On Your Corner: Engineer reveals blueprint for long marriage

On Your Corner

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Standing in his kitchen, Don Carlson looked over a lifetime of neatly placed pictures. They tell the story of the 88-year-old’s life, love and work.

He picked one up showing himself standing outside a beige building wearing a short-sleeved shirt and tie.

“That’s the day I retired,” he explained. “This is Henry Ford’s initial, original engineering building and that’s my parking place and it was right outside of his office.”

Between Ford Motor Company and General Motors, he was an automotive engineer for 32 years and a day.

“This is a copy of my four patents,” Carlson pointed out. “Two of them belonged to Ford Motor Company and two of them belong to GM.”

In a back office of his home at Covenant Living of Great Lakes in Grand Rapids, Carlson pulled out a device that earned him one of those four patents. It’s a copper wire commutator that he says is still used in Ford cars today.

“The other was for an automatic clutch to connect the air pump,” Carlson said.

His work helped build the modern automobile. He was a managing engineer who helped develop Ford’s first electronic ignition system and first catalytic converter system. Both pieces are hanging on his wall.

With all that he built in his career, there is still one major masterpiece unfinished: his marriage.

Carlson met his wife Lilyan in college at Purdue University in, of all places, a car. She was in the back with friends and he was a passenger upfront, smoking a pipe. She enjoyed the smell of the pipe smoke.

Sixty-five years later, there’s still a flame.

“In our age, and this may sound bizarre, but every night when we go to bed and go to sleep, we hold hands,” Don Carlson said.

The couple raised two successful daughters. One is a retired educator, like her mother, in Michigan. The other is a district judge in Massachusetts.

A day after Valentine’s Day 2021, as couples across the world hold tight to their love, the Carlsons shared their secret for unwavering affinity: sticking together.

“I think the secret is this interdependency. I depend on her, she depends on me,” Carlson said as his wife agreed.

They have always done life together. Now, together, they are staring down their uncertainty. Carlson said their only concern now is what will happen to the one who is left behind.

“I guess the only quasi-regret you might have is that we both know it’s going to end, but we just accept that. It doesn’t bother us. We just know it’s going to happen,” Carlson said. “Let’s just enjoy the day and think about what we’re going to you tomorrow.”

He knows all parts have a shelf life and that it takes a dedicated engineer to make a worthwhile project last.

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