BUCKSPORT, Maine — The Rev. Robert Carlson, head of Penobscot Community Health Care and a well-known figure in Greater Bangor, has died.
The Waldo County Sheriff’s Department reported that Carlson’s body was found mid-morning Sunday in the Penobscot River near the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, which crosses the river between Verona Island and Prospect.
“It looks like this gentleman jumped off the bridge and his body was recovered this morning,” said Waldo County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Jeff Trafton. “We got the first call around 4 a.m. We don’t know [how long he was on the bridge before he jumped]. All we know is we got a report of a possible jumper.”
Trafton said Sunday afternoon the death is still under investigation. He said he hadn’t had a chance to talk to the detectives investigating the death and both were off duty.
“I’m not aware of any indication that anyone else was on the bridge and I haven’t heard anything about a [suicide] note,” said Trafton.
Carlson lived in Bangor, about 25 miles from the bridge.
Carlson was the founder and president of Penobscot Community Health Care; a founder of Hope House; a previous chaplain for Husson College as well as the Bangor and Brewer police and fire departments; and is recognized across the state as part of WVOM-FM’s “God Squad,” according to a recent Bangor Daily News story.
“I’ve known him for 20 years and he’s been a regular member of our panel for five years now,” said WVOM morning show co-host Ric Tyler, who presided at an award ceremony with George Hale for Carlson and his wife, Elaine, last Wednesday. “My last memory of him is my most moving memory of him, Wednesday night as he addressed the crowd at the Bangor Civic Center and his wife was by his side with her arm around him. That was a picture for me, and that one image is why I find myself grieving for Elaine.”
Robert and Elaine Carlson were honored as recipients of the Katahdin Area Council of Boys Scouts of America’s 15th annual Distinguished Citizen Award in Bangor. Carlson was a Boy Scouts volunteer for 41 years and Elaine was a Girl Scout leader for 15 years.
Several close friends said that Carlson gave them no indication there was anything wrong even hours before his death.
“It comes as a complete shock. I just saw Bob yesterday just after noon at the Harvest Festival [at the Bangor Civic Center],” said former Maine Gov. John Baldacci. “My wife and I were there for a demonstration program for Maine Foods. We’ve been working on health care issues and we were talking about that.
“He came in waving and smiling. Things seemed to be, as far as I could tell, the same as they always were with him.”
Carlson also officiated at a wedding ceremony at Morgan Hill Events Center in Hermon early Saturday night.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, Carlson’s friend and co-worker for 33 years, had just spoken with Carlson around noon Saturday.
“We’re devastated. I got the call this morning and I’m shocked,” said Ross, who was audibly upset by the news of his friend’s death. “We talked several times a week. He always had good advice and I could always call him, 24 hours a day seven days a week. Nobody’s more surprised about this than me.”
Carlson was Penobscot County Jail administrator when Ross was hired and later became the jail’s chaplain. He was chaplain for the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department for 38 years.
“He’s helped people through crises such as the one we’re going through today,” said Ross. “He’s a victim’s advocate and a unifier who built bridges between problems and solutions.
“He worked with all religions in Bangor and knew everyone. As a matter of fact, he had religious contacts all over the U.S. His knowledge was way beyond the boundaries of Maine.”
Carlson, 68, was married to Elaine for 43 years. They had one son, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. The Air Force veteran served as senior pastor of the East Orrington Congregational Church for 25 years.
“He built that parish in Orrington into what it is today and paid off the church debt,” said Sister Mary Norberta, who was president and CEO of St. Joseph Healthcare for 30 years. “He’s done a number of funerals for people who can’t afford them and helped dying patients and their families, even taking health care power of attorney for a number of patients over the years. He went the extra mile all the time.”
Carlson, who moved to Maine with his wife in 1970, also served on the St. Joseph Hospital board of trustees for more than 20 years.
Norberta had a bond with Carlson as a fellow Massachusetts native with a shared passion for health care and aiding the underprivileged.
“It’s been 30 years since we met and we’ve been friends since I came here,” Norberta said in a phone call from Boston while on a rare visit home. “He’s from Somerville and I’m from South Boston. Years ago he worked as an orderly at a state hospital in Boston before he studied in the ministry, so health care has always been on his front burner.”
Norberta said she could think of no reason for Carlson to want to end his own life. She and Carlson had coffee together a week ago and she remarked how he looked like he had lost some weight.
“I knew he’d been sick in the past, but healthwise, I thought he was doing quite well. As a matter of fact, he looked very good and he mentioned he’d cut down on his weight by watching his diet,” she recalled. “That’s why this is so amazing to me.”
The Rev. Carl Scheiber Jr. of East Orrington Congregational Church broke the news of Carlson’s death to his congregation halfway through Sunday morning’s service.
The church, which was flying its Christian flag at half-staff Sunday, had a regular Sunday congregation of 12 to 18 people when Carlson first started in 1979. It grew to 224 five years later, according to church records.
Dr. Robert Allen, executive medical director of PCHC, a non-profit community health center serving Greater Bangor, was effusive in his praise for his friend and health care compatriot.
“We’ve been around since 1997 and Reverend Bob’s been around from the beginning,” Allen said. “He’s been a huge figure for us and a person who cannot be replaced.”
“He’s certainly been our spiritual leader as far as our mission and moving it forward to taking on things like dental care, mental health and other public services,” added Allen. “He was a well-known, larger-than-life figure and our congressmen, senators and politicians all knew him on a first-name basis. That was an invaluable ally to have.”
“I am shocked and terribly saddened. My thoughts are with Bob’s wife, Elaine, and their family during this tremendously difficult time,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a statement Sunday.
U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe and former Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. also offered condolences.
“We were deeply saddened by the news of Rev. Bob Carlson’s passing. The greater Bangor region and indeed the state of Maine has lost a beloved friend and an extraordinary figure, who has been a passionate voice improving countless lives,” Snowe and McKernan said in a statement.
“Bob was a ‘doer’ in every sense of the word who has left a lasting and positive impact that will reverberate for generations to come,” Snowe and McKernan said.
Carlson was a board member of Rotary International, Penobscot Job Corps Academy and Grace Evangelical College and Seminary. He was also president of the Maine Primary Care Association, Maine Community Health Plan and Maine Community Health Options.
“When I saw him on Tuesday, he was very robust and full of life,” said longtime general practice lawyer and newly elected Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci. “He put one hand on each of my shoulders after I’d been standing outside shaking hands all day and told me I needed to make sure I paid attention to advocating for the the less fortunate and those who needed health care and services. He’s just a very giving person. Everyone in our family is extremely shocked and saddened by this.”
Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s director of health and community services, worked with Carlson on several community health-related issues.
“I was with him Wednesday night and we had talked on Thursday and Friday and there was no mention that anything was amiss,” said Yardley. “He was his usual energetic, thoughtful self. I am totally stunned. I’m saddened at the loss for the community.”
Former BDN crime and police reporter and current columnist Renee Ordway and her family knew Carlson and his family well.
“There are no words to describe his place here amongst us. He called my daughter, a freshman at UMF [University of Maine at Farmington] Friday morning to just say hello and to say he missed seeing her face at the Veterans Day pancake breakfast [at the Brewer Auditorium],” said Ordway. “I have worked and loved and lived with his presence for 23 years, as have so many others in this community. He was my comfort zone during tough times and I know he was to so many others.
“The best we can do for him and for Elaine right now is to respect his privacy and to wait and see what the truth really is.”
BDN writer Alex Barber contributed to this report.