Donald W. Carson, former director of school, dies at 85

Jan. 31, 2018

Donald W. Carson, a revered professor in the University of Arizona journalism program and one of the early leaders in helping diversify the nation’s newsrooms, died in Tucson on Feb. 1. He was 85.

Carson diversity conf.jpg

Don Carson is honored at the California Chicano News Media Association’s annual job conference.
Don Carson is honored at the California Chicano News Media Association’s annual job conference.


Carson died surrounded by his family, following multiple health complications.

The 1954 UA journalism graduate, reported for the Arizona Daily Star and The Associated Press in Phoenix and Washington, D.C., before returning in 1966 to join the faculty. He was director of the school from 1978-1985 and retired in January 1997.

Don Carson

The professor emeritus will be inducted into the inaugural UA School of Journalism Hall of Fame on April 7. Carson is a member of the Arizona Newspaper Association and Arizona Daily Wildcat Hall of Fames.

jul2001-first copy of Mo arrives crop.jpg

donald carson
Don Carson with the book he co-authored on Mo Udall.

"Professor Carson was a true gift in my life, as a professor, mentor and friend," said Gabrielle Fimbres, a graduate of the school and former Tucson Citizen reporter and editor. "... Don inspired us to be curious, tenacious, creative, hard-working and as perfect in our work as possible.

"When you are writing stories that have the power to impact lives, there is little room for error. Don's impact as a journalist, educator and incredible mentor lives on in the work of generations of students and professionals," added Fimbres, who is a senior manager in communications for Ventana Medical Systems.

Carson also coached newspapers on their news reporting, evaluated non-fiction works for the UA Press and co-authored a biography of Rep. Morris K. Udall with fellow professor Jim Johnson.

Don Frank Jim 1_1.jpg

From left: Frank Sotomayor, Carson and Jim Johnson, at the showing of "Spotlight" at The Loft.

In 1980, Carson helped launched the Editing Program for Minority Journalists at UA with Frank Sotomayor, a 1966 graduate of the school. The summer program, sponsored by the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, trained hundreds of minority editors from across the country, using UA students as reporters.

For nearly 20 years, Carson also drove UA minority journalism students to the California Chicano News Media Association’s annual job opportunities conference in Los Angeles. In 1995, he received a plaque from the association that read: “Professor Don Carson, University of Arizona. You have gone the extra mile for diversity. We need more people like you. Gracias." Many former students obtained their first summer jobs through the conference.

Carson, a three-time Fulbright professor, was honored for his diversity efforts by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Conference of Editorial Writers and the Institute for Journalism Education.

Carson bob hope.jpg

donald carson
Carson, with Bob Hope, in the early 1960s.

He helped stave off the elimination of the UA School of Journalism in the mid-1990s and was named the Western Newspaper Foundation’s first Outstanding Journalism Educator Award. He was a Fulbright teacher in Ecuador and lectured in seven other countries around the globe.

Sotomayor, a 1966 journalism graduate, praised Carson for taking a leading role in fighting the 1994 plan by the UA's then-President Manuel Pacheco to eliminate the Journalism Department in a cost-saving move.

"Don had a large group of ex-students and friends who loved him and whom he energized to successfully stave off elimination of the journalism program, which has thrived since then," said Sotomayor, current chair of the school's Advisory Council.

George Don 1_0.jpg

George Ridge, former department head, and Carson in 2016.

Retired professor George Ridge, a former two-time director of the school, had the chance to observe Carson's dedication to teaching for more than three decades. Carson taught from 1966 to 1967, spent one year as an editorial writer at the Star, before rejoining the faculty in 1968, when Ridge came aboard.

"Don may not have invented face-to-face grading, but he certainly took it to new heights," Ridge said. "I remember a chat with him about how students who received written criticism and an 'automatic E' on names – Don was a stickler for the middle initial – would turn in disgust and toss the story aside. But face-to-face they had to take notes – and that seemed to stick."

Nancy Cleeland, a fellow UA Journalism Hall of Fame inductee with Carson and Sotomayor, said Carson was the first person she called after helping the Los Angeles Times win a 2004 Pulitzer Prize as the lead reporter on a series about Walmart.

"I wouldn't have been a journalist without Don Carson," Cleeland said.

Don and Helen Carson 1964 when he worked for AP_0.jpg

Don and Helen Carson
Carson and his wife, Helen, who died in 2016.

Carson’s wife, Helen, died in 2016. The two were married for 61 years. He is survived by his three children, Theresa Fortney, who lives in Texas with her husband, Robert; Mike Carson, who lives with his wife, Leah, in Phoenix; and Susan Cormier, who lives in Colorado with her husband, Craig. He also is survived by five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service was held Feb. 23, at St. Odilia Catholic Church, with a celebration of life afterward at Hacienda del Sol.

The family said consider donations to the Donald W. Carson Concerned Media Professionals Endowment through the UA Foundation/Journalism or Carson's favorite charities: Casa Maria, Community Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity and Interfaith Community Services. The CMP fund helps fund the Journalism Diversity Workshop for Arizona High School Students and student scholarships.

Many former students remembered Carson on Facebook and in emails to the School of Journalism, which posted the testimonials.

"We knew we had a great dad and grandfather, but wow! ... We never knew he helped so many people in so many ways," Cormier said. "Thanks to you all."