanley in his sleep.

But Stanley is no quitter. Instead of bemoaning his flattened state, he makes the most of it. He slides under the doors of locked rooms. He is happy to be a kite for his little brother. He loves being mailed in an envelope to visit his friends. He's even an inaction hero posing as a painting on an art museum wall to help capture thieves.

Like Konrad Carlson himself, Flat Stanley is "full of fun but he knows when there is work to be done." In Con's final days, Flat gave him love, laughs, joy, and peace -- as Con knew he would.

Bio of Conrad C. Karlson

He was a graduate of Stoneham High School, Stoneham, Mass., New York School of Photography, and Drew University where he earned an art degree. He received a master's degree in media from Boston University.

Conrad was stationed in England and France while serving in the U.S. Air Force. While in France, he attended the University of Nancy.

From 1968 until he retired in 1998, he served as a district media specialist for Conrad Weiser School District. He loved teaching. He taught French, drama, filmmaking and photography in Morristown, Caldwell and Montville, NJ; and in Falmouth, MA.

Conrad was passionate about acting. He performed in numerous summer stock theaters on Cape Cod, and repertory theaters in New York, as well as Reading's Genesius Theater and Reading Community Players. Following his retirement from teaching, he became a member of the Screen Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

His television credits include a guest-star role on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Cosby Show," as well as an MTV commercial. In films, he had roles in John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented" and "Fallen" with Denzel Washington. He also worked as a body double for the late George Carlin in the 2002 movie "Jersey Girl." George inspired him to try stand-up comedy. Conrad performed a stand-up routine frequently at the Reading Comedy Outlet.

He was an avid photographer. In addition to having his own studio, he had his work displayed at Googleworks, Lancaster County Art Association of Strasburg, PA, and numerous juried art exhibits. In October 2011, Berks County Living Magazine profiled him in a major article about talented area artists.

Con leaves behind his dear wife Judy and daughters Nicole James (Wales, U.K.) and Melissa Karlson of Phoenixville, PA; stepdaughter Jennifer Eisenhard of Reading, PA, as well as two grandsons, Rhys James, 8, (Wales, U.K.) and TJ Eisenhard, 14, of Reading, PA, and his brother Richard of Malden, Mass.

Recent Photos of Con, Judy, Dave

Thoughts on Con from a few friends

From Karen Hull,
Wyomissing, Pennsylvania

As one of his many friends, Con's life has touched me deeply. Over the years, he shared some of his many passions with my family and me, and we are the richer for it. He shared his love for the theater, photography, the UU church and Star Island (both Kristin and Collin have been "PELS," and like Con, grew to love this rocky island refuge), and New England (where on one visit, Con showed me how to "properly" eat a lobster!). I will always remember Con's optimistic nature ... and his joyous holiday Bûche de Noël parties.

He was such a great guy! My heart goes out to all of you. If there is a public memorial service at a future date, I would be honored to attend.

From Eric Schmidt,
Nicholasville, Kentucky

Mr. Carlson was my mentor when I moved to a new state and a new school. He gave me the tools, the time and the freedom to create. His teaching and trust gave me a purpose and a love for storytelling. I will always remember him, because I use what he taught me daily.

From Francis Kosloski,
Wernersville, Pennsylvania

I got to know Con Karlson while attending the UU church in Reading Pa. I am always proud, because of his persona, to be able to say I know him. His energy , enthusiasm,and skills stood above the crowd. I was lucky that he taught in the district my children attended , but it was from the UU church I knew him, and Judy. I was happy to see them unite. Praise be to a good artistic pragmatic guy.We are all richer for him.
So long, Con, til we meet again. Call me, okay? And don't wait 50 years!

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
   For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story

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