LeRoy (“Roy”) T. Carlson, the founder and longtime Chairman of Telephone and Data Systems, Inc. (“TDS”), passed away on Monday, May 23rd in Evanston, IL at the age of 100. His accomplishments were significant to the U.S. society, which he aimed to serve from an early age. Roy was a visionary entrepreneur, and an ardent supporter of education.
Roy is survived by his wife, Margaret; children, LeRoy (“Ted”) Carlson, Jr., Prudence Carlson, Walter Carlson and Letitia Carlson; 10 grandchildren; his sister, Florence Wertz; and many nieces, nephews and cousins. He was a loving husband, father, grandfather and brother; and a loyal friend to the many who came to know him personally and professionally.
Roy was born in Chicago on May 15, 1916 to Axel and Gerda (Swanson) Carlson, both young immigrants from Sweden. The middle of three children (older brother Vincent and younger sister Florence), he spent his early years as part of a closely knit Swedish community on Chicago’s South Side. His father, Axel, was a carpenter and contractor, who lost his work during the Depression. Industrious at an early age, Roy helped support his family during the Depression by selling fruit and vegetables from a cart he pulled through Chicago’s alleys, and through other part-time jobs. His mother, Gerda, was a deeply religious person and Sunday school teacher. When Roy was confirmed at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, through the minister’s laying on of hands, he experienced a strong metanoia (conversion experience) that he had been saved and this experience never left his consciousness. It freed him to act boldly for what he believed was right.
After graduating from Tilden Technical High School with honors, and after finishing Junior College while living at home, Roy applied to, and was accepted by the University of Chicago. He was given a scholarship and commuted from home in a car pool with good friends.
He was put into a select group of students who were test cases for an early version of Robert Hutchins’ and Mortimer Adler’s “great books” courses. To quote from the University of Chicago’s website, “Hutchins focused on the highest abstractions-morals, values, the intellect…and above all the study of metaphysics.”
In writing a major paper for the “great books” course, Roy locked himself in his room at home and alternated working four hours and sleeping four hours, until the paper was done. His mother was chagrined because he wasn’t doing his household chores, but she didn’t interrupt his work.
He attributed to Hutchins and to the University of Chicago, his own love of learning the meaning of new words, and his own mental method of always starting with considering the universe (universal) before going to and thinking about the particular.
He earned a BA in Business from the University of Chicago in 1938, which he mostly paid for by working in various part-time sales jobs. Roy then earned his MBA from Harvard Business School (Class of 1941), paying his own way by organizing and running a successful laundry pick-up and delivery service for other students.
Roy considered his most meaningful single accomplishment to be the long, book length, manual he wrote with two fellow students in the MBA program at Harvard Business School and what subsequently happened with the manual. The three students were close friends and were dedicated to doing something important to helping the United States address what seemed to be an inevitable war. The manual they wrote was on how to best organize domestic United States resources in order for the country to prepare for the coming war. It was sent to Henry Cabot Lodge, who in turn sent it to an even closer Roosevelt advisor, who in turn arranged a meeting of the three students to present it to Eleanor Roosevelt, which they did. The United States entered World War II (“WWII”) in December 1941.
Roy served his country with distinction during WWII. He served in the U.S. Army Ordnance Department from 1941 to 1943, leaving the United States in 1942 for stations in Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Cairo, Egypt. In January 1943, Roy went to Iran with the Persian Gulf Service Command as part of the Ordnance’s Iran mission to secure supply lines to Russia. Roy was stationed at a truck assembly plant in Andimeshk, in western Iran, supplying large trucks to the Russian front. These truck assembly plants were operated by General Motors Overseas Operations until 1 July 1943, at which point they were taken over by Ordnance-run companies, utilizing native labor. Roy arrived in India in August of 1943, staying in that country to work as the assistant treasurer for the General Motors plant in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he would stay until October of 1944. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1945 to 1946.
In 1945, he married Margaret Deffenbaugh, whose wise counsel and unflagging support contributed greatly to Roy’s business and personal success through the years. Roy and Margaret celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary in January.
Following WWII, Roy developed his business skills over the next several years through a variety of managerial positions, including working for Joseph P. Kennedy at the Chicago Merchandise Mart and for the Acme Steel Company. Roy was then ready to run and own a business; acquiring the Suttle Equipment Company in Lawrenceville, Illinois in 1949. Suttle’s business consisted of supplying standard printed forms, wire and cable, insulators and other equipment to independent telephone companies. Through managing Suttle, Roy became very interested in the operating characteristics of the rural independent telephone industry. With his entrepreneurial mind-set and negotiating skills, he and a partner were able to acquire a significant number of rural telephone companies in the 1950s and early 1960s, which formed Telephones, Inc. After Telephones, Inc. was acquired in 1964 by a larger independent telephone company, Roy worked briefly as a business broker in the cable TV and independent telephone company industries.
Roy returned fulltime to the operating telephone business in 1967. In that year and in 1968, he and a close friend acquired 10 rural Wisconsin telephone companies that formed the foundation of TDS, which was incorporated on January 1, 1969. Under Roy’s vigorous and visionary leadership, TDS became a leading telecommunications company, with 6 million customers, 10,600 employees/associates and revenues of over $5 billion. Its subsidiaries include United States Cellular Corporation (“U.S. Cellular”), TDS Telecom, OneNeck IT Solutions, Bend Broadband and Suttle-Straus. The Company’s success is based on the basic concepts upon which Roy founded the Company: outstanding technical and customer care services to the Company’s customers, new services and products growth, growth through acquisitions, excellent people, and fiscal soundness. His son, LeRoy T. Carlson, Jr., is the current CEO of the Company.
Particularly notable among Roy’s achievements as TDS Chairman was his foundational role in the establishment (in 1983) and development of U.S. Cellular. His early recognition of the immense potential of cellular telephony and his aggressive acquisition and trading of cellular licenses, enabled U.S. Cellular to become a major player.
After stepping aside as TDS Chairman in 2002 in favor of his son, Walter Carlson, Roy continued to contribute to the Company’s success – providing inspiration, counsel and support as TDS Chairman Emeritus, as U.S. Cellular Director, and as a member of TDS’s senior management team.
Besides being a visionary entrepreneur, driven leader, and strong family man, Roy was an inspiring force in the lives of many people. In particular, he was passionate about the value of education in bettering people’s lives, and about it being a cornerstone of TDS’ progress. He championed a generous and widespread program of continuing education, by instituting financial aid policies for employees/associates taking college and graduate level business related courses; and by fostering a TDS culture of continuous learning and personal development.
His philanthropic endeavors were focused on education. He and his wife generously supported institutions of higher learning. They funded professorships at the University at Chicago, Wellesley College, Yale University, the Lutheran School of Theology of Chicago, and Augustana College, and they funded a fellowship at Harvard Business School.
Roy’s goal was to have a lifetime of service to society. The communications industry, which meets fundamental human needs to communicate, offered the right opportunity for him to be of service. Roy’s work over his many years earned him numerous awards, including Junior Achievement’s: “Chicago Business Hall of Fame Award,” Wireless History Foundation’s “Hall of Fame Award,” the Independent Telecommunications Pioneer Association’s “Hall of Fame Award,” the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association’s “Lifetime Achievement Award,” and KPMG’s “Illinois High-Tech Award.”
Roy’s remarkable spirit of service will live on through the lives of many family members, employees/associates and friends whom he inspired to develop their own potential. Roy encouraged everyone to “never give up” in building for the future.
A private, religious family funeral service was held on Memorial Day. Plans are being made for a celebration event in the near future of Roy Carlson’s life, for his many friends and associates.
In lieu of flowers and in the spirit of Roy Carlson’s deep regard for education, a donation to an educational institution of the donor’s choice is suggested.