When Thomas R. Carlson was a boy in northern Minnesota, his father walked four miles every day each way to work in an iron mine.
Later, when Carlson was in high school, he worked in the iron mines. "I think I know what it takes to be a working man."So, it came as a surprise to Carlson when, as he was going through the procedure to become the newest member of the State Industrial Commission, some of his detractors claimed he wasn't from the working class and couldn't relate to the needs of the working man.
Admittedly, Carlson comes from management, having retired from Kennecott Dec. 31, 1985, as director of mining operations, but Carlson is quick to note that he is concerned about employee health and safety, two of the areas he will be facing as a member of the commission.
Carlson believes an industrial commissioner needs some managerial skills because the operation has to be managed, but he also believes he has what it takes to be cognizant of a working person's needs. "When I was with Kennecott I did plenty of things for people that few people will ever know about," he said.
Organized labor opposed Carlson's appointment even though Carlson is an active Democrat and labor generally favors the Democratic Party. But when Carlson had to appear before the Senate Confirmation Advisory Committee and then the full Senate for confirmation of Gov. Norm Bangerter's appointment, the opposition came mostly from the Democrats.
That also took him by surprise.
Carlson said former Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy didn't belong to working-class families, yet labor unions liked them.
Carlson recently responded to accusations that he is not in touch with the working class during an interview in his office at the Heber M. Wells Office Building.
Born in a Duluth, Minn., hospital (ecause it was the closest adequate one available to his home two miles from a small mining town), Carlson's early life wasn't easy because his family lived in a "shacky" house that his father eventually fixed up. The family raised much of its food in the summer and stored it for winter use.
His father walked to and from work in the iron mines until 1938 when he purchased a used automobile. Carlson said these were Great Depression years and it was "a continual cycle of survival."
But all wasn't work, and Carlson remembers swimming in a nearby lake and catching pike and pickerel fish for family meals. Fish catching was done by trolling, but instead of a motor doing the work, the trolling was done by oar-power.
Winters were harsh in northern Minnesota with temperatures dipping to 40 degrees below zero, so the family members, including young Carlson, had to start early to cut enough wood for the winter. One stove was for heating the house and the other was for cooking.
Carlson worked in the iron mines on and off during high school, but always managed to have a job because he hustled. After high school graduation he worked in the mines for a short period and in 1946 quit his job, hitchhiked to Minneapolis and caught a train for California.
He had one sister in Los Angeles and another in San Diego so he "bummed around" between both places, "feeling like a 17-year-old troubadour." Then he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and "had the most uninspired Marine Corps career that anyone ever had."
After he mustered out of the Marines, Carlson bought an airplane ticket to Minneapolis and took a bus back to the family home. The power company was stringing electric lines to the house "which made things a lot different for my parents," he said.
At this time Carlson began thinking about college. He ran into a friend and they drove 10 miles to Itasca Junior College to register for classes and he stayed there for one year. Having decided to major in mining engineering, Carlson then went to the Michigan College of Mining and Technology and graduated with two degrees in 1952.
During his senior year he attended school on a Kennecott scholarship that Carlson said prevented him from dropping out of school because of a lack of money.
Following college, Carlson taught at his alma mater for one year and then started work in 1953 with the Utah Copper Division of Kennecott in the open-pit mine on the track gang. Carlson said he was surprised that a college graduate would start as a laborer, but was told that he had to learn the business from the ground up, so to speak.
Over the years Carlson shifted from one job to another including engineer trainee, industrial engineer, assistant general drilling and blasting foreman, maintenance planning supervisor and general foreman.
Between 1964 and 1969 he was a planning engineer and mine engineer and in that role was instrumental in developing a computerized open pit mine planning system that still is operational today.
After one year as operations superintendent in 1970, Carlson became mining manager. In the early 1980s he also assumed the additional managerial duties for the concentrator and ore haulage operations. During that time, he was responsible for budgets ranging from $50 million to $200 million annually.
In 1984 he was appointed director of mining operations for the parent company with liaison responsibilities for several of Kennecott's mining interests.
Following retirement in 1985 he served as a mining consultant and then he was contacted about the vacant Industrial Commission post. Carlson said he thought at first it was a part-time job, and he would show up to commission meetings and set policy.
Carlson wrote a resume that was submitted to Gov. Norm Bangerter and with the support of former Gov. Calvin L. Rampton and others, Carlson got the nod over five people the AFL-CIO submitted to the governor. That move rankled Democratic legislators and labor leaders and rankled them even more when the Senate confirmed the appointment to fill the one-year unexpired term of Lenice L. Nielsen.
But because of his growing-up years and various jobs dealing with people, Carlson is confident he will add rather than detract from the commission's duties.